Tom O’Brien jokes that the reason he purchased The Wallet Pen from its founder, Burlington jeweler Timothy Grannis, was that he couldn’t keep a job.
Self-deprecatory comments aside, O’Brien seems to have found a great work/life balance crafting small, sterling silver pens by hand in Charlotte.
O’Brien used to own a commercial woodworking business in Burlington. “I was a very good woodworker but I didn’t know when to quit,” he said. “I made some beautiful things but I didn’t make any money.”
O’Brien sold the business in 1990 and spent the next decade managing Middlebury’s A&W Root Beer. When he learned that Grannis was selling The Wallet Pen, he sold his A&W shares and bought the company.
“It was the coolest thing to look at,” O’Brien said of the product. “It was a little jewel made of materials I knew nothing about. I was always looking for a production item that was marketable, replicable, and fun to make, and that didn’t come up when I was a woodworker.”
O’Brien soon learned to make the pens himself and now crafts between 2,000 and 3,000 each year. “Each pen takes about 32 steps,” he said, “and I try to work in blocks of two and a half hours so I don’t go absolutely stir-crazy.”
When O’Brien took over the business, the pens were available at retail establishments across the United States and even in Switzerland, but these days most people shop online. As the cost of making the pens kept going up, he chose to eliminate the wholesale part of the business.
“It’s been a wonderful education,” he said. “I love doing new things, so I’ve been designing a website and figuring out how to get people to the site and how to grow my email list.”
It was the tomatoes rotting in his attic that helped propel O’Brien to leave the mountains of Lincoln for the lake in Charlotte. He and his wife built their home in 1983 and raised two sons. He had moved around as a child but often had access to fresh water and loved the idea of being close to Lake Champlain.
O’Brien still gets his mountain fix with daily 3-mile walks that often include Mt. Philo or Pease Mountain. It’s been almost 35 years, but he still gushes about his hometown. “What an incredible place to live,” he said.
Although there is a routine to making the pens, O’Brien insists he never gets bored. “I love it, because I can make them better, faster and shinier. There are so many components,” he said.
Additionally, O’Brien enjoys designing the bookmark that accompanies every pen and working on the packaging. “It’s a really nice stream of work and it’s so rewarding,” he said. “You’ve got something tangible at the end, which so few of us have on a regular basis.”
O’Brien could probably make more money if he didn’t give away his pens with such regularity.
“It’s wonderful having a commodity that I can afford to give as a gesture of appreciation,” he said. “Half of Charlotte probably has my pens.”
O’Brien considers himself lucky to have found a business he enjoys. “I have self-determination,” he said. “I love my life and the fact that I live in this incredible place.”