It often seems like the Internet is dominated by large merchants. However,
if you look long enough, you'll also find
another phenomenon: The sole proprietor who has managed to carve out his or
her niche and not only survive
on the Internet but thrive.
Eleven years ago, Norman Haase, a fountain pen
collector, began turning his passion into a business. He sold
part-time on eBay for six months and then quit his job as a CIO to take his
business, His Nibs,
he continues to offer a great line of fountain pens at attractive prices and
he laughs at the irony of spending ten
hours a day in front of his computer selling old fashioned pens.
I've bought a few pens from Norman over the years, so I already knew that
he provides great service, quick responses
to email, reasonable shipping options and painless payment via PayPal. But I
wanted to know who was buying
fountain pens these days and I must admit I wondering how someone in the USA
is able to compete with the growing
number of people selling goods directly from places like China.
According to Norman, a good proportion of his customers work in high tech
and enjoy writing with a fountain pen
because it's "…an opportunity to take a break from the constant speed of
life and the impingement of technology in
everything we do". He also believes many people find that taking a break
from typing and writing more slowly with a
"fountain pen gives them more time to think” and, as a result, their writing
Fountain pens are much more common in China, India and Asia in general
than in North America, Haase explained.
"In the Shangahi area, there are hundreds of pen manufacturers, most
producing for their own market.." These are
not pens intended for export but, rather, pens designed and produced for
domestic use. However, because the
Chinese write such intricate characters, they tend to produce good pens with
But, as a collector, Haase also knew that the nibs of most fountain pens
"...regardless of where they are manufactured..."
need adjustment. By inspecting and adjusting every pen he ships, Norman has
virtually eliminated returns and
happy customers lead to repeat business.
Perhaps what interested me most as I listened to his story was that I
realized he's succeeding on the Internet for
the same reasons sole proprietors thrived before the Internet: He offers a
good product, great service, and reasonable
prices. And he's pleasant do to business with.
Please read the following Pen World 'interview' knowing that my good friend
Stephen Herman and I are always joking
with each other and that he paraphrased many of my
'responses' with tongue firmly-in-cheek.
For one thing...calling it "ping
originally appeared in the
Lehigh Pocono Mensamagazine Magniloquence, issue #181, May 2005
The following was an interview
conducted by Denis Richard for Rambling Snail
An Interview with Norman Haase (HisNibs.com)
I first heard of Norman after a web search about
the Chinese fountain pen brand "Hero" (Norman's
actually ranks number one of the google search "Hero pens"). That was before
I started to wander around the fountain pen forums and other message boards.
Then I heard more about him.
Norman is one the retailers being recurrently
referred to and praised in the community. His
feedbacks are spotless. I am guessing it "might" be due to his impeccable
customer service and friendly assistance, as I experienced it when I ordered
my Hero "330" Dragon and Phoenix from him.
But Norman is not only a customer pleaser. He also
brings new horizons to the fountain pen lovers. He imports brands such as
Hero that can hardly be found anywhere else, or Duke that he introduced to
the American market. Norman found his niche, letting us discover new
products widely used in Asia but that were almost unheard of in the US.
In this interview, you will get Norman's views on
his enterprise and his customers. You will also discover some parts of his
life on the other side of the screen, and his sense of humor.
When did you start using fountain pens ?
I probably started in the late '80's, but my
passion really bloomed in the early '90's. I was in Barcelona in '92
(competing in the Paralympics as the U.S. Disabled Table Tennis Champion)
and was in Heaven there, as it seemed that every other store had fountain
pens (an exaggeration of course, but only a slight one). I was able to pick
up a significant number of 'no-name' pens there, and greatly increased my
nascent collection. Some of them still find their way into my rotation even
to this day.
Does your family have a history of using fountain
I wish they did! I would love to have inherited a
family fountain pen, but no such luck. I do recall my mother using Sheaffer
cartridge pens when she returned to graduate school when I was a child --
which made quite an impression, as everyone else used ballpoints -- but
*she* has no recollection of using them herself.
Would you define yourself as a collector ?
More of an accumulator rather than a focused
collector. I purchase what appeals to me at the moment without thought as to
how the pen might fit into a specific category. I have predilections,
certainly. I'm attracted to unique nib designs for instance. I generally
prefer two-toned nibs with intricate engraving, but am also a sucker for
semi-hooded nibs as well. I don't actively collect, or accumulate, quick as
much as I did prior to entering the business. So many pens pass through my
hands that it really has to be special for me to want to acquire it
Are you a daily user of fountain pens ?
Very much so. Every order that I send out to a
customer includes a handwritten note, which I actually consider a perk of
the business for me! We have so few opportunities in our computerized world
to actually write with a pen, that I'll take any chance that I can to do so.
