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Ode to a Pencil-o-phile

GIVE me a pencil over a pen any day. A pencil won't leave a Rorschach blotch all over your shirt pocket, won't skip or clot on the page, won't dry up unexpectedly. Pencils are cheap and easy to handle. To make a fine one requires German clay, Madagascar graphite, cedar from the High Sierras. Thomas Edison liked them short, about three inches, so they'd fit lying down in his right hand vest pocket. Hemingway's novels were first put down in pencil, and Admiral Peary carried yellow Koh-I-Noors with him to t he North Pole.

You learn a lot about pencils when you visit Elmer Gerding, "the old tool man," on West Main Street in Warrenton, Mo. Elmer doesn't write much but has more pencils than you would ever need or want in 17 lifetimes.

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"Did you know there are left-hand pencils and right-hand pencils?" quizzes Elmer. He picks one from a box brimming with pencils, holds it in his right hand to illustrate the point. The writing is backwards and upside down, but when he switches it over to his left hand the message is properly read. Welcome to the fascinating world of pencils.

"And these here are from China," he says. "The wood is scarce there so they make 'em out of paper." Well, I'll be darned.

One question that puts Elmer into a spin is "How do they get the lead into the pencils?"

"People think the pencil makers bore a hole down into the pencil and then insert a lead - isn't that funny? You could never do that, because those leads are too delicate. No, you have two halves with a groove in the middle. The lead is put into the groove and then the two halves are glued under pressure. That question just boggles my mind."

When you've got a penchant for pencils and your collection runs to around 50,000 pencils, no two alike, you can't just let them languish in shoe boxes; you've got to display them somehow. Elmer arranges them on cloth-covered plywood panels, each one sewed on with four surgical knots so "the kids can't pull 'em off." Some panels have pencils radiating outward like the spokes of a wheel, working Christmas tree lights at the hub. On nice days, when Elmer gets the notion to haul out all his display panels fr om his antique store to the yard, they stretch out 66 feet and stand six feet tall.

Out of some inexplicable urge, he's made a Christmas tree, a miniature barn and log cabin, and an Indian tepee. He created a pinwheel device, truly diabolical, to scare off moles. "It spins in the wind, whistles and sets up a vibration in the ground," he chuckles. "The moles can't stand it. They move to the neighbor's yard."

Elmer began collecting pencils 12 years ago when Ina, his wife of 56 years, came home from the hospital after major surgery. Tending to Ina in her waking hours, Elmer found himself restless when she slept. Relief came in a box of pencils he purchased at an estate auction, the effects of an obscure pencil-o-phile.

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In the box, besides pencils, were some newsletters of the American Pencil Collectors Society. Through the APCS, Elmer built up his collection to its current level where it threatens to take over his and Ina's store.

So now the collection is for sale - $3,200 buys the whole shebang, including the Texas pencil 18 inches long and three inches in diameter. No serious offers to date.

The amazing thing about Elmer is that he could care less about what the pencil advertises. Ask him what kind of pencil he likes, and he'll say unsharpened. The APCS says a pencil loses its value once it's been sharpened.

A more compulsive collector might arrange the pencils according to what they advertise, spending blissful hours in pursuit of just the right juxtaposition of color, shape, size, and message. For instance, you could display only round, blue pencils without erasers. Or only yellow, hexagonal pencils with chewed erasers. Perhaps a display of pencils advertising bygone grocery items - Sweet Rose Best Patent Flour, Hekman's Dutch Tea Rusk, Butter-Nut Bread with the catchy slogan "Tut, Tut, Nothing But Butter- Nut Bread." A religious theme? Elmer has pencils with the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm in tiny print.

If you want to see pencils - and who doesn't? - head out to Warrenton, Mo., and ask for "the old tool man." Bring a few pencils to trade. Elmer and Ina enjoy company, but just don't ask how they get the pencil lead into the wood.

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