For Want of a Pen

"Yes, but do you have any pens?"

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For Want of a Pen
(Don't look for any eternal truths in this story - although I swear it's all true!)

Of course I brought a pen with me to Oxford. I was going to a conference with lectures by some of the world's leading Tolkien scholars. I would want to take notes. I'd left my Day-Timer at home to save room in the one limited-size carry-on I could bring on the plane, so I didn't have the pen I always carry in that; and I didn't have the pen I always carry in the outside pocket of my purse, as I'd (purposely, for once) left my purse at home because of the "code orange" limit on airplane carry-ons (with my usual impeccable timing, I went on my first international plane flight while a code orange was in effect specifically involving plane flights between the United States and Great Britain). But I know I had a pen with me. I'm absolutely certain of it. I remember checking before I left... I think.

However it happened, when I was getting ready to attend the first lecture on the first morning of the conference, there didn't seem to be a pen anywhere in my one limited-size piece of luggage. Our Exeter College hosts had supplied a lot of things in my room: tea and instant coffee accompanied by an insane number of little packets of sugar, something to heat the tea/coffee water in, towels and washcloths, even a basket of those little travel-sized shampoos and lotions you sometimes get in hotels. So maybe they'd also left some writing paper and a pen or pencil in the desk, like some hotels do? No luck there. Made bold by the fact that I had actually found Exeter College - twice! - the evening before, I ventured out through the huge, wooden medieval gate into the city centerre of Oxford to find something to write with. I'd miss breakfast, but would certainly be back in time for the first lecture. How hard could it be to find a pen in a town teeming with students?

I was particularly confident because I'd seen a Boots a few blocks away from the college the evening before. A co-worker had told me about Boots before my trip, saying it was the place to go if I needed anything. "They're like Walgreens," she'd said, "and they're everywhere." I had, in fact, already been in a Boots at Heathrow to buy the things I hadn't been able to bring with me on the plane. I'd joked with the cashier about selling a lot of toothpaste because of the security rules. I hadn't checked to see if that store sold pens because, of course, I'd brought one with me. But Walgreens sells pens. Boots is like Walgreens. So Boots should sell pens, right? Hey, you don't make it to Oxford without being able to think logically!

Well, Boots is not exactly like Walgreens.  At a Walgreens drug store you can find just about all the necessities of life: food, clothing, toys, fans, coffee makers, hardware, pots and pans, books and magazines, school and office supplies, cameras and radios, brooms and mops, etc.  And, oh, yeah, drug store stuff. The Boots I walked into in Oxford was larger than a Walgreens store, and it sold... drug store stuff. Granted, it sold a lot of drug store stuff; parts of it were like high-end department store cosmetics counters. I went through the various areas looking for Walgreens-like things and did find some snack bars for people on diets. I thought, "Aha! Maybe the other necessities of life are around here." Still having no luck, I asked a couple of the employees. I don't remember if I specifically asked, "Do you have any pens?" It's very possible I asked, "Where are your pens?" as I still hadn't accepted the idea that this big store wouldn't have any: as impulse buys at the check-out counters, if nothing else. In the United States, everybody has pens for sale at the check-out counters, even stores that sell computers. In this store, though, the employees just looked at each other quizzically, as if to say, "Why would we sell pens?" If they would have asked it out loud, I might have answered, "Because somebody might want to buy one!"

This seems to be a basic difference between the U.S. retail model and the British one, at least as it's practiced in Oxford. In the U.S., if you want to buy something, there's always someone very willing to sell it to you. For example, when I'd gone out shortly after 9:00 p.m. the night before to find something to eat, the only places I'd found open within walking distance of the college were McDonald's, Burger King, and KFC. If one of their non-American-run competitors asked, "Why in the world do you stay open so late?" the answer would probably be, "Because somebody might want to eat something." The folks who run Walgreens know they can sell more light bulbs and disposable cameras than they can toothpaste, so why give toothpaste all the shelf space? The fact that they're classified as a drug store doesn't really come into the equation. If the people at Boots would learn from their American counterparts and put some pens at the check-out counters, they could probably sell a lot of pens, seeing as how they seem to be a rare commodity. And if a higher-up asked the store manager, "Why in the world would a drug store sell pens?" the answer could be, "Because somebody might want to buy one."

The oddest part of the whole experience was when the employees told me they didn't know where I could buy a pen. How can someone not know where in their town you can buy a pen? Do they lead some sort of sad, penless existence because they don't know where to get one? They suggested I try a book store, something Oxford has many of. So I went into a nearby book store, which was one of the biggest ones around. When I went in, I saw... books! It was already getting to be late enough that I was going to miss the first part of the lecture, so I didn't waste much time searching. When I inquired at the counter, the clerk looked at me as if to ask, "We're a book store. Why would we sell pens?" (Oh, I dunno, maybe because they have something to do with writing?) I told him it didn't have to actually be a pen  - I'd be happy with a pencil or a box of crayons or anything else that would make marks on paper. But, no, they didn't carry anything like that.

But he did know where I could buy a pen... or where he was pretty sure I could buy a pen, which was the best lead I'd had so far. Maybe he was aware of it because it involved the competition. He said there was one bookstore that had a special section (!) where they sold stationery, and he thought there were pens there. That store was only a couple of blocks away, so I went there and inquired about the location of the special section. I was directed toward the back of the store where I found what was almost a little store of its own. It was set off from the rest of the floor and even had its own name. I'm guessing this was to get around the law that evidently exists forbidding book stores to sell pens. Because there I did find... pens! ...and notebooks (which I had brought with me, but I bought one anyway). They cost a little more than they would have in the U.S., but not outrageously so. I bought a package of three pens, which I brought home with me and am still using.

Okay, we're going to pause here for a short quiz. There's only one question, but it will show if you've been paying attention and can make logical extrapolations:  What was the name of the book store that carried pens? (Hint: I didn't see a Barnes & Noble in Oxford.)

Yes! Of course! It was Borders!! Leave it to the Americans to find a way to get around the rules and actually sell pens in a book store! Why would they do such a crazy thing? Perhaps, just maybe, it was because somebody might want to buy one.

Now, it should be of no surprise that Oxford does, indeed, have a pen store. As you'd expect, it sells nothing but pens. The only problem is, to buy a pen there you have to be willing to drop about 100 USD. Since their pens are obviously priced above the means of drug store and book store employees (not to mention visiting Americans), some establishment should take pity on the commoners struggling through life without pens and stick a cup of them next to their cash register. They'd probably even make some money.

I never did discover where Oxford students get their pens, but I'm suspecting the presence of a black market. I just wish someone would have sidled up to me on the street and whispered, "Hey, wanna buy a genuine Bic - fine point?"

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The background on this page is made from the boxes stacked in Lista's house in Everything Is Illuminated. She might even have had some pens.  

Copyright 2006 by Trudy G. Shaw