If I send out 10 orders in a day, I might make use of 5 or 6 pens in the
process. My desk is strewn with fountain pens -- perhaps 35-40 at any one
time, with 10 or so inked and ready to go. When I occasionally find the time
to write in my journal, I also always use a fountain pen, and record next to
the entry the pen used, type of nib and ink. It's fun to look back over the
years to see what were favorites when, and how my taste in ink might have
changed as well.
What is your favorite pen ?
Ah, the dreaded question. My favorite pen will
constantly vary, although there are certainly those that I come back to more
frequently than others. My two current favorites both happen to be Duke
pens, Chinese/German models that I've recently introduced to the U.S. The
is a full-sized model with a quite radical design (think Stipula Iris) that
has a semi-flex, and very expressive, 14K gold nib. Although blue in color,
it's actually made from copper!
The second pen I just can't keep out of my pocket.
In the last year or so I've become really interested in mini-sized pens for
some reason, and the Duke
has quickly become my favorite design in that sub-category. It has a very
smooth steel nib, an idiosyncratic posting method (I don't usually post
caps, but it's required on a pen of this size), and a great shape that I
find very comfortable in the hand. It also makes use of copper, but in the
service of copper highlights.
If I had to select only one pen however (I think
I'm getting a headache)...I'd have to say that my most used pens over the
years are Sheaffer Legacy or Legacy 2 models with stub nibs. They're just
perfect pens to me, with terrific weight, balance and the sweetest stub nibs
I've ever found -- superior to me even over those I've had especially made
by nibmeisters. In Sheaffer's long and illustrious history (very sadly
threatened now by parent company BIC), this is one of the best pens they've
-- or anyone else -- has ever produced.
Do you have a preference for vintage or modern
pens ? Why ?
I have a fair number of vintage pens, and
certainly cover most of the bases from the '40's on with a collection of
Parker Vacumatics, 51's, Sheaffer Balances, Eversharps, etc., but the vast
majority of my pens are modern (patiently waiting to become vintage). I
definitely think we're living in the 2nd Golden Age for fountain pens, and
it's exciting to me to see all of the new designs and models produced each
year...whether limited edition or regular production. Although they don't
generally fall within my purchasing budget, I'm equally enamored with the
Maki-e output from so many companies in Japan. There are some really
wonderful pens being produced in Asia now, in addition to the European
output and the few remaining sources in America.
When and how did you decide to make a living in
the fountain pen business ?
I was always looking for something that I could do
primarily through the Internet, to leverage my computer background as well
as to serve the fact that I'm a 'night person' and have never enjoyed
working 9 - 5. Back in '97, my wife Teresa went to visit family in Hong Kong
-- where she's from originally -- and brought back several pens from there
for my collection (although I'd visited Hong Kong myself after competing in
the Seoul Games in '88, the fountain pen bug hadn't quite bitten yet). One
of the pens she brought me back was something called a
I'd never heard of Hero (Teresa, and almost everyone in Asia grew up using
them), but I was very impressed by the quality/price comparison of this
little pen that can't quite decide whether it's a Parker 51 or 61.
Anyway, I asked her sister to send me a dozen from
Hong Kong, and I placed several of them up on the relatively new eBay to see
what interest they'd generate. Much to my surprise there was a *lot* of
interest and they started bringing in bids that are frankly quite
embarrassing to me now, as they went to several times the price I now sell
them for on my website. That convinced me to begin importing a slew of other
Hero models directly from Shanghai which I also began to list on eBay. To
make a long story short, within 6 months of that first auction I was doing
well enough -- just through eBay at this point and without a website as yet
-- to leave my job of 9 years and see if I could make a go of it fulltime.
I've been at it ever since. Ebay and auctions in general are now a minor
part of the business, but they were my entree into the field and allowed me
time to develop
It's been a terrific melding of a passion/hobby with a way to make a living.
Of course the *real* reason I started the business, as with several other
pen retailers I know, was to hide my personal pen purchases from my spouse!
What was your previous activity ?
I started out as a computer programmer in the
'70's, moved into managing a coffee, tea and gourmet food shop while I
trained for table tennis competitions, and eventually returned to the
computer field and became CIO (Chief Information Officer) for a logistics
How would you describe/present your business ?
Although I do an occasional pen show, I really
have a 'virtual' business (just ask my accountant).
specializes with just a few, select pen manufacturers, with a definite focus
on Chinese pens, although I had to carry Monteverde due to their really
creative designs, and Sheaffer will always have a place in my heart. Hero
remains a strong brand for me, and I've carried Wing Sung and Genius in the
past as well. The new Duke and Uranus lines from Shanghai are very exciting,
as through their German counterpart they are pushing the level of 'fit &
finish' and overall quality of their product, while maintaining uniquely
Chinese design elements, as exemplified by the gorgeous
pens. This will be a very exciting summer for me, as both Stylophiles and
Pen World magazines will be introducing and running a series of articles on
many of the Duke models.
