19% was the year-to-date sales decline at Office Depot’s North American retail stores, according to the company’s Oct. 29 quarterly report. The percentage figure represents a sales decline of $874 million.

"It turns out that the bank had on its balance sheet an unusually high number of mortgage-backed securities…The pens were, in a way, a precipitate of the shadow banking system…"  —New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten explaining how Commerce Bank could afford to give away 28 million pens

Paper jams in junky old printers are among this recession's quiet miseries, as office supply sales have fallen. But pens cannot be done without. And banks have long been a cheapskate's go-to source for writing utensils.

With supply cabinets everywhere going bare, SFR wondered: Are more people stealing bank pens because it's harder to steal them from work? The evidence is inconclusive.

Two local bank executives who returned SFR's calls deny that they're giving away more pens. In a voice mail to SFR, New Mexico Bank & Trust President Alan Austin says his bank's pen budget remains flat. Jennifer Lind, marketing director at First National Bank of Santa Fe, claims the same.

"We haven't seen more pens go out the door. We give away a standard amount of pens every year," Lind says.

How many? It's a secret. "Thousands and thousands," she says.

Nevertheless, visual evidence around town testifies to the popularity of bank pens. For instance, Corazón, the bar, has a jar full. And a Los Alamos National Bank teller says "people take handfuls" of swag pens. "One guy tried to take the whole [jar]. I didn't know what to say!" she says (SFR took two).

The founder of a local promo-pen dealer confirms SFR's suspicions. Ron Edwards founded Focus Advertising Specialties in 2005. (His promo-pen clients include Austin's bank.) Edwards says his business—with annual revenues "over a quarter-million" dollars—increased 72 percent last year and continues to climb, a testimony to the popularity of freebies.

Quality is another factor. "The pens people are getting in their office supplies aren't as useful as the kind of pens the banks are buying these days," Edwards says. "The ink is better, the grip is better, they're more ergonomically developed."

Neal Frank, owner of Santa Fe Pens, a lux store, would take issue with that. "There's two types of people in the world: Those who know and appreciate nice pens, and those who use nothing but what they've stolen from the bank," Frank says. "My customers wouldn't be caught dead with a bank pen."