Behind The Blackwings of Boston: An Interview with Lionel Spiro
March 4, 2012 5 Comments
“How far that little candle throws its beams.”
The Merchant of Venice
One of the most interesting yet little-known stories associated with the Blackwing pencil involves the Boston Athenæum, one of America’s oldest private libraries. After learning that the 602 was about to be discontinued, Lionel Spiro—the owner of a drafting-supplies company (who was also an Athenæum Trustee)—arranged to purchase the final run of Blackwings, which where then donated to the Athenæum.
In October of 2010, I contacted the Athenæum’s Curator of Writing Instruments, Judy DiCristofaro, who shared her experiences overseeing the library’s cache of Blackwing pencils (see this post). But I have always been interested in the origins of the story, and the details of how it all came together. I was recently able to make contact with Mr. Spiro, and he graciously agreed to share his recollections.
What began as a simple act of generosity would unexpectedly become the Blackwing 602′s swan song.
Behind the Blackwings of Boston
Judy DeCristofaro mentions that you were the owner of an office-supplies business. Could you tell us a little bit about it, and for how many years you were involved?
Blair Brown and I founded Charrette, a supplier to architects in 1964 and eventually to the broad range of design professionals including engineers, fine and commercial designers, advertising designers, government design offices, and industrial firms such as the automotive companies that designed products. We sold the company to a leveraged buyout firm in 1997. That company sold off four departments of the company, retail (11 stores), framing supplies, blueprinting and reprographics, and commercial business to business. The reprographics is now the U.S. division of Service Point, a Spanish Company and the Commercial has been folded into Agfa, a German Company. Blair and I were involved for 33 years.
Were you a fan of Blackwing pencils prior to buying them for the Athenæum? If so, do you recall when you first learned about them?
Charrette added Blackwing pencils to our catalog in 1994. They were on page 72, listed as Eberhard Faber Blackwing Pencil. The description was “Smoothly writes in jet black lines. Features an adjustable self-cleaning eraser.” Item 26-3735 Charrette $.70 (I think that the self-cleaning eraser should have said something like “replaceable eraser”). I became aware of the Blackwing pencil when I became a Trustee of the Boston Athenæum in 1987. It had been a tradition for writing pads and Blackwing pencils to be provided at the table for each trustee at Board and committee meetings.
Before there were Public Libraries in the United States, many cities and towns had private libraries. A few dozen still exist, the Boston Athenæum, founded in 1807, probably being the largest and most successful. The first Public Library in America was the Boston Public library, founded around 1850.
How did you come to know the Blackwing would be discontinued? Are such notices standard within the industry?
The regional representative from Eberhard Faber happened to mention to me that the Blackwing was being discontinued but that we could place a last order if we wished. I believe that we “stocked up” for Charrette at that time and also negotiated a purchase of a large quantity as a donation to the Boston Athenæum. I recall that the quantity might have been 25 gross (3600 pencils). At the time I asked if they could be imprinted for “The Boston Athenæum” and was surprised when they arrived to also find the street address and city. I would have preferred the name only. It is customary for manufacturing companies to alert customers to planned product discontinuations, when known.
Could you share how the custom imprint came to be? I’m curious to know if it was a special exception, or if it was a customization that Sanford regularly offered.
We were a very large customer of Eberhard Faber products. For this reason they were willing to accommodate my request for the imprint which I believe was an exception.
One of the difficult things to rectify is why such a ‘popular’ pencil was discontinued (apart from the mechanical reasons). Could you characterize how the Blackwing was regarded within the office-supplies industry at this time?
In 1994 there were hundreds of specialized pencils offered by many companies. At .70 the Blackwing was expensive when compared to Sanford’s Black Warrior at .21, Berol’s popular #314 draughting pencil at .41, or Eberhard Faber’s Mongol Pencil with a choice of 5 levels of hardness for .18. The volume of sales of the Blackwing was always relatively small. But when many of the outlets for the Blackwing were forced out of business by Staples and Office Depot, the sales of the item were further reduced. The diminished volume of the Blackwing was probably not enough to warrant the retooling that was said to be required.
Mr. Spiro has provided the answers to some nagging questions. I can’t say for certain whether other custom-imprinted Blackwings have ever been made, but based on Mr. Spiro’s experiences it seems exceptional circumstances would have been necessary to do so. Interesting, too, is how the Blackwing’s price point compared with other specialized pencils at the time. While devotees over the years were probably fine with having to pay a little more for their favorite pencil, the consequences of having a higher price may have accumulated over time, resulting in a failure for the Blackwing to renew its audience.
Mr. Spiro’s insights also shed light on the circumstances surrounding not only the Blackwing’s demise, but of many other recognizable pencil brands as well. It’s difficult for me to resist casting Staples and Office Depot as the villains here—corporate steamrollers, bent on homogenizing and sterilizing the office-supplies industry. But at the same time if enough demand had existed, I’d bet that Sanford et al. would have been more than happy to continue making and selling the Blackwing, Mongol, Microtomic, etc.
Special thanks to Lionel Spiro for sharing his time and his unique recollections of this extraordinary story.