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Throwback Products We Love: Paper Notebooks

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Could an empty screen ever have the same pull as a blank page?

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What's more full of promise -- false or otherwise -- than a fresh notebook? Microsoft (MSFT) Word might offer more conveniences and be a necessary evil for the modern writing professional, but an empty computer screen feels less liberating than page after blank page of soft, creamy vellum.

At least, that's how it works for a certain segment of the population, most notably the obsessive global fan base of writers, graphic
designers, illustrators and aspiring creative types who buy, fill and fetishize Moleskine notebooks. It's tempting, given the level of obsession displayed by their admirers, to call Moleskine a cult, but since the company's purchase by European private equity investors Syntegra Capital in 2006, the elegant, slim black notebooks and their ever-expanding line of variants have become so ubiquitous in airport bookstores, museum gift shops and other vaguely upmarket retail points that cult doesn't cut it. With sales of 10 million notebooks and planners and other products in 2009, Moleskine is approaching mainstream, while still, so far, holding onto its original artsy appeal.

"The notebook of Van Gogh, Picasso and Hemingway," goes the carefully-worded, slightly dodgy Moleskine back-story, told wherever the notebooks, sketchpads, planners and other models are sold. When you buy a Moleskin, you aren't just buying something to scribble down notes that won't break if it falls on the sidewalk or drops in a bath, won't run out of battery power or freeze at inopportune moments – you're buying something with the potential to hold profound thoughts, aphorisms, sketches towards your masterpiece. That's the aspirational magic that Moleskine notebooks weave in the minds of their consumers, and it's why they sell against nearly identical competitors priced at a quarter of their cost.

The original moleskines were manufactured by a family-owned Tours firm for Parisian stationary stores. Simple but profoundly functional, with rounded corners that slipped easily into pockets, an elasticized band that held them closed against the elements and an inner pocket for notes and receipts, they were doted upon by their users. In his classic 1986 book Songlines, the much-loved British travel writer Bruce Chatwin told the story of his addiction to the French notebooks, and of his dismay upon learning from his usual rue de l'Ancienne Comédie papeterie that the Tours firm had ceased production after the death of its owner. He ransacked Paris, buying every remaining one he could find.

And that was it – les moleskines c'est fini! -- until, inspired by Chatwin's anecdote, the 13-person Milan-based company Moda & Moda registered the Moleskine trademark in 1997 and produced a small run of 5,000 notebooks. By 2006, the tiny company was selling 4.5 million notebooks in Europe, Japan and North America. It was too much success for Moda & Moda to handle. "Moleskine is growing very quickly and it is becoming too big for us," Moda & Moda head Mario Beruzzi told the Daily Telegraph that year, "We do not have the capacity to follow it through."

In stepped Syntegra Capital, an off-shoot of Societe Generale's SG Capital Europe, who specialize in purchasing exactly these sorts of mid-level brands, buffing them up with globalised corporate capital and connections and then selling them off at hopefully great profit. They picked up Moleskin for 62 million Euros at the end of 2006 and have been successfully re-engineering the brand for multinational success since. The recession didn't hit it in the slightest, though there has been ongoing controversy from some of its fan base about the fact that most Moleskine production is based in China. For the long Chinese tradition of excellence in paper materials, says Moleskine. For the cheap Chinese labour, say critics.

For there's plenty of Moleskine backlash out there. For all the fan sites, Flickr (YHOO) streams and Moleskine hacks-and-tips collections in which fans treat the notebooks like they were some sort of iPad (AAPL) or something, there are many observers who see Moleskines as overpriced, overpraised and over-romanticized: the Apple Computers of the non-digital world. As Stuff White People Like points out in its laboriously snippy entry (#122) on the Moleskine phenomenon, "one of the strangest side effects has been the puzzling situation whereby a white person will sit in an independent coffee shop with a Moleskine notebook resting on top of a Apple laptop. You might wonder why they need so many devices to write down thoughts? Well, if a white person has a great idea, they write it by hand, if they have a good idea, it goes into the computer."

Syntegra, which has announced no intentions to sell quite as yet, is leading the company far away from the original little notebook Chatwin once described, as it seeks the kind of diversification and lifestyle branding appeal so successful in other marques with Moleskine's bespoke appeal. They increasingly sell hybrid products aimed at that confused café-dweller described above, such as the Folio Digital Tablet Cover, a $57 iPad case with a built in Volante notebook pad.

Some of the original fans, less and less able to buy into the mythology of "Hemingway's notebook," may drift away, but more and more mainstream consumers remain to be seduced by the Moleskin's rich analogue pleasures and, most importantly, air of possibilities.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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