Why you should care

Because it’s good to take a break from the screen sometimes. 

Few things are happier than a new notebook—at least to ink-stained wretches like us, and possibly for others, too. Spiral-bound or stiff of spine, fresh notebooks are clean and crisp as autumn. Their blank pages tell of adventures and new beginnings.

The notebook occupies an odd place in the digital age. Retail stationery sales have shrunk over the past five years, for which analysts blame the recession and pressure from apps, smartphones and all things digital.

Twee is an understandable response to tech saturation.

But one end of the market is experiencing a boomlet: specialty notebooks, the kind whose paper bears up under a fountain pen. These heirs to the ubiquitous Moleskine notebooks are simple and pleasingly designed, and if some are a bit twee, well, we might forgive them. Twee is an understandable response to tech saturation.

“The thing with notebooks is that they’re so deliciously analog,” says Michelle Seiler, brand manager of Chicago-based Field Notes. Field Notes are thin, 3 by 5 inch ruled notebooks that slip easily into a breast pocket. Their design was inspired by “vintage agricultural notebooks that seed companies used to give to farmers in the ‘30s and ’40s,” says Seiler.

At $9.95 for a three pack, Field Notes retail at the low end of the price spectrum. Shortly after the company started in 2007, it began to issue quarterly limited editions with different patterns, inks, printing styles, or materials. (The most recent uses paper-thin American Cherry wood as a cover.) “And now there’s a little sub-market of people trying to complete their collections of Field Notes limited editions,” says Seiler.

A visit to eBay confirms this. When we visited, a collector “starter set” of 32 notebooks was priced at $234; Seiler says a complete set of limited editions recently fetched a four-figure sum.

A couple of overseas companies have been making excellent notebooks for a long time. There’s Muji, the Japanese general store, whose notebooks (and pens) are elegant, cheap, utilitarian and low key. (“Muji” means “without brand.”) Expect to see more of these excellent notebooks, if you can spot them: Muji plans a dramatic expansion of its U.S. stores in the coming years.

We’re also fools for Rhodia notebooks. They’re more expensive than Mujis (what isn’t?), but they’re far sturdier and they come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Their covers are orange and black, and they’re French besides. Need we say more?

A more recent entrant to the market is Baron Fig, a startup that crowdsourced the money for its first manufacturing run of more than 25,000. (Its owners say they’re putting in another order.) Its ads and ersatz name suggest the product is targeted squarely at millennials. Baron Fig looks a bit like the granddaddy of the boomlet: Moleskine.

That company launched in 1997 with a line of “legendary notebooks” allegedly modeled on those used by Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway and has dominated the market since. When Moleskine went public on the Milan stock exchange in April 2013, its shares were oversubscribed 3.6 times over. Since then, though, Moleskine’s share price has dropped, from about $2.92 a share to around $1.78. Perhaps that’s not an indictment of fancy notebooks as much as Moleskine’s growth strategy, which involved emerging markets and “writing and reading accessories.”

But it could be something else, too: Some manufacturers think the future of notebooks might be digital. Moleskine made the first foray here in 2012, with special notebooks and an Evernote-linked app; you’d take pictures of your pages and upload them, essentially. However, it’s gotten so-so reviews. Another entrant to this analog-digital hybrid is Mod, which intends to sell $25 paper notebooks: scribble, send, and wait for the upload. (It’ll be an extra $10 if you want your hardcopy back.)

It gives us the shivers to contemplate shipping our notebooks to some anonymous startup for digitization. Our precious inner thoughts! But maybe that’s generational. Since we’re from the ink-stained generation, we feel no shame in disclosing this: We will stick to our pens and notebook, thank you very much. Preferably one of Rhodia’s.

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