Those of us who grew up in the pre-Internet age love to tell our children that, despite what they might think, we managed very well with rotary phones, manual typewriters with ribbons, black-and-white televisions without remote controls, adding machines, large green ledgers rather than spreadsheets, and even conventional snail mail.
In fact, for many of us it was a thrill to receive our own personalized stationery so that we could pen letters to family and friends and thank you notes at holiday and birthday time. Some of us were so enamored with writing that we would keep secret journals, for our eyes only, tucked away under a pillow or in a drawer, in which we'd record our most private thoughts.
While the rotary phones and typewriters have been relegated to quaint collector status on eBay, there is still a demand for fine writing paper, journals, and quality pens. Email, tweeting and blogging may be the preferred communication paths of the present generation but, according to owner Dan Zuckerman, there are still quite a few people, young and old, who enjoy holding a pen in their hand.
“I would say that our typical customer skews a little older but, fortunately, we do have a lot of younger people who maintain an interest in writing instruments — particularly fountain pens because they are expressive.”
Plimpton’s has been a greater Hartford area destination for years for customers looking for office supplies, fine writing papers and pens, engraved invitations and luggage. Established in 1865 by Linus Plimpton, The Plimpton Manufacturing Company of Hartford began by manufacturing mailing envelopes.
In 1874, the business received a boost after it won an important contract to produce stamped envelopes for the U.S. government. Eventually it moved out of Hartford into West Hartford, all the while changing and expanding its inventory to appeal to a larger retail base.
It was located first in the former Bennett’s Card Store site on the southeast corner of LaSalle Road and Farmington Avenue — now . Later it moved to its present location up the road on Farmington Avenue. It is still thriving, holding its own against the tide of office superstores that have popped up in recent decades.
Zuckerman, who bought the store 20 years ago, says that at one time his store carried office supplies, such as typewriters and business machines and even televisions, but fifteen years ago he stopped carrying such items. “The way we competed on office supplies was not to compete,” Zuckerman said.
Instead, he has concentrated on stocking high-end writing paper, pens, luggage and travel items, handbags, totes, small leather goods and gift items. How does he compete with Staples or Target?
“You won’t find the brands that we sell at those places, “ he said. “Our goods are not in the mass market. We focus on better brands like Crane's, William Arthur, Skagen, Tumi, Victorinox, Hartmann, and Bosca."
He points to the cases full of shiny pens and notes that Plimpton’s is the largest pen shop in Connecticut.
“Fine pens are a significant part of our business. We sell pens from around the world — Germany, France, Italy, Japan. A good pen coordinates very well with the writing papers and journals that we sell.”
One corner of the store is devoted to books of sample invitations for weddings, showers, and parties. Again, Zuckerman emphasizes the quality of the invitations over those from his competitors. “What we do is higher-end laser printing, engraving and letter press, and thermography — a process that simulates engraving at a more affordable cost."
A major component of an independent retailer’s success is customer service, and Zuckerman says that his customers have a different kind of expectation than when walking into a chain or mass marketer.
“For the types of products that we sell, customer service is expected," he said. "And it is there.”
Plimpton’s will repair products that it sells. It monograms many of its items such as wallets, luggage tags and rubber stamps. It offers complimentary gift-wrapping. “We definitely try to provide an environment where people think of us for buying a gift. They might have an idea of what they need and they will find something here,” Zuckerman said.
It’s a strategy that appears to be working. The store attracts customers from all over the state. Many drive the distance to look at the luggage, briefcases and wallets. According to Zuckerman, “If you want to touch and feel them, you are going to come here. You can’t do that on the Internet.”
The future always presents challenges to retailers, and the same holds true for this iconic West Hartford institution that has anchored its block on Farmington Avenue for as long as many of us can remember. Yet it doesn't look as if Plimpton's will surrender to the younger generation's embrace of smartphones and tablets. They will continue to adapt to technology in communication and productivity, as they always have. “We take it a day at a time,” Zuckerman said.
Plimpton’s is located at 991 Farmington Avenue. For more information about products that it carries or hours, phone 860-233-2158.