The Retro 51 Pencil – Always a Good Vintage

29 Jan 2020

Is it strange to have a decade-long love affair with a particular vintage of a pencil? So it is for me and the Retro 1951 brand of mechanical pencil. This gem is the perfect companion for scratching out a grocery list to mapping out a grant proposal plan.

“… Life is too short to carry an UGLY PEN[CIL]!”      

                                                            — George Kartsotis, Retro 1951 Founder


It was during our 2010 annual beach vacation that I walked into one of Wilmington, NC’s artsy storefronts and first saw it: A Retro 51 Pencil in Purple. “It’s all in the presentation” applies to these beauties. Well deserved, the pencil and its matching cylinder casing were prominently displayed in the center of the store.

This character was so much more than a writing instrument. For starters, it’s weighty in the hand. A Retro 1951 mechanical weighs in at just over three ounces (versus simpler competitors at one ounce). For the $35-$45 average price point, this pencil presents an affordable option for a collectible writing tool. The Retro 51 fit is smooth, polished to a fine surface and motivates one to keep writing.


While many understandably go for one of Retro 51’s numerous pen “varietals”, I go for the more rare vintage pencil find. Forbes magazine writing enthusiast Nancy Olson hails the brand “cult-like in their popularity and good looking enough to attract both young and old, hipster and hippie”. Each pencil comes with a matching decorative canister, curated as a desk display/conversation starter. As a matter of details, each has an accompanying one-year warrantee, owner’s pamphlet, unique 1.15 mm lead supply and a roll of erasers.

In my enthusiasm to carry that first pencil with me literally everywhere, I sadly left it behind on a flight between our old NC home and our new CA home. Time in our new town of San Francisco slipped away and along with it the memory of my purple writing friend. One sunny afternoon I popped into the delightful Russian Hill bookstore along Polk Street and did a second take. There it was: An array of Retro 51 colors and designs, welcoming me to my new city. This felt like home.


Five years have passed and a handful of Retro 51 vintage pencils are stored within quick reach in my top drawer. Keeping with the #popPENwpurpose focus, these pencils hold a place of honor as my first “pen/pencil nerd” post. To gain product knowledge, I followed the company on social media. Not two days later, I was dealt a surprising message: Founder George and the Retro51 team will retire soon and are seeking a devotee to carry the legacy.

On the heels of this realization came another. There’s a broad community of lovers just like me! I joined the Retro 51 Facebook buy/sell/trade group (as their 1,000thmember), only to discover a new community of enthusiasts. In messaging with Administrator Rob and adding insult to injury, I learned that my “simply stated purple pencil” gone lost was a rare make called The Grape Lollipop. My 1,000 new friends are on the lookout for a replacement.


The Retro 51 vintage pencil story is not over. For many of us, we hold out hope for someone with the means and matching passion to keep this art form alive. In the interim, my Ice Blue Tornado and I joined forces to jot this blog entry from the corner of San Francisco’s Leavenworth and Sutter Streets. With each stroke, I consider that I could be holding a rare commodity. So with that, yes, this particular love affair continues… but with guarded hopes for a lifetime of scribbling and writing together.

Rhonda Poppen is an independent grant consultant and certified grant writer, working from San Francisco alongside Buddy, Labrador/Great Dane and office mate. She is a self-proclaimed pen, paper and word nerd who pours her heart into writing winning grant proposals.

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