In Search of Tan Leather Notebooks

Each summer, I travel cross-country lecturing for Worldview Academy. With two months on the road, away from hearth and bookshelves, I'm forced to think carefully about what to pack. During the summer of '08, one of the Bibles I traveled with and taught from was the Allan's ESV1 in tan highland goatskin, a favorite of mine. This prompted a mini-quest: the search for a matching notebook. 

If design and binding are relatively minor issues in the overall scheme of things, it's safe to say that color-coordination of subordinate gear is even less vital. But let's face it: if I was good at keeping the main thing the main thing, I wouldn't have a blog devoted to "the physical form of the Good Book." There's a fascinating subculture of notebook fanatics on the blogosphere, and I'm no more equipped to compete with them than I am to argue over textual variants in the Greek. This will not therefore be an objective, scientifically precise exploration of tan-colored notebooks. It's just a catalogue of the best I've found so far in the search.

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Above, one of my favorite finds from the summer, the Eccolo World Traveler. It's the one on top with the contrast stitching. I'm not ordinarily a fan of the leather cover + paper insert approach, but this one was so nice I had to relent. The cover is made in Turkey and has a pleasant grain, nice to the touch. (The notebook underneath is from Aspinal ... more about that in a moment.)

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The inserts seem to be sewn and glued. You can see the glue when you look at the top of the spine, but the individual signatures are intact, and stitches are visible in the gutter. 

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After using this one awhile, I decided to get a backup, so I went to Amazon and ordered another, along with an extra paper insert. It's a good thing I did: scouring the site now, I can find no trace of them.

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The aforementioned Aspinal notebook in jewel calf (on the bottom of the stack above) is similarly unobtainable now. I picked it up on clearance, along with the matching pen case. (As of this writing, they still have the pink available, if you're interested.) The pages are sewn, unlined, and have silver gilt edges. While I like the grain of the cover, it's quite stiff.

Of course, all this talk about notebooks wouldn't be complete without addressing the ubiquitous Moleskine. The only problem? They don't come with tan leather covers. Enter Gfeller Casemakers. They specialize in making high quality leather cases for geoscience tools, but they've recently started making Moleskine covers out of English kip, "a thin very tight-grained leather that is exceedingly durable." The covers start off quite light, but over time darken and develop an attractive patina. 

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Above, the Gfeller cover as it arrives -- i.e., flat. The quality is impressive. The leather feels amazing to the touch. I decided to put a red Moleskine inside. 

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The workmanship seems impeccable. I've never been so anxious to scuff something up in my life. Somehow the cover manages to feel delicate and rugged all at once. 

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As you can see, the case does add a little bulk to the Moleskine. The footprint increases, and so does the width. A cut-out inside the back cover permits the notebook's elastic strap to function as intended. These photos show the cover fresh out of the box. Once it's developed some character, I'll post some follow-ups. Gfeller includes a photo of a broken in English kip cover for comparison. 

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The cost is $55, and they take a month of so to make. If you want something darker, chocolate and black are also provided. I'd stick with the tan myself.

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The last notebook I want to share is perhaps the most magnificent. I'd heard about the Smythson Panama notebook, marveled at the exorbitant price, then forgotten all about it. Then two things happened. First, I read a review of Smythson's light blue featherweight paper, confirming that it is indeed fountain pen friendly. Then a sale came along . . . and I decided to splurge on one of the Tan Cervo books just to see what all the fuss was about.

I'm glad I did. It arrived in a heavy blue gift box ...

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... and what a gift it turned out to be.

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Since it arrived, the cost of the Tan Cervo notebooks has jumped to $100 each, and I suspect they're on the verge of disappearing. Hopefully they'll return, and at the lower price. In the meantime, I have one to show off. Until mine arrived, I had no idea why they're called Panama notebooks. Turns out it's to highlight they're similarity to the famously rollable straw hats of the same name. In the back of the book, there's an explanation, along with notes about the paper:

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Once I read them, I decided it was time for a little notebook yoga. This is the move I call the newspaper roll.

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Pardon the pasty-white hand -- we haven't seen the sun around here in a while. As the photo demonstrates, the Panama notebook is extraordinarily flexible. You can tuck it in your pocket without much fear of doing harm. The paper is a faint blue, very elegant.

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Of course, the real question is, when your notebook costs as much as your Bible, how likely are you going to be to write in it? You've got to be really confident in the quality of your thoughts before committing them to a $100 notebook. Ordinarily, when I find a notebook I like, I stock up on them in case they disappear from the market. (Which is why I have about twenty Moleskines from circa 2002, still in their shrink-wrap.) With the Smythson notebook, though, that's just not going to happen. 

So let me sum up. The Panama is the best of the lot, but the price is hard to justify if you burn through notebooks at anything like a rapid clip. The Eccolo is more economical since you buy one cover and switch out inserts as needed. But it's hard to find. You might be able to hunt one up at a stationary store online, but Amazon doesn't list them any longer. Which leaves the Gfeller case. The supply of Moleskines is inexhaustible, fortunately, and the English kip cover adds a little something, while promising to age well. 

There is always another option. You could stick with black Bibles, in which case the Moleskine already matches.