FIVE bucks was all it took to waltz into the chandeliered ballroom and feel the rush of ``penmania.'' Here at the Boston pen show 55 dealers buzz about 25,000 writing tools.
Inside the swanky hotel room, newcomers detect a serious air tinged with a shade of nuttiness: Along the pristine walls, splashy 10-foot-long posters extol the virtues of pens. On one a giant hand holding a pen thrusts through a cerulean sky of puffy clouds. It reads: ``And God said - Let There Be the Fountain Pen.''
On white linen tablecloths, rows of handsome fountain pens in velvety trays sit alongside piles of homelier ones in cardboard cigar boxes. All reflect art and technology of an era - from Waterman's earliest 1880s ``ideal'' fountain pen to Parker's spanking new ``Sonnet,'' a ``sophisticated writer's pen whose beauty alone could inspire an ode.''
Within this span of decades, the materials of pens vary greatly. Among those that tantalize the eye: pens of animal horn, mottled hard rubber, marbleized lacquers, speckled jewels, laced sterling, mother of pearl, lizard skin, and tulip wood.
The pens range as wildly in value as they do in design - from $10 to $10,000. The most sought after vintage items, collectors say, are Parker's and Waterson's, the two granddaddy makers of the fountain pen, both American companies.
This national event, simply titled ``The Boston Pen Show,'' has drawn some 300 collectors, yet it is only the seventh in history. Most collectors here recall a time when the pen world wasn't so well linked. As one old-timer points out, ``It took me 10 years to find a Big Red [a fat Parker from the '20s]. I probably saw a couple hundred today.''
Pier Gustafson, whose red shirt pockets are crammed with pens draping with chunky black chains, is keener on actually using pens rather than just polishing or shelving them. An artist by trade, he has a penchant for old nibs. ``They work better,'' he says, ``while modern-day nibs tend to be harder and less responsive in your hands.''
Gustafson likens old and new fountain pens to shirts made of cotton and polyester. ``The first you have to iron, work harder, but it feels better and moves better.''
One young collector here, 16-year-old Brinton Miller, swears he never uses ballpoints. His love affair with the fountain pen began over a year ago, when his father brought home three Esterbrooks from a show. Today, he owns the largest Esterbrook collection in the world - a sum of 520, which includes 350 different makes.
So what's there to love about a pen? For Susan Wirth, a collector from Milwaukee, the attraction has to do with the engineering as well as personal appeal. As she sums it up best: Experiencing a good pen is like ``dancing with a really good partner. You have to keep from stumbling and make good eye contact.''
* For more information, call Pier Gustafson at 617-666-2975.