By Fraser Sherman
Alan Cohen says it took a change of name to make his Chapel Hill pen, gift and office-supply store a success.
“You’ve heard ‘location, location, location’ — in my case, it’s ‘name, name, name,’” Cohen told The Local Reporter. “It was called Office Supplies And More for 17-18 years. I didn’t make any money: I paid the rent; I paid the light bill; I paid the insurance. When I changed the name to Crazy Alan’s Emporium, it all turned around.”
Cohen said he’s walking away from the store at the end of the month when his Timberlyne Village lease expires. He’s already sold the store, contingent on the new owners negotiating a new lease. In the meantime, there’s plenty of merchandise available at a discount at Crazy Alan’s.
The store sells leather bags, greeting cards, notebooks, pencils, and pens. “Tons and tons of pens,” Cohen says. “I’m one of the largest pen stores in the United States … everything from amazing, inexpensive pens to $5,000 pens. We sell a lot of fountain pens.”
Cohen said when someone enters the store, “The first thing I ask is fountain, roller or ballpoint. The second question is the price range. There’s no point showing someone a $3,000 pen if they want a $300 pen.”
Sotheby’s auction house says fountain, ballpoint, and rollerball are the three pen varieties. Fountain pens are the most expensive and most valuable. Ballpoint and rollerball pens have cartridges and metal-plated tips; fountain pens use ink, and the nibs are often made of gold alloy. There are expensive pens of all varieties, however. Cartier’s, for instance, offers black lacquer ballpoint pens plated with gold or platinum, which Sotheby’s says could sell for $200-$400.
Cohen said the appeal of pricey fountain pens isn’t only their look and how a good nib makes it easier to write elegantly. Quality ink can help with that too, and Crazy Alan’s Emporium offers a wide variety.
Cohen said he spent 27 years as an office supplies wholesaler in Connecticut, following in his father’s footsteps. By 1996, however, he’d grown tired of the state’s icy winters. “The snow is beautiful, but it turns into ice. I didn’t want to go to Florida — it’s too hot — and I wanted a college town.”
He settled on Chapel Hill. Office Supplies And More opened its doors on Franklin Street in 1996. The store didn’t turn much of a profit in that location so Cohen relocated to the Timberlyne shopping center in 2005. Sales still weren’t stellar.
“In 2014,” Cohen said, “I had a stroke. I was basically going out of business; I told a buddy of mine I’d like to change the name from Office Supplies and More to Crazy Alan’s and he added ‘emporium.’” That proved the turning point for his business: “People came in to see Crazy Alan.”
While the store became much more successful after the name change, Cohen said, running a retail business during the worst of the covid pandemic proved difficult. When county rules required shoppers mask up, some customers objected. “There were many, many fights. It wasn’t funny.”
Even so, Cohen said, “I have many, many customers who are pretty sad about me leaving. That’s been amazing and humbling, that so many people love this store and me.”
Still, Cohen said, at 72, it feels like the right time to retire from retail. Not from the world of pens, though: he plans on appearing at around 10 to 12 pen shows a year. He recently returned from one in Washington, DC; next up will be San Francisco.
If there’s one other thing he’d like people to know, Cohen said, it’s that he has an athletic side. Some of his fondest memories are away from the store, playing baseball or basketball. As for Crazy Alan’s Emporium, “it’s been a roller-coaster ride in Chapel Hill from 1996. I’m leaving on a very high note.”
Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.