I’ve long been -- at least, in my adult life -- a fan of messenger bags. I think they look better, carry easier, and are less stress-inducing on my back. Over the last few years, I’ve become sort of a closet bag nerd: I’ve bought several bags from various makers (mainly Incase and Timbuk2) in the search of the perfect fit. The experience has proved similar to that of Goldilocks at the Three Bears’ house. Some bags were too small. Some bags were too big. And others still would be lacking in pockets or the right color to catch my eye. Nothing I found turned out to be the proverbial “just right”. That is, until I discovered the medium-sized Cafe Bag by Tom Bihn.
Pardon me for keeping with the fairytale metaphor, but this bag is just right.
I have Ben Brooks to thank for turning me on to Tom Bihn. His review of the Smart Alec prompted me to check out Tom Bihn’s website, and I’m glad I did. They offer a wide variety of bags and accessories at reasonable prices, and the customer support/user forum were instrumental in helping me narrow down what I wanted. (Bonus: Being that Tom Bihn is Seattle-based, shipping to the Bay Area was fast.) I ordered my bag as part of my Christmas gift to myself, and I’ve been using it daily ever since. It’s been an awesome bag, and I’m very pleased with my purchase.
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THE SIZE & COLOR
My uncle has this theory about physical space, which basically says that the bigger the space, the more inclined one will be to fill it. What happens when it’s filled? You have (a) in all likelihood, a lot of unnecessary stuff; and (b) because of said stuff, the once “big” bag becomes smaller and heavier. He was persistent in reiterating this idea as I researched what was available from Tom Bihn, and most of it stuck with me. I didn’t want something too small nor too big (yes, still with the Goldilocks theme), because I didn’t want to be bound by space, in want or in excess. The truth is, I don’t carry very much with me -- I don’t need much -- so I figured the medium variety was a good compromise. Roughly three months later, the conviction of my choice stands unchanged.
Here’s what’s in my bag at all times:
- iPad 3 with Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard, inside a case1
- Large mesh organizer pouch filled with miscellaneous odds and ends, like my Cosmonaut stylus, Olloclip, Mophie Powerstation Duo, gum, and so on.
- Steno Notepad from Field Notes
- Small, non-sticky Post-It note-like pad
- Two pens -- specifically, these pens
- 30-pin to USB cable for use with the Powerstation
That’s it. With everything inside, the bag is fairly full but not overly so. I have everything packed so that the weight is pretty much evenly distributed throughout, thereby making the bag feel lighter than it really is. I worked hard to determine what I wanted with me wherever I go would be things that I’d actually use, or at least potentially use. Considering my workflow, this is the perfect day bag for me. The bag is just big enough for my essentials; it’s full, but not too full. I don’t feel bogged down trying to hop on BART or the bus, and it’s small enough so as to not take up a lot of room when I put it down somewhere.
As for the color, I ended up opting for a bag in Linen/Steel, as Tom Bihn describes it. The outside of the bag is linen-colored, almost tannish-looking. The color is dominate here, save for the black accents coming off the buckle and strap. The Tom Bihn logo is embroidered on the bottom right corner; in fact, I think the red airplane in the logo plays well with the rest of the bag’s aesthetics. The inside of the bag is the “Steel” color; I like the contrast of the dark gray against the light-ish color of the linen.
Speaking of light, I read several reviews of the bag that mentioned how the linen, perceptually, seems to change shades depending on the ambient light. At first I thought it wasn’t a big deal, but after using the bag, I’ve noticed it too. Indoors, the color seems duller, giving the bag an almost dirty-looking appearance. Of course, it still looks good and isn’t dirty, but the color doesn’t attract the eye as much. Conversely, viewing the bag in a setting with natural light (i.e., outdoors), brings out real vibrant tones. The linen sort of “glistens” in the sunlight, making it very eye-catching.2 It makes for a really beautiful bag, a sentiment attested to in most reviews I saw. I was initially going to get black, but decided against it after concluding it was too boring. I’m glad I did, because I’m very happy with the look of the linen. The pictures shown on the website don’t do it justice.
A LOT TO LIKE
I’ve become a bag nerd mostly out of practicality. Being that I walk and take public transit to get around most of the time, carrying a bag is really a smart idea. I’d previously gotten by with carrying things in plastic bags and/or the packets of my pants or hoodies. That’s fine for small items, but not so much for bigger things, like my iPad. Since I don’t drive, I don’t have a car where I could throw things in as I move from place to place. Carrying a bag allows me to do so, to the point where not having my bag with me feels not dissimilar to the “naked” feeling I get when I don’t have my phone on me (or I have it but it’s dead). As I said, I searched a long time for the right bag, so I fully appreciate what the Cafe bag allows me to do. For lack of a better word, carrying a bag feels genuinely liberating. Besides, a bag is so much nicer than a plastic bag or overstuffed pockets.
There are little things about the bag I enjoy. The giant buckle on the front is super easy for me to open and close, as is the zippered compartment beneath it. In addition, I love how the bag sits upright as I’m trying to get stuff in and out without tipping over. I love the handle on the top of the bag, which makes for easy grabbing. I love how, on the inside, the bag features an O-ring for my mesh pouch, and the two spaces that house my pens. Most of all, though, I love the textured underside of the buckle on the shoulder strap. It’s grippy, almost as if it were wearing cleats. It’s helpful insofar that the grooves help keep the strap on my shoulder. The friction isn’t noticeable so as to be uncomfortable, but such a feature is so ingenious that I wonder why more bag manufacturers haven’t
ripped off borrowed the idea.
In general, I’d say the best thing about the bag, beyond pragmatics and aesthetics, is that I can wear the thing cross-body. I’ve always worn my messenger bags in this fashion; it’s most comfortable for me to do it this way. I don’t like the over-the-shoulder method, for reasons of appearance (a point which I’ll get to below) and of shoulder fatigue. In fact, many of Tom Bihn’s bag offerings are either backpacks or meant for shoulder use; the Cafe bag is one of a select few that offers cross-body wear. Hence, this gave the Cafe a huge advantage in my eyes when it came down to making my buying decision.
NITS TO PICK
The preceding 1,370 words of this review have been, obviously, overwhelming positive, and for good reason. The truth is I really love this bag, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone in the market for one. Thus, there isn’t much that I dislike about the bag. To try to find fault in pursuit of fairness or objectivity would be disingenuous. Again, this bag is damn near perfect for my needs.
That said, I do have one quibble with regards to the outside of the bag. While I use the inside zippered pocket quite often to store papers and whatnot, it’s sometimes hard to access. This is really no fault of the bag itself, as my dexterity is such that maneuvering around buckles and zippers can be difficult at times. I’d prefer it if the outside of the bag, above the buckle, had a zippered compartment as well. This would make it much easier for someone like me to throw something in there with a minimum of fuss. Admittedly, the bag would be worse from a aesthetic standpoint3, but it’d be a huge win in terms of function. Here’s hoping Tom Bihn will consider such an addition in a future update.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This bag is awesome. If I were to rate it in iTunes, I'd give it 5 stars.
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I anticipate the Tom Bihn Cafe bag serving me well for many years to come. It’s well made, stylish, and best of all, functional. I like the thing so much that I don’t mind the friendly heckling I’ve been getting from family and friends, who refer to it as a “man purse”. (Maybe if I got it in purple that’d be appropriate, but I digress.) Anyone looking for a good bag should definitely check out the Cafe bag -- or, for that matter, any other bags from Tom Bihn. The Cafe bag was a great first purchase, and they definitely will have me again as a repeat customer. This was $65 well spent.