*This small business series is meant to explore and share the stories of small business owners and how they came to follow their passion.
Caroline Weaver of CW Pencil Enterprise operates a tight shop. A pretty little shop at 15 Orchard Street in New York City, in fact. Her childhood obsession turned wild idea five years ago is now a thriving business. At the age of 24, Caroline used her $10,000 in savings to buy the first round of inventory. She built an e-commerce site on Shopify and launched an e-commerce website selling her inventory of pencils. Her goal had been to turn it into a brick and mortar shop eventually, but eventually turned up four months later when she happened upon a tiny shop for rent.
She wasn’t sure whether people would actually be as interested in pencils as she was- it felt nostalgically analog. She thought she could make it work. The lease was priced at $1900/ month with the first three months free and that meant she’d need to sell a lot of pencils, but she thought it seemed feasible.
Caroline went for it. She worked six days a week, but only because her best friend relieved her on Sundays. She had no employees, but her empire of 200 square feet was gathering steam. She didn’t have a business plan or market research (since it was an untested concept in this era) and had never owned or operated a business before. But, she had a passion for pencils, a website, and soon enough- some positive press. Fortunately, people were excited and flocked to her little store to peruse the pencils in stock. A New York Times article featured the store a few months after it opened, then the business snowballed from there, with Caroline having to expand inventory and hire staff much sooner than she had anticipated.
CW Pencil Enterprise is now five years old and Caroline’s world is deliciously analog. She plans her days in a Smythson Soho Diary which she’s now been using for nine years, having been introduced to them when she was living in London as an art/ design student at Goldsmiths College. She still has them all, every year in a different color. This year she’s chosen a lilac colored, crocodile embossed version. Buying the Diary was an extraordinary luxury she said she couldn’t afford, but got swept up in the sensory experience of the beautifully bound leather, gilt-edged, pale blue paper and an exquisite silk lining.
Originally from Ohio, Caroline never really saw herself staying there, and so she didn’t. Caroline also hadn’t really envisioned herself becoming a pencil expert, but that’s what happened. As a teenager, she’d spent hours on papermate.com fantasizing about packaging and only now realizes that her peers probably hadn’t done that.
She looks every bit the pencil expert, too, in her black dress that has “Lady Graphite” embroidered on the chest and the 5 inch pencil tattoo on her arm. She’s written books about the history of pencils and has even done a Ted Talk on pencils. Her book, The Pencil Perfect: The Untold Story of a Cultural Icon is one I didn’t know existed, but it makes me happy that it does.
When asked what’s next, Caroline filled me in on some recent and upcoming projects like a DIY pencil bar with Harmon Miller, a brand collaboration with Warby Parker, and working on a wholesale catalog for their own CW branded pencils. Caroline also just finished a book- Pencils You Should Know, to be published by HarperCollins, which she described as a chronological photo history of the writing instrument.
To re-light her fire when the grind gets to be too much of a grind, Caroline likes to go somewhere new and think up new projects. Meeting new people visiting her shop also gives her energy. One thing she never expected was reconnecting with old friends. She said having a physical, public location has been a way for people she may not have otherwise heard from an opportunity to stop in and catch up.
When asked which pencil is her favorite, Caroline demurs at first, saying it’s like picking a favorite child. But then she decides she really likes Viarcos, “They write dark and smooth- not spongy. And they make a really satisfying scratching sound when writing.” I can appreciate a sensory experience like that, being a Moleskine aficionado and a Marvy Le Pen lover (in oriental blue) myself. I also really enjoy the tap of the keys of my MacBook Pro, especially when writing stories about other small businesses. These things- and a beautiful little shop like CW Pencil Enterprises- make me feel like our analog and digital lives can congenially co-habitate and that we’re all better for them existing.