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Another Sign 'Artisanal' Has Jumped the Shark

David Rees started an artisanal pencil-sharpening business--and wrote a book about it. Only he's not so eager to laugh at his own joke.
Is this the world's No. 1 sharpener of #2 pencils? Author David Rees hard at work.
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David Rees, author of How to Sharpen Pencils and founder of a mail-order pencil sharpening business that, yes, actually exists, opened a session at the 2012 Brooklyn Book Festival with a discussion of the proper way to pronounce the word "artisanal." Reese, who articulates it with a slight lilt on the "i," quickly disposed of the more long-vowelled variations and detailed his own relationship with the Brooklyn, New York-centered artisanal-goods movement, which has been well chronicled (and often ribbed as overly earnest and hyper-twee) in publications such as New York magazine.

"Even in our town [of Beacon, New York] a lot of businesses trade on the word 'artisan,'" Reese explained. "I sometimes work in a wine shop called 'Artisan Wine Shop;' there's a bakery in town called 'Artisan Bakery' and a craft beer place that sells 'artisanal fare.' There's even a store that just sells olive oil and vinegar. That was a big influence for me."

If this all sounds sarcastic to you, well, it might very well be. Only Rees doesn't seem eager to admit that sometimes a hand-casted, locally sourced spade is just a well marketed, high-priced spade.

Rees started his home-based business after working for the 2010 U.S. Census, a job that entailed the sharpening of pencil after pencil. Although most people would probably find the task horribly tedious, the former political cartoonist deemed it charming and wondered if he could capitalize on it. Rees recognized the difficulty in getting potential customers to shell out $20 for a 'service' that could be mitigated with one trip to Staples or a 99-cent store, but then he "hit on the magic word:" artisanal. Since then, Reese has sharpened almost 800 pencils for $20 a pop, most of which are kept in the carefully packed boxes he ships out, shavings included.

As panel moderator and New York Times Magazine critic-at-large Sam Anderson touched upon, the artisanal movement is characterized as a gimmicky effort championed by bearded transplants vying to make "hand-milled, single-source, old-growth, llama eyelash braided bolo ties." Nevertheless, Rees contends that artisans may be an easy punch line, but that their dedication to the impact of sourcing and production is real.

ArtisanalPencilSharpening.com toes the line between social experiment and authentic venture, but it is evident that Rees has earnestly immersed himself in the evolution of pencil making as a craft, creating names for parts of the writing implement that were previously unidentified (the "collar" is defined as the exposed wood between the unsharpened shaft and graphite point), and investigating the ways in which this industry, like so many others, has moved offshore.

"America has an amazing, storied history in the pencil," he told the Festival audience, namedropping his American-made brand of choice--not Dixon Ticonderoga, which is manufactured overseas, but Jersey-made General’s Semi-Hex. "They're so ubiquitous we almost never think about them anymore. But I always make this point: If you consider the pencil as an engineered device--an engineered communication tool--in terms of efficiency, simplicity, and elegance, it like, smokes the iPad."

And about mechanical pencils? Don't even ask.

IMAGE: Flickr/Benjamin Reed
Last updated: Sep 25, 2012




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