Love Brisbane: Serendipity and Stationery - The Pen Shoppe - Visit Brisbane

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Love Brisbane: Serendipity and Stationery - The Pen Shoppe

The Pen Shoppe has been a fixture in The City for 42 years and continues to inspire penmanship aficionados, thanks to Brisbane handwriting expert Barbara Nichol.

 

Barbara Nichol, 73, never expected a calligraphy book would write the defining chapter of her life. She and her husband, Bruce, loved pens and stationery but pursued respective careers in education and engineering. 

The Brisbane high school teacher discovered A Handwriting Manual by Alfred Fairbank, which was first published in 1932, and decided to teach calligraphy to her students in the 1970s, which later expanded to weekend workshops.

She discovered the art of handwriting required specific tools of the trade – fountain pens, which were only available in Sydney at the time. 

Garnering attention for teaching calligraphy to children, Barbara received a six-week Churchill Fellowship to study calligraphy in London in 1980. At the request of Brisbane judges, she also learnt to detect forged handwriting at Scotland Yard. 

By chance, Barbara and Bruce walked into a pen shop on Regent Street, London and Bruce was offered a job at another branch where he learnt to repair and engrave pens. Despite reservations, he loved the role so much he stayed for three months. 

“The penny didn’t drop that we would have a pen shop one day,” Barbara says. “When we came back to Brisbane, I went back to teaching and my husband prepared to set up an antique furniture shop, which was his passion.” 

“And then, all of a sudden, Bruce said he would like to have a pen shop, so he put all of his antique furniture into his shop and we had a combination of antiques and pens.” 

The Pen Shoppe was originally established in City Plaza in 1980 before moving to its Brisbane Arcade location in 1990. Barbara left teaching in 1985 to join Bruce in The Pen Shoppe, while continuing to dabble in forgery handwriting reports, calligraphy and workshops. 

“It was a journey I stepped on all because I picked up a book on Renaissance handwriting,” Barbara laughs. “And it turned out to be my husband’s journey too because he quite loved it as well.” 

As a niche retail business duo, they are certainly unique. Barbara is renowned as a handwriting and calligraphy expert and the author of the Polishing your Penmanship Guidebook, while Bruce is a nib specialist and pen restorer.

The Pen Shoppe has also established a reputation as Australia’s exclusive supplier of premium pen products and services with Barbara since opening two stores in Sydney.

Over the years, Barbara has witnessed her customer base change from a steady stream of city professionals in the 1980s – popping in-store at lunchtime to have the ink flow and nibs adjusted on their fountain pens – to a more recent influx of serious collectors and customers purchasing pens as luxury gifts. 

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“After the 1980s, our customers became more interested in collecting pens and different nibs and gave more pens as gifts. They didn’t write as much but what they wrote was more important such as their signatures and notes in notebooks.” 

During COVID-19, The Pen Shoppe remained open and busy – as an essential service, Barbara says – continuing to repair and restore treasured pens and fulfilling orders from its online store, Pens de Luxe, and over the phone. 

As one of The City’s longest-running businesses, The Pen Shoppe has served generations of families from the schoolchildren Barbara taught calligraphy to their children and now their grandchildren – a grand total of 53 years instructing the art of handwriting. 

Barbara says she couldn’t imagine having The Pen Shoppe anywhere other than Brisbane City. 

“I love elegant and beautiful surroundings such as Brisbane Arcade that match the environment of The Pen Shoppe,” she says. 

“People walk through the arcade to refresh themselves and feel happy. I have people come into my shop and say they feel so relaxed and just want to stand in here for a while. The in-store ambience and experience are very important to me.” 

“The people who write are in The City and others will come in here for specialised services. Since we reopened, people are coming back in-store again.” 

“People are very fond of their pens – they are like an extension of them. Our customers take their pens seriously as family keepsakes and mementoes, and we do too. That is the unique service we offer.”

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