Social Club for Journos Endures in Philly

By: Jennifer Saba

For the “ink-stained wretches” in Philadelphia, it might seem the sky is set to fall at any moment since the McClatchy/Knight Ridder deal was sealed. Fortunately, there’s at least one thing they don’t have to worry about closing: the city’s Pen & Pencil Club, the nation’s oldest press frat.

Borrowing from speakeasys of yore, the Pen & Pencil is housed in a unmarked building at 1522 Latimer St. in Center City. Ring a buzzer, and with the right credentials ? there’s a camera to check ? those in need of a cocktail may gain admittance.

Anyone can join for $40 a year, even non-Philly residents. Of the club’s 400 members, about half are considered “full” ? a status reserved for active journalists working in print, radio, and TV. Associate members, or “friends of the media,” make up a more eclectic roster. This group includes flacks, politicians, musicians, and even restaurant types looking for relief after a night of slinging hash.

“There’s a misconception the place is only for reporters and editors at newspapers,” says Chris Brennan, the club’s president and a staff writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. “It’s really for everybody.”

The Pen & Pencil opened in 1892, through the merger of three other clubs in the city. At that time, Philly was swimming in ink and newsprint, with seven morning and six evening papers. Says Brennan, “I guess it’s fair to say the club has gone through its peaks and valleys.”

Indeed, the club was in danger of closing back in 1990. Due to declining revenues, the Pen & Pencil called a meeting to disband the club. Ron Patel, then a Sunday editor at the Inquirer, stepped in to raise funds so that the club could continue operating. The non-profit (only full members can serve on its board) eventually purchased the building.

In keeping with its journalistic roots, on Wednesdays the Pen & Pencil hosts off-the-record sessions covering a variety of topics. Among these offerings in March were a discussion on putting out community newspapers, a panel on covering sex as a journalist, poetry readings and songs of protest, and a wine-tasting event.

Another perk: the club has a full kitchen that serves dinner cheap. A grilled cheese goes for $4; a rib-eye steak can be had for $12. Brennan boasts, “We have the best cheeseburger in Center City.”

Things often really get going ? at least on weekends ? after the witching hour. Since it’s a club, the Pen & Pencil can keep pouring until 3 a.m., one hour later than other Philly bars.

On one Friday night in January, a few patrons were starting to arrive around midnight to the unstylish yet charming bar. A thirtysomething couple on a date discussed the virtues of the art collection at the Barnes Foundation. One middle-aged man on the portly side sat a table with a spirited blonde who kept leaping up to play more Guns ‘N’ Roses songs on the jukebox.

The bartender makes a stiff Manhattan and knows who’s who in the Philadelphia media world ? or, rather, who was who, considering the number of recent parties hosted for those accepting buyouts.

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