Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tools of the Trade: Staples Sustainable Earth Spiral Notebook

Anyone who writes a great deal (especially with fountain pens) is usually on the lookout for a good value on paper. There are a few good options out there, especially if you're willing to dive into a vat of Norcom Composition Notebooks and pull out all the good ones, but that's another post. The Staples Sustainable Earth notebook is a good place to start.

Sustainable Earth by Staples isn't your mama's recycled paper. The paper is made from recycled sugarcane called "bagasse," which is the by-product of sugar production and a highly renewable resource. That means my notebook has as much in common with a cupcake as a tree, and that's pretty cool.

So the paper makes mother-earth happy, and me too. How about my pens? Yes. Yes, they're happy. Even now.

You see, Sustainable Earth paper has gone through an identity crisis in the last few years. When it was originally launched, it had slightly different branding. More importantly, it had slightly different paper. I heard over and over from other fountain pen users that this paper was incredible (and cheap!), so I had to have some. There was only one problem: there was no Staples in my area. Not even close.

I eventually dropped by one while traveling and got that kid in a candy store feeling. There were options. Large or small spiral notebooks, composition books, several cover designs. The covers were heavy and durable, and the spiral substantial and strong. There was even a kraft paper two-pocket folder on the front page.  I wish I would have filled my arms with them and bought all I could carry. Instead, since this paper was as of yet untested, I bought only a single letter-size one-subject notebook.

The paper in that notebook was incredible. It was very thin paper, but had an hard finish on it. The paper was smooth, but the finish on the pages gave it an almost "cockle" effect, like old-school onion skin paper. Every line I drew was crisp and vibrant and there was zero bleedthrough with anything I threw at it. As much as I wanted to gobble up that notebook with my daily writing, I decided to conserve it. I cut up a few pages to make cahier-style handbound notebooks to hold me off until I could get back to a Staples to buy more.

That took longer than I hoped, and by the time I got my hands on another one, the changes had begun. They looked the same, had the same quality cover, spiral, and kraft-paper pocket, but there were a couple of distinctions. First, the price had gone up, double. It had been so inexpensive before, it wasn't too much a price jump for the quality of the paper, so I bought two small spirals this time. One for me, one for Husband.

We could tell right away it was different. The paper no longer had that hard finish. It was still thin, but not "crispy" like before. When we tried them, our fears were confirmed. Not only was the paper different, it was inconsistent. We had grabbed our two notebooks at random, but I came out the lucky one. The paper in mine was noticeably softer and more absorbent, but it was still very good. Husband's was not so good. His notebook feathered and bled like a sieve. It also had a distinctly fibrous look to the paper grain that wasn't present in mine. We also noted that the ruling lines on mine were much crisper than his, which were feathery and bloated.

By the time I filled that good little spiral, we had gotten a Staples in our area. That left me free to paw through their inventory for the good ones. The good news is that I hit on more good than bad. The trick I used was to look for the notebooks with the crispest printed lines. For the most part, I've been happy with my findings, and I stocked up. It's a good thing I did because we didn't have our Staples long before they decided to move out of our market and closed them up.

I still long for the older formulation, but that's because I'm spoiled. If I had never found that original notebook and got the newer kind, I would have been completely over the moon at its performance for the price. It's not perfect, but it's darn good.I've filled a couple of these, and they get the job done without too much fuss. Paper this thin inevitably has a lot of showthrough, but I haven't seen much feathering or bleeding with any of my pens. It actually behaves better than some much more expensive papers (I'm looking at you, Moleskine). The covers and spirals have proven to be just as durable as they look. I haven't had the problem I hate second-most with spiral notebook: the dread crimped spiral of doom, scourge of page turns everywhere. (The problem I hate first-most is that left-handers end up with spiral embedded in our arms when we try to write on the front side of the paper. Turning the notebook and being an underwriter helps.)


So what now? Should you buy one of these?

As of this writing, the smaller size spiral (9 1/2 x 6) retails for $4.49 each, and the larger letter size goes for $7.39. The composition notebook goes for $5.29. Those prices are getting pretty high when you can get Rhodia pads for around that. The redeeming factor for me is that it is a sustainable/recycled product that is constructed durably and, I think, attractively.

If I still had a Staples store near me, I would probably sift through their stock every so often, but in my case, I would just be chasing a memory.

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