How would you describe your average customer ? How
many of your customers are regular ? How many are extreme buyers ?
I'd say the majority of my customers are
professionals, with a large contingent of doctors, judges, attorneys, and
those in the computer or technical fields. I've always felt that the more
rapid life becomes, the more we're pulled in a thousand directions at once,
the more important it is that we find something to 'slow us down'. I think
that was my own initial attraction to fountain pens, coming from the
computer field, and I've heard many of my customers echo that over the
I have lots of regular, repeat customers, but it
always surprises me the number of new people that seem to find their way to
my virtual doorstep each week. I always think that there must be a small,
finite group of people that have an interest in fine writing instruments,
but that group seems to be ever-expanding.
As for what you refer to as 'extreme buyers', I do
have several who seem to want to snap up whatever new I have to offer, such
as with the new Duke and Uranus lines. These are often customers who have
been steady buyers of Hero pens over the years, and are building collections
with an Asian or Chinese focus.
From your own experience, what makes the FP
business special ?
Even though almost all of my business is conducted over the Net and through
emails, there's a real sense of one-on-one service and communication
inherent in the pen business. I've made many friends and have been blessed
with many extremely loyal long-time customers through His Nibs.com. Pen
people, and in particular fountain pen collectors, are not too surprisingly
among the most erudite and discerning of consumers. They really care about
the quality of their pens, and are generally extremely knowledgeable about
the field. It's a joy to interact with people who have as much passion about
their pens as I do. It's more like being part of a fraternity than anything
else, which I suppose is in part due to my starting out as a collector
Do you have any tip or advice for the FP collector/buyer ?
No two collectors are alike, nor should they be. I'd say to buy what you
like, read as much as you can to educate yourself (there are so many
wonderful resources on the Net for information -- with
being a great example) and if you're a real user, remember that ultimately
it's the 'business end' that counts, and to my mind at least, the nib is the
most important component of the pen. The pens that I come back to again and
again may or may not be 'lookers', but they're definitely 'writers'!
We will email you back with your
order total (PA residents please add 6% sales tax)
Credit cards, for the quickest fulfillment
of your order, are accepted through PayPal, a secure site allowing you to use
your credit card without us even seeing the information. If you'd like to
make use of this credit card service, please let us know when you email your
order and address, and we'll email you the appropriate
Request for Payment, and instructions for the simple payment procedure (you
don't need to join PayPal to use it).
If you would like us process your
credit card directly instead, then please email us:
1. Card # (dividing this number in two, between two emails, will
2. Expiration date
3. Name on card
4. Address for billing statement
5. Card verification # (3-digit number printed on the back of your card. It
appears after and to the right of your card number, or 4-digit number on the
front of your AMEX card).
If you'd rather pay by money order
or check, kindly make payable to:
434 N. Leh St., 1A
Allentown, PA 18104
We ship via
insured Priority Mail
(email for cost)
Warranties and returns
If an item proves to be defective, in most
cases the manufacturer's warranty will apply. However, please email us first so
that we can determine the easiest way to resolve the problem to your
satisfaction. In the case of fountain pens -- which are a bit more
individualistic than other writing instruments -- what may at first appear to be
a defect (hard starting or poor flow for example), can in almost all cases be
resolved with a few simple 'tweaks' to the nib, which we'll be happy to guide
you through or perhaps suggest returning to us for adjustment.
Should you wish to return a non-defective
item within 3 days of receipt because it doesn't suit you for some reason, again
please email us and we'll arrange an exchange, credit or refund (minus any
shipping/insurance charges), if the item is returned in an 'as new' condition.
If you've dipped a fountain pen to try its writing characteristics, kindly clean
off any ink residue prior to shipping -- to save us both a nasty surprise
We want you to be happy with your purchase
from HisNibs.com and hope to have you join the ranks of our many long-term,
by stepping on it in the snow. A great loss. And when I first ordered from Norman, he was giving away free pens.
I\’m still using two of those, one of which I use everyday. I can confirm everything you said in your article: good
products, fantastic service and great advice. All of his pens write smoothly, don\’t leak and look great. He also
carries accessories like ink, pen rolls, pen cups, and ink cartridges for people on the go. Check him out. He also
has a limited number of roller ball pens. If you go for the roller balls, I can practically guarantee that you will fall in l
ove with one of the fountain pens. This time I\’m ordering the Baoer 8 Horse in Bronze. A wonderful looking pen.