One of the hottest demos at Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) tech conference was a pencil.
It was just a normal yellow No 2 pencil held overhead by a man with bouffant hair and a five o’clock shadow. More than a hundred people stood to watch the man at a packed bar in downtown Austin, which had been taken over by the world’s largest greeting card company, American Greetings.
“We have artisanal pickles and artisanal meat. Why not artisanal pencil sharpening? I’d like to just shave pencils for a living,” said David Reese, the man with the pencil. “So my friend told me, ‘well, you need a black apron. If a white guy shows up in a black apron, you people will pay whatever he’s asking.’”
And that friend was right. Rees’s artisanal pencil sharpening business is booming. For $40 he will mail you a sharpened pencil in a display tube. The shavings come too, in a bag. He’s parlayed this into a book and now a TV show.
South by Southwest conference attendees – middle-manager sales and marketing teams, social media stars, journalists – are always trying to identify a “breakout app”, a breathy moniker that also happens to be a curse on companies. No app or technology really broke out from the whizz-bang pack this year, though with the arrival of Barack Obama, the conference became more prominent in the national conversation about technology than ever. But the most eager line I saw all week for anything, other than free alcohol, was for this pencil.
“Somewhere along the way, in the race to get ahead, we lost something important,” a sign on the wall of the American Greetings Austin headquarters read. “Let’s go back and find it.”
Outside, bouncers stood guard and told about a dozen people that the session was at capacity. Inside, the greeting card company had laid out a nostalgia smorgasbord, and the crowd was delighted.
Visitors crowded around a stack of adult coloring books. Along the wall was a collection of defunct tech – phonographs, transistor radios, reel-to-reel recorders, Remington typewriters. Instructions on the wall described how to mail a letter and included a postbox to put them in. A vinyl expert helmed a vinyl-listening station. Earlier there’d been a “paper engineering” workshop – “basically pop-up cards,” one of the on-site tour guides said.
“As a greeting card company, this is our torch to carry,” said American Greetings’ creative director, Alex Ho. “People look to us for analog.”
It taps into something deep inside people, Ho said, because “it’s outside the phone.”
The idea for artisanal pencils came to Rees, a former fact checker for Maxim magazine, while he was working for the US census bureau and spent hours sharpening pencils for survey-takers.
“As I’m watching the shaving unfurl, and I’m smelling the familiar odor of graphite and cedar, you have the olfactory, the satisfying sibilant sound of the graphite scraping, and I realized I’m really good at this,” Rees said. “That’s where the cutthroat capitalist came in, and I wondered what if I could get paid to sharpen pencils.”
There is nothing unique about the sharpening process nor the pencils Rees sells. The pencils started out as an experiment to see if he could “trick” people into buying them, but he’s developed a sincere appreciation since then. A new high-end pencil store has opened in Manhattan, and he credits his work with inspiring this revival.
“Now you’re seeing this branding and affluent lifestyle attached to pencils,” he said. “Pencils are artisanal too.”
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