Field Notes creates demand for nostalgic notepads

CHICAGO Wed Dec 1, 2010 2:21pm EST

1 of 3. Field Notes notepads are displayed in this undated handout photo.

Credit: Reuters/handout

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - In an age where most of us record our thoughts digitally in blogs or via 140-character ‘tweets,' it's refreshing to see nostalgic notepads making a comeback.

Surprisingly, this resurgence can be traced back to a former snowboarder. For years Aaron Draplin scoured antique shops for the kind of simple pocket-sized pads once popularized by Midwestern farmers. He liked them so much he decided to make a modern-day version by hand.

"I have always been drawing and taking notes and keeping little memo books," said the 37-year-old northern Michigan native, who originally gave his three-by-five-inch notepads - dubbed "Field Notes" - to friends.

Since Field Notes (fieldnotesbrand.com) began production in 2008, it has developed a significant following in the design community. The books, retailing at $9.95 for a three-pack, have also found a home in old-time venues such as bait-and-tackle stores, stationers, barbershops and the like.

"I like the populist quality. It's unfettered, there's no frills," said Draplin, who has since retired the snowboard and runs his own Portland, Oregon-based design firm, Draplin Design Co. "It's not some hipster-ass item."

DRAWING UP A BUSINESS

When fellow designer and co-founder Jim Coudal got his hands on the writing pads, he saw the makings of a real business. Coudal, founder of Chicago-based design firm Coudal Partners, took a gamble that consumers would embrace a simple product made from domestically sourced materials and old-fashioned methods such as offset printing.

"The minute I got it I was smitten with the look and feel," said Coudal, who had some previous experience launching commercial ventures. "Made in the U.S.A, authentic - maybe there's something here that we can sell."

In the short time they've been in circulation, Field Notes have engendered a cult-like devotion. At David Auerbach's design and electronics store Dijitalfix, in the artistic community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, customers practically hold vigils in anticipation of the periodic release of limited-edition versions of Field Notes.

"We have people that come in every day and ask for it," said Auerbach, whose store was among the first to carry the memo books. "We're often the only place you can get them if you didn't subscribe."

Field Notes has steadily increased distribution to some 250 retailers and has developed customers in more than 100 countries. Coudal said total sales are now approaching $1 million and the company has not yet had to seek any outside investment.

The fledgling company has forged some high-profile partnerships, including a one-time deal with jeans maker Levi's and nationwide distribution at apparel retailer J. Crew. The books have also been featured on NBC's Today Show and Lucky magazine.

INKING A REPUTATION

Patti Stracher, manager of the National Stationery Show, an annual event for producers of stationery goods, said the product is well positioned for the custom notebook market, where larger rivals such as French notebook maker Moleskine have established longstanding brand recognition.

"It's tactile, it's accessible and it's permanent. Ink on paper has a historic quality," said Stracher, adding that Field Notes is affordable, even in a down economy. "The business philosophy to produce domestically, there's a value statement in that."

Field Notes is an amalgamation of the combined design contributions of Draplin and Coudal. The company's tagline, for instance, was taken from a phrase used by Coudal's grandfather, an avid note taker: "I'm not writing it down to remember it later, I'm writing it down to remember it now."

"The physical act of writing has engraved it in your memory that is in some way more permanent," Coudal said. Ironically, Field Notes owes a lot of its success to social media. An engaged community of online fans waxes nostalgic and posts personal photos of their memo books in use.

Draplin and the 50-year-old Coudal, who originally met online, use the medium to promote transparency about the company's philosophy and to post short documentary-style videos about suppliers and their treks to local agricultural fairs. They also solicit suggestions for new retail outlets that may fit with the brand's philosophy.

Draplin, who lives and breathes the old-style design aesthetic, admitted his notebooks are never far from reach. "I can't go to bed without a pencil and Field Notes."

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