Jim Coudal was very happy as a publicist, his advertising agency Coudal Partners working with such prestigious clients as Lettuce Entertain You, the Blackhawks, the White Sox (“Good Guys Wear Black”) and the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I liked the ad game and we had good clients,” he told me.
He did so for years until 2007 when he received a Christmas present in the mail that changed his career and his life.
The gift came from a friend, a designer from Portland, Oregon named Aaron Draplin. It was a small but nicely produced notebook, one of about 200 that Draplin had created and sent to some of his friends.
A few days later, Draplin called Coudal.
“So what do you think of my stupid little notebook?” he said.
Coudal, very impressed with the little book, said, “Maybe it’s not so stupid.”
They were talking. Draplin explained that his creation was inspired by the “farming notebooks” he had collected for a long time. These were small notebooks distributed by all manner of companies as promotional items beginning in the early 20th century that sat in the pockets of farmers across the country and used them. Draplin had found them at flea markets and farmyard sales. He eventually had thousands of them and they were the inspiration for his gifts.
Before long, Coudal Partners formed a partnership with Draplin Design Co. and created what they called Field Notes Brand. They first produced 500 three-packs of notebooks with bright orange covers and put them up for sale on the websites operated by the pair. On the first day, they received 13 orders. The next day there were none and soon all 500 were gone and a business took off, becoming what can only be called a welcome phenomenon.
“That little notebook eventually took over our business,” Coudal said. “We were quick to lay off all of our customers and now that’s all we do.”
Coudal and 10 employees work out of offices on the Near West Side. They have sold millions of these notebooks and a host of other related products such as pens, T-shirts, pencils.
“We have thousands of customers around the world,” says Coudal. “We sell a lot online and also in some bookstores, but very little. We are really not available in what could be considered conventional stationery. And you won’t find us at Walmart but rather, perhaps, in a surf shop.
From the start, the regular product line was enriched with quarterly limited editions, which were increasingly coveted and coveted by subscribers and one-time buyers. The first sold 500. The last, 36,000.
Notebooks are crafted with care for typeface and paper, and are produced in the USA. Special editions were devoted to such self-explanatory topics as “National Parks”, “Mackinaw Autumn” and “Dime Novel”, and to less obvious topics such as “Clandestine”, “Vignette” and “Heavy Duty”.
I watched this regular march of notebooks from the start and my favorite was the “Day Game” three-pack in the summer of 2012, with covers that were “Outfield Green, Infield Brown and Hardball White”. He came with a little book, a 30,000-word memoir about baseball and the bond between fathers and sons. It was titled “A Drive into the Gap” and was written by Kevin Guilfoile who worked with Coudal before becoming a successful novelist with the publication of his “Cast of Shadows” in 2005 and “The Thousand” in 2010.
There have been 55 of these limited editions, available to subscribers at an annual cost of $120, and individually for much less. The latest arrived on Tuesday and is called “Great Lakes”. This is the first set of five notebooks to be offered. Each 48-page book features one of the lakes, and each contains a fold-out map and an amazing amount of carefully researched information and anecdotes. The Lake Michigan book, for example, not only tells us that the deepest point of the lake is 925 feet and is 579 feet above sea level, but also that Chinook salmon, native from the Pacific Northwest, was introduced to Lake Michigan in the 1870s and that its “favorite meal” is gaspereau. Each of the Great Lakes notebooks offers a nifty list of “practical applications,” along with production specifications, the how, why, and where of creation.
A bonus to the Great Lakes edition is a collection of five postcards, one for each lake. These are inspired by and made in the style of those once produced by the Curt Teich Company, a Chicago company founded in 1898 and a pioneer in the offset printing process. Before going bankrupt in 1978, this company had sold over a billion postcards, making it the largest postcard printer in the world. The Newberry Library has a massive collection of these cards.
Coudal explains how the “new” cards were made. “We sent Bryan Bedell (a designer who has worked with Field Notes since its inception) and (filmmaker) Steve Delahoyde on a 1,300 mile trip around the Great Lakes to take photos, which we then colorized, retouched and added design elements. The results are beautiful and bewitching.
One of the company’s slogans comes from Coudal’s grandfather, Nels, with whom he lived for some time after the death of Nels’ wife. He noticed that his grandfather was tearing up scraps of newspapers to write notes on them.
He asked, “Grandpa, why don’t you just use a notebook. You could lose that little piece of paper.
His grandfather said, “I don’t write it to remember later, I write it to remember now.”
Coudal now expands, saying, “I realized that the physical act of writing ingrains something in your brain much more than flipping it around in an app, tapping on a screen. People who type on their computers transcribe. It’s not taking notes. Transcribing is listening and typing. It goes into your ears and out of your fingers and you never cling to it at all.
For those of you who might consider this a nostalgic affair, Coudal will tell you, “We don’t want to make a book that looks like the mid-1930s, but a new book using the methods used back then. .” Coudal said. “We’re not nostalgic, we’re not trying to be retro.
“First and foremost, we make notebooks. You can use them to write “Ode on a Greek Urn” or to make a “milk, eggs, vodka” shopping list. We like to think these are just as valuable to a hipster in the Brooklyn coffee shop as they are to someone in an ice-fishing slum in Duluth.
What Field Notes does is honor the past, tell a quintessentially American story, and do it in an irresistibly artful way.