This 25-Year-Old Is Turning a Profit Selling Pencils
Geege Schuman stashed this in Freakonomics
Not just any pencils.
One morning last month a man sat down at his computer and ordered $4,000 worth of pencils designed to look like John Steinbeck's favorite, the Blackwing 24.
“It's probably the most iconic pencil ever made in America,” says Caroline Weaver, whose shop on New York's Lower East Side, C.W. Pencil Enterprise, took the order of 1,920 pencils. C.W. carries more than 200 types of pencils, including the Blackwing (also favored by Walt Disney), as well as a dozen erasers and sharpeners, and zero mechanicals.
The pencil industry boasts a lively collector's market, and Weaver says that, as far as she knows, C.W. is the only brick-and-mortar store catering to this demographic. Despite some nice buzz (here, here, and here, for example), she faces competition from Amazon.com, Pencils.com, and resellers on EBay, and tries to distinguish C.W. with the in-store experience. She's familiar with every pencil she sells, as well as with those she can't get her hands on; many are no longer in production. Bantering, that Thursday, with a collector from out of town, she sold him and his wife about $100 of merchandise and recommended a pencil podcast.
Weaver grew up in a small town in Ohio, went on to study art at London’s Goldsmiths, and traveled the world picking up new pencils along the way (such as a mint green set of three she acquired in Japan, her favorite at the moment). She risked personal funds of $80,000 to build up inventory, create the online store, and pay advance rent. Weaver launched the website in November 2014, found a retail space of roughly 200 square feet renting for $1,900 a month, and opened the doors in March of last year.
She and Caitlin Elgin, deputy pencil lady, closed the shop for a week in February to travel to Germany, where they found a manufacturer for their cases and, as a bonus, a pencil with plain graphite on one end and neon yellow for highlighting on the other.
Those unable to travel to the store get a taste of Weaver’s personality from her online shop, her Instagram page, which has more than 94,000 followers, and her pencil-of-the-month club. Weaver, who had long dreamed of being such a club member herself, launched the program without any marketing beyond an offer on her website. It promises one pencil a month for a year for $80. Within about five months, she had 700 subscribers.
“We always try to pick pencils people don’t really know about, which is quite a task. It’s one of my favorite things, but all that packing and all that prep work takes us the entire month to do,” says Weaver, who says she had to stop accepting subscribers. She could probably afford to hire an employee dedicated to expanding the club but has a hard time justifying it and, in general, doesn’t see herself building an empire.