I am really quite depressed. I keep poking around in stores, looking at their stock of Moleskines to see if anything’s changed with how they’re making them. At one point several months ago, I’d had a glimmer of optimism that maybe there had just been a blip in their manufacturing rather than an overall decline in quality, but at this point, I no longer think so. I occasionally find an older, slightly dusty Moleskine on the shelf and when I do, I buy it and am so happy to have added to my stash. But I can’t bring myself to buy any of the new ones any more. They’ve obviously made a decision to down-spec their hardcover notebooks and it really shows. The edges are often uneven, the corners stick out, there are big gaps between the cover and spine, and the outer covering isn’t neatly and tightly tucked around the corners of the cover. Sometimes they aren’t quite square, as if they were pushed askew during the binding process. They just feel cheap. They are pretty much indistinguishable now from the Piccadilly notebooks I bought a few years ago for a fraction of the cost. It’s not that the newer Moleskines are always totally unusable, and I’ve found the company to be good about sending a replacement when you complain about a significant defect (though sometimes the replacement is just as bad)… but the problem for me is that they no longer distinguish themselves from other brands in the subtle little ways that they used to. And if they don’t, why should I buy them?
I fell in love with Moleskines because of the thick, smooth paper in the sketchbooks, which no other brand used to have. Even now, I think the Pen & Ink Sketchbook is the only one quite like it. Then I started using the squared paper a lot, which is at least easier to find in other brands. Other Moleskine features aren’t that uncommon now– lots of brands offer ribbon markers, elastic closures, back pockets, etc. For me, the main thing is the corners and the way the spine is bound. Moleskines used to feel more refined, somehow. Just that little extra bit of care in making it a precisely trimmed-off, clean-edged package that didn’t tear at the spine. No one else quite did that, and that was why I’ve always continued to use mostly Moleskines instead of the many other notebooks that were almost as good– regardless of price, regardless of misleading marketing, regardless of the paper not being top-notch, regardless of whether people would think I was a just a trend-follower after they became so popular. I don’t even care if they’re made in China– they always were anyway. I could ignore all that if the notebook felt well-made and looked nice, with those clean, tight edges and corners. Yes, I’m being nit-picky, but these little nit-picky things are the only reason to choose one brand over another– if all I wanted was any old random thing to write in, I’d buy a 99 cent notepad at the supermarket. And if Moleskine hadn’t spoiled me with their former quality, I wouldn’t be complaining that things had changed. What’s frustrating is that the people at Moleskine obviously appreciated these distinctions at one time, and designed their notebooks very specifically around them. Now, they have made a calculated decision that these higher standards aren’t worth the cost. I wonder if the original founders of the company feel just as disheartened as I do, knowing that their brand is slapped on products they would have rejected back in the early days.
I do have other options, even if I haven’t yet found one that suits my personal preferences better than the Moleskines of yore. There are many great notebooks out there, and I hope I will discover many more over the next few years while I exhaust my hoarded stock of old Moleskines. If Moleskine doesn’t maintain an edge in terms of quality and I have to settle for something slightly less than perfect, then I might just use Piccadilly, or the Pentalic Illustrators Sketchbook, or the Pen & Ink Sketchbook, each of which is almost exactly the same, and cheaper. Piccadilly can have some quality issues, and Pen & Ink’s squared notebooks have darker grid lines than I prefer. I’m actually pretty excited to try the latest iteration of the Pentalic Illustrator’s Sketchbook as they seem to have upgraded their paper from the one I first reviewed, (though it’s still not as thick as the Moleskine Sketchbook paper) and it will be interesting to see how it stands up to everyday use. Though their paper is nice, I don’t like the way Rhodia’s Webnotebooks are constructed (and they tend to be pricey), and while Leuchtturm comes pretty close to my ideal in terms of construction, I hate their taller 90 x 150 cm format. HandBook Artist Journals are great and I’ll continue to use them a lot for sketching, but the paper is not what I want for a daily notebook/journal. There are some other promising brands, but they’re harder to find on store shelves or online, at least in the US. And none of them has quite nailed the exact combination of qualities I’m looking for, because if they did, I’d order them in quantity from wherever, as I now wish I’d done several years ago with Moleskine.
So, ironically, for me, it’s just like the Bruce Chatwin story Moleskine made part of their mythology. He thought those nice little Parisian notebooks would always be available, and when it seemed that they might not be, he tried to buy 100 so he’d never run out. But it was already too late– they told him le vrai moleskine n’est plus, because that little family-owned stationery company had gone out of business. Now there may be a giant multi-national lifestyle company churning out a variety of notebooks and other products that are available wherever gifts and office supplies are sold, but le vrai Moleskine® n’est plus.