Historic penmanship

For a decade, Mantua’s John Greco has crafted speciality pens.

John Greco, who owns and operates GW Pens Studio & Gallery, has handcrafted pens out of historic wood from Independence Hall, Yankee Stadium, and the famous Salem Oak, among other places. His pens have been commissioned as gifts to President Obama and Pope Francis. (Photo provided)

John Greco had just finished his first year of college at Trenton State (The College of New Jersey) when he had a bit of a revelation.

Greco was an educational technology major, hoping to one day find a job teaching woodworking, plastic working and metal working in a high school. But before beginning his third semester, he was asked about setting up some student teaching opportunities.

“The reality of being responsible for 16-year-olds around saw blades hit me pretty hard,” Greco said with a laugh.

Although he took a detour from teaching, his passion for woodworking remains. Greco, who has called Mantua home for more than a dozen years, is the owner of GW Pens Studio & Gallery, a pen specialty shop in Woodstown.

Greco handcrafts the pens himself, often out of historic wood, right behind the front window of his picturesque shop on Main Street. Greco had a pen commissioned by the City of Philadelphia to give to Pope Francis in 2015 and has also made pens presented to former President Barack Obama, Prince Harry, and Gov. Chris Christie following their visits to Hurricane Sandy-damaged areas.

The latter gifts were a result of wood Greco obtained from the wreckage at the Seaside Heights Boardwalk, a landmark he visited often as a kid. History Salvaged, a company that sources historic wood from throughout the country, connected with the Seaside Heights mayor following Sandy.

“They said, ‘Hey if you let us have some of the wood, we’ll turn it into products we can sell to help you out with the recovery efforts,” Greco recalled. “They gave us some … we helped them raise a little over $20,000. It was great for them and obviously great for us as well, to help them out.

“As a kid, for me, that was the beach that I went to,” he added, “so it was kind of nice to be able to help them out like that.”

After dabbling in wooden toys and fiber tools, Greco began crafting pens 10 years ago, after some advice from a friend. He decided to give it a go and was hooked from the start.

One of Greco’s first big projects came when a local wood salvaging company had wood he was able to use from the docks of the Walt Whitman Bridge. Shortly after, the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia reached out and asked if it could carry his pens from that wood in its shop.

“It was my first taste of infusing my love of history with my love of pens,” Greco said. “And things just kind of took off from there.”

Greco’s current shop (online at gwpens.com) has been open for three years. Most of his business comes from collectors and he’s an active participant in pen shows throughout the mid-Atlantic region (the annual Philadelphia Pen Show takes place every January).

Although he never got into teaching, Greco enjoys when local scout troops visit so he can show them how fountain pens work. He also likes having the ability to turn someone’s personal history into something he or she can hold onto, like the man who wanted part of his college lacrosse stick fashioned into a pen or the parents who took pieces of their home’s floorboard to Greco to craft into keepsake pens for their children before selling the house.

Some of GW Pens most historic wood came from the Salem Oak, where local lore maintains that John Fenwick met with Native Americans under its branches to record a land deed in 1675.
The nearly-600-year-old tree that finally uprooted and collapsed last summer. (Photo provided)

Perhaps Greco’s most historic local wood came from a South Jersey landmark: the famous Salem Oak, where local lore maintains that John Fenwick met with Native Americans under its branches to record a land deed in 1675.

The nearly 600-year-old tree finally uprooted and collapsed last summer. Greco has made more than two dozen pens from the tree’s history wood (they market for $110).

“Everyone that’s come in for one has a personal story about the Salem Oak,” Greco said. “The tree has a life of its own.”

Greco has also collected machine gun shells from the current site of the Millville Army Airfield Museum and turned them into pens. He did the same with wood from places like Independence Hall and Yankee Stadium. 

With a lot of pen shops closing down, Greco gets regular visitors from Philadelphia and even has customers from as far as Baltimore just for the opportunity to visit his shop. Despite the transition into the digital age over the last two decades (penmanship lessons in elementary schools are decreasing as the distribution of laptops and tablets increases), Greco is hopeful for the future of his craft, too.

“I’m finding a lot of people that come into my store are 30 years old and younger,” said Greco, who also sells paper and ink in his shop. “It’s people who grew up in a full digital age, where a writing instrument like a fountain pen is completely new to them. So opposed to getting the latest digital whatever, that they already have several iterations of (they want something different). 

“I had one kid who came in, he was 17,” Greco recalled. “He said he had saved up his allowance for a year and a half to buy this vintage silver-plated Cross pen and pencil set. I had a polishing cloth and I gave it to him and said, ‘Keep it nice and shiny; it’ll keep the tarnish off.’ And his eyes lit up. ‘I can just have this?’ he asked. ‘Thank you!’”

Whether it’s passing on his passion to the next generation, turning historical landmarks into collector’s items via woodworking or mulling over the idea that a former president just may be using one of his pens to write a note, Greco has surely found a job he truly loves.

“I like to think that, but I doubt it,” Greco said with a laugh about the idea that President Obama is using his pen for writing notes and letters. “Chances are it’s probably in a drawer somewhere.

“I like to think they (President Obama, Prince Harry and Pope Francis) at least admired it and appreciated the work that went into it.”

Greco at work inside his shop in downtown Woodstown. He has a machine set up in the front window to give passersby the same feel of walking by a salt water taffy or fudge shop. (Photo provided)