As It Happens

Artisanal pencil sharpener calls it quits

Allow him to be blunt. Artisanal pencil sharpener David Rees explains why he's packing up his pencil case and quitting the business.
David Rees is an artisanal pencil sharpener and the author of "How to Sharpen Pencils." (Left: David Rees, Right: Screenshot from Google Books)
Listen6:37

We forgot to pencil it down in our calendars. So National Pencil Day came and went on March 30 without much fanfare.

But David Rees probably celebrated it. The writer and humourist is the author of How To Sharpen Pencils. He's spoken to As It Happens a few times over the years. Which is what makes Rees' latest news so baffling — he is winding down his artisanal pencil sharpening business. 

Rees spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about his decision. Here's an excerpt of their conversation: 

Carol Off: David, this came as shocking news here at As it Happens — that you may be retiring from the pencil sharpening business. Is that true?

David Rees: I don't know if I'm technically retiring, or just raising my prices so high that I assume I will never have another customer. But I've been surprised in the past, so we'll see what happens. 

CO: What is the price of sharpening a pencil to be now?

DR: For the past few years it has been $40 per pencil. But now, I just bumped it up to $500, which is a pretty big price bump. I'm intrigued to see if anyone takes me up on it.

"I've always wondered why I haven't heard from  Kanye  West about my services." - Artisanal pencil sharpener David Rees

CO: Is there a prospective client you see who would pay $500 for you to sharpen their pencil?

DR: I've always wondered why I haven't heard from Kanye West about my services. It feels like the type of conspicuous consumption that he would be in to. There is a Republican candidate for the American presidency who also seems to love throwing money on lavish extravagances. So maybe, when he gets eliminated at the convention in Cleveland, he can hit me up for some pencils.

CO: Well I haven't seen either of those guys with pocket protectors. But maybe they're pen guys.

DR: Yeah, they might be. I'm sure they both have extremely expensive ballpoint pens.

 "I'm sure I'm not the only white guy wearing an apron doing something by hand who's seen his fortunes turn in the last couple years. It's not like we're making automobiles or something. Although I just picked the worst possible example of a business that never goes through boom-bust cycles." 

CO: Is it because you're not getting as much business, or are there other reasons why you decided that you want to raise your prices so high that you drive away your clientele?

DR: Well, I'm in the middle of a huge downsizing project. I'm going to sell my house and move into a much smaller place in New York City. I think I just won't have the space to run this business properly. When I was doing it from my house, the pencil sharpening business effectively took over my dining room.

CO: But it's surprising to hear that business has turned on you in this way. When we spoke the first time, you spoke so whimsically about the sharpening of the pencil — the perfect sharpening of that tool, the smell of the graphite, the cedar filling the room. These were things that excited you once.

Artisanal pencil sharpener David Rees says he's closing up shop. (Screenshot from YouTube/Art Directors Club)

DR: Well, you know, capitalism is a brutal and unforgiving mistress and she'll have her way with you. You'll be the belle of the ball for some time and you'll enjoy a lot of media attention. And you'll maybe even be able to publish a book about pencil sharpening and tour the country ... Then, at some point, the sad fact of the matter is people move on. I'm sure I'm not the only white guy wearing an apron doing something by hand who has seen his fortunes turn in the last couple years. You know, it's not like we're making automobiles or something. Although, I just picked the worst possible example of a business that never goes through boom-bust cycles. 

CO: You did, you did. Now listen: what are you going to do with all those tools —  the blades, and the sanding blocks and that hand-cranked sharpener of yours?

DR: You know, that's a great question. I have already started giving away some of my collection of pencil sharpeners. There are some that are either really valuable or hold a lot of nostalgic appeal for me at this point. Because I'm six years into my business at this point ... My shipping supplies are dwindling and I'm probably not going to re-order nearly as often as I used to back in the heyday, back in the glory days of my pencil sharpening business. 

" I feel like my experiment with free-market capitalism and conspicuous consumption is coming to a close. At least this experiment. I'm sure I'll have other experiments in the future." 

CO: Except if you start getting a lot of orders for $500 sharpenings. 

DR: I know. I should probably take out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal, or The Financial Times, or The Robb Report and really just sink a ton of money into a really ostentatious advertisement, and then see what happens. But I feel like my experiment with free-market capitalism and conspicuous consumption is coming to a close. At least this experiment. I'm sure I'll have other experiments in the future. 

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