BY DON FLUCKINGER • This column, perfectly sandwiched between two of the most red-white-and-blue holidays on the U.S. calendar — Memorial Day and the Fourth of July — is a perfect time to bring up something I've been thinking about: Better ways to schlep pens and all this electronics gear (computers, smartphones, iPads, LiveScribe pens, etc.) that is a part of work and play, no matter what continent upon which one resides.
|Fountain pens are forgiving of moisture exposure, although they could use a little more protection from the rough-and-tumble world of gear bags.
It's not like most briefcases are forgiving when rained upon. They're cheap, they crack, they split, and they let water in and soak through. And then, as some of us might learn the hard way, the electronic devices within — which can easily top $2,000 in value when laptop, smartphone and the other junk we carry is added up — aren't forgiving. If you’ve looked at some of them, you know the briefcases I’m talking about: They’re lined with nylon that frays, rips and otherwise degrades. The people who make these bags want it to — you'll buy a new bag, faster. Planned obsolescence.
Thankfully, fountain pens are forgiving of moisture exposure, although they could use a little more protection from the rough-and-tumble world of gear bags. But what of this other stuff?
Glad you asked. I've been poking around and have some ideas. It turns out that U.S. companies are either manufacturing or heavily involved in the production of some fine, high-end bags.
The fact that good stuff is still made stateside, by the way, will be immensely satisfying to Richard, who makes it a sort of criterion when he’s looking for things to purchase. I, too, am slowly coming to the conclusion that if I don't do my personal best to help prop up our economy, the bumbling dolts on both sides of the political fence will end up collapsing it for us with the inaction resulting from their constant infighting.
So, flag-waving pen collectors, back to the goods. It turns out there's two grades of gear worthy of protecting your stuff through the rigors of everyday life. First off — and very cost effective — is military and tactical police gear found at your local Army-Navy store. Ask to see "the good, U.S.-made stuff," and they'll take it from there. I've found this the best way to acquire tough packs that can withstand the abuse that motorcycle and camping trips hand out.
But let's face it: You're not going to waltz into the boardroom with your fountain pen, pad-folio, iPad and reading glasses in an olive drab police pack. It just ain't gonna happen, unless you're packing a pistol and protecting the U.S. envoy during high-level negotiations, right?
So for work life, there's some hardcore awesome (mostly) handcrafted gear from four U.S. companies. Skip the designer fare; while it looks good — and some of it might last long — it's my opinion that if you're going to spend three to five times what you will at Staples it may as well be invested in the bag itself, and not the bag plus an expensive billboard and magazine marketing campaign.
If you're in the market for a briefcase or messenger bag or iPad case or whatever — and really, who isn't nowadays — check these guys out:
Filson. Some of this Seattle company's outerwear is outsourced overseas, but they have a long tradition of water-resistant twill bags trimmed in bridle leather and made in Seattle. The #256 and #257, depending on the size of the computer you're carrying, are very popular choices.
Billykirk. This leather crafter features some great understated bags designed to look better with age. Also, there's this: "To make your Billykirk purchase more enjoyable we DO NOT ship with packing peanuts." That's worth a few extra bucks, no?
Saddleback Leather. They're handmade in Mexico, but it's all run by this quintessential American entrepreneur named Dave who, er, read his site, gets deeply involved in picking the craftspeople and creating purpose-driven designs. My briefcase (see picture) is one of his, in chestnut. Utilitarian — there's about five ways to carry it, including conversion to a backpack — and very rain-resistant, it's a little on the heavy side (partially the fault of the IT department at work, which asks us to lug heavy Dell battleship laptops around) but built like a brick outhouse. Dave likes to say of his bags, "They'll fight over it when you're dead." Saddleback also offers iPad- and Macbook-specific pieces to further protect your gear from the rigors of everyday use.
Col. Littleton. A leather handcrafter located in a Tennessee burg outside of Nashville, this company makes fine, solid goods — some of which are sold by Orvis. While their schtick makes them come off sounding very traditional, don't be fooled: They recently teamed up with another Nashville company, electronics accessory marketer Griffin, to create a line of iPad and iPhone compatible pieces.
Outside of Filson, these purveyors are on the smaller side, which means their pieces are expensive and sometimes out of stock. You may have to either get a different piece (different color, slightly different form factor) or end up waiting some months for them to get around to making more of the exact piece you've picked out.
If that's a pain — or they're simply priced out of your budget — click on over to eBay. People constantly are selling them used or new: gifts they don't want, contest prizes, maybe they bought one and it doesn't fit their purpose. These are lifetime bags; if one's just been use a few times, it's like getting the demo car with 400 miles on the odometer. Totally worth it.
Another little tip: If you go to Home Depot or a similar Big Box home-improvement place, chances are they'll have some sort of canvas zipper bag (I found three-packs for five bucks) designed to keep sharp tools confined and organized (i.e., it takes a lot to punch a hole in one). That's what you're going to need to keep your unruly chargers and docks and cables and car plugs at bay in your briefcase. These aren't made in U.S.A., but they get the job done.
Further Reading: The Leatherworking Handbook: A Practical Illustrated Sourcebook of Techniques and Projects,by Valerie Michael, a founding member of the Association of Design Leatherworkers
So you think you can make your own bag, do you? Or perhaps you have a hand-me down bag that needs a touch of TLC to get it back into the game. Check out this indispensable guide.
|Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site.