Unlike the woman who lived in a shoe and didn't know what to do, Bert Oser has been living in an inkwell for more than half his life and, judging from his track record, knows what to do and has done it. As a result, Bertram's Inkwell, the suburban Washington pen shop Oser opened when he was just twenty-one, just celebrated its thirty-fourth anniversary this June. His pen-selling days, however, began even earlier than that.
While still in high school, Oser worked at a greeting card and gift store in White Flint Mall, an upscale fashion center in Maryland's Montgomery County. Like most stores of its kind in the early 1980's, the shop Oser worked in had a small pen counter stocked with the usual disposables and a few Cross, Parker and Sheaffer products. Oser's light-bulb moment came when he encountered a then $209 Mont Blanc 149 for the first time and realized there might be a growing market for pens that are more expensive and varied in style than those he had been selling. Oser decided that this could be the right time for him to open a store featuring only writing and related products in White Flint.
Not surprisingly, because of Oser's youth, the mall managers to which he submitted his business plan were dubious about its potential success, but the budding entrepreneur had an ace in the hole since the mall's owner was himself a pen enthusiast. In June 1985, when Bertram's Inkwell opened for business, the timing couldn't have been much better. It was, after all, "morning in America" -- and for buyers, seller and makers of higher-priced fine pens, it was the beginning of a brand new era in which their pens would come to be treated as wearable objets d'art and/or functional jewelry, and priced accordingly.
It was at just about this time that I met Oser and was impressed by the sincerity of his desire to provide customers with products that best fit their individual needs rather than pushing particular items that would be more profitable for him. A quarter of a century later, He's still pretty much the same except, of course, when it comes to hair. For at least the first few years that I knew him, Oser had a full head of hair and no beard. I'm not sure which came first -- his responding to the gradual thinning of his hair by finally shaving it all off or his experimenting with an ever -changing array of beards -- But it has resulted in the Bert we see today and provides a great source of conversation for him, his friends and customers.
The mall owner wasn't alone in believing in Bert's dream. His father, Hans Oser, now eighty, an eminent mathematician who at that time had recently retired from the National Bureau of Standards, provided the Inkwell with the computer expertise needed for developing and maintaining its mailing lists. Oser's mother, Hildegard took to retailing like the proverbial duck to water, giving the shop a day-brightening touch of old world charm. She remained an integral part of the Inkwell until succumbing to cancer at age seventy-eight on the last day of 2007, an "auld acquaintance" not easily forgotten by local pen lovers.
One day several years after the Inkwell opened, Oser noticed an attractive woman walking past the shop's door. "She doesn't know it yet," he recalls saying, "But that's the woman ´I'm going to marry." When his colleague replied, "Well you better get a move on," Oser quickly learned that the object of his observation was a manager at one of the mall's many clothing stores, leading them to share a common interest in retailing and presumably in other aspects of life as well. He and Jennifer have been married for twenty years and have three daughters and a son.
Oser has always been enthusiastic about outreach and innovation. His first moves in this direction were to use an 800 number and then a website to make it possible for customers to make purchases or obtain product information without having to drive to the store. For several years, Oser experimented with opening new stores or acquiring existing outlet in such places as downtown Baltimore, the Dulles Town Center near the Virginia airport after which it is named, and D.C.'s Georgetown Park before concluding that for the Inkwell, there was no place like home base.
What may be the Inkwell's most effective marketing outreach began in 1993 when a visit to the Washington D.C. Fountain Pen Supershow convinced Oser that he needed to be part of the pen show circuit. In addition to producing the Philadelphia and Miami pen shows, the Inkwell currently exhibits and sells at shows in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta, Raleigh, New York City and Washington.
Bertram's Inkwell has always carried a wide variety of refills for all kinds of pens: now an entire wall at the back of the store is devoted to them. For years, it used to be impossible to find anyone selling refills at a pen show, but that's no longer the case, since Oser's pen show display now contains a traveling version of the store's refill wall. In 2009, he collaborated with the Monteverde, Conklin and Delta pen brands to launch a refill recycling program through which consumers can swap their empty ballpoint and roller refills or fountain pen ink cartridges for credits that can be used to buy new ones. They can either bring or mail the refills to the Inkwell, which will dispose of the empties in an environmentally friendly way.
In many ways, Bertram's Inkwell has gone beyond being just a store, evolving into a community of sorts where pen lovers drop in to chat with the staff, shmooze with each other and possibly buy something.Oser occasionally brews a cup of coffee for a visitor. And so life in the Inkwell goes on. Young Bert's dream has reached fruition, and midlife Bert doesn't see his future self embarking on any major life changes. He likes what he's been doing for the past twenty-five years and plans to continue on the same path. Bert Oser is, in short, a happy man -- and you can't ask for much more than that.
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