So You Want to Sell Me a Bag

Long time readers of the site will be familiar with my problem with bags. At times I have an almost pathological need to shop for them. So it was a mixed blessing when I was told by the powers that be that I would be “allowed” to look for a new computer bag. I had become, for no reason, unhappy with my backpack. A year and a half ago, the pack was perfect, but no longer. Bag shopping is a bit different now than even a few years ago because almost every vendor is now on the Intertubes. It’s possible, in a few short evenings, to study a huge cross section of the available hardware. Here is what you learn.

The first thing you learn is that a non-trivial percentage of bag manufacturers do not understand the following fact:

Fact: I cannot buy your god damned bag if I don’t know what it looks like on the inside.

I’ve finally gotten to the point where if I go to the bag maker’s web site and all they have is pictures of the outside of the bag, I take them off my list forever. I don’t care if the bags are hand stitched in your own Paris apartment out of the best Italian full-grain leather harvested from cows that have done nothing but live in the laps of luxury for their entire existence. I don’t care if they carry on a hundred year old tradition of excellence. If you don’t show me how the bag is laid out inside, I have no reason to even talk to you. It’s not hard, all you need is four or five pictures. Just do what Timbuk2 does.

Speaking of Timbuk2. My favorite bag before the backpack which I have now rejected was my beloved TImbuk2 Commute. I was excited to find that they have updated this bag. So I bought one to try it out. The original Commute was great for the following reasons:

1. The bag was roomy but not bulky. You could get your laptop in there, and the bag still had room for a camera, a lens or flash, a diaper kit in the back, a book, some DVDs, and a pound of La Prima coffee that you just bought.

2. Keeps its shape. Unlike most messenger bags, which tend to fall over into an amorphous lump when empty, this bag has enough structure so you can always stand it up and get things in and out.

3. Padding in the right places. The back pad and the padding on the bottom were perfect.

My only complaint about the bag was the strap, which was uncomfortable and lacked the fantastic cam-buckle that Timuk2 uses on their real messenger bags. Also, the original model is too small for the new slightly larger Macbook Pros. Or at least that’s what they say.

The Commute 2.0 updates this bag so it can fit the new laptop but otherwise does nothing good. They have split the laptop part of the bag away from the rest and connected it with a split zipper. This lets you splay the bag out and lay it flat on the x-ray machine when you fly. However, to me this is a bad tradeoff because it makes getting the laptop into the bag about twice as hard. Therefore, if you spend all your time in airports with the laptop in the bag, this is great. But if you actually have to use the machine, it’s not so great.

To make up for this insult, the bag’s design takes the laptop out of the waterproof part of the bag, and it messes up the balance of the bag and makes it more uncomfortable to carry. As a result, you are reminded every time you put the bag on that they didn’t fix the one thing that was wrong with the Commute: the shoulder strap. Same old crappy strap.

This disappointment in hand, I went looking for a bag that could regain the exalted position of the original Commute. Of course, I failed. The original Commute probably isn’t even as good as the original Commute. But, it was some pretty fun extreme Internet shopping.

The most interesting outfit I found in my current quest is Saddleback Leather. Whatever else you want to say about them, they make bags that fit a vision of what a leather bag should be and they do not stray. Ultimately I could not find a bag that they make that I could actually imagine carrying all day unless it were empty. But I might try one anyway. The bags just have such a unique look to them you have to try one out. But I don’ think the look is “me”. I’m not the rugged trail leather kind of guy. I’m more of a soft sided man-purse and loafers kind of guy.

Which brings me to my other major observation about bag shopping. Ultimately, it’s not really about the bags, it’s more about you. Like everything that is similar to clothing, the bags you wear reflect the aspect of the personality that you want to project. For me, the bag should usually say something like “too practical, not very fashionable.” At first I thought I would pander to the overly practical part, and I spent a lot of time looking at old fashioned canvas and leather bags like the Billinghams and the Filson. These ended up feeling a bit too “earthy”, and fans of these bags tend have a bit of a retro fetish which I find distasteful and creepy.

Then I thought I would try to indulge my bad sense of fashion. This lead me to spend a lot of time looking at leather briefcases, which I assume are fashionable. But, briefcases are hard to understand. For example, I can’t for the life of me understand the bag designer’s obsession with the following sorts of accessories:

- Pen holders

- Credit card slots

- Accordion shaped file compartments.

What I want in a bag is one or two compartments, two or three small inside pockets, and two or three small outside pockets. Any pocket that I can’t fit my entire hand into is useless. Note, this was a problem in the aforementioned Commute 2.0. The front interior of the bag was full of a panel of a dozen or so tiny little pockets, none of which you can actually put anything into. I suppose they are supposed to for holding individual small items that then will not rattle around. But really they are just useless space.

Anyway, the bag that fits my personality is a bit more general purpose, with pockets that can fill more than one role in life. This leads you to the world of messenger bags, which I like a lot. All of my recent favorite bags (except for that one backpack) have been a messenger or satchel style bag. There is the Domke Camera Satchel and the Courierware messenger bags. These seem to have the most space for their size, and they are the most suited for carrying either a laptop or cameras. But, the Domke is too small for the computer and the courier bag never worked out as a camera bag because the sides of the bag just fall over on themselves when the bag is empty. It’s great for the computer though.

I conclude that what I want is for a custom bag maker to step to the plate and make me a love child of these two bags. Namely:

1. The same basic shape as the Domke (but without the awful rubberized sticky strap). More importantly, some stiffening material in the sides and the bottom to keep the bag from doing the old messenger bag flopover. But not so much that the bag carries badly. Domkes seem to have this perfected.

2. Wide enough to hold a 15 inch Macbook.

3. Enough depth (3 to 4 inches) to hold my camera sideways, plus a couple of lenses. But note, I don’t want to carry the cameras and the laptop at the same time. That would be stupid. I want the bag to have two modes. I’d even buy two of the bag just to keep each one permanently in each mode.

4. The great font pockets of the Domke for either a flash and camera extras, or other computer extras.

5. Neoprene shoulder strap.

6. The cool retro Billingham look.

7. A carry handle on top. Messenger bags are all missing this by default for some reason. People are stupid.

8. Custom removable padded inserts for either laptop mode or camera mode. 9. Have a slot on the back to hook up to a rolling carry-on cart.

10. Maybe a leather body. But canvas with leather straps is probably more practical.

So, there you have it. Can you make one for me? Maybe this guy already has. Oh but wait, his wait time is two and a half years. Truly the universe has a sense of humor.