I’m proud to say that at Levenger, we source our products in America—and from all over the globe, including China. We pride ourselves at finding the best-quality manufacturers of our goods no matter where they may be, with the same blind justice as the Olympics: let the best competitor win. We feel a deep obligation to make the best Levenger products we can—in quality, sustainability, and price—and pass that value to our customers.
I also believe that, in general, the more nations trade, the less they fight. It’s bad business to kill customers.
Of course, exceptions have been made. Nations have gone to war against countries they trade with. Citizens have punished neighbors who provide valuable economic services. Yet by and large, nations and citizens behave in their economic interests. This is one reason why capitalism can be such a powerful force for good.
We source most of our leather goods in China because the Chinese make most of the world’s best leather goods. I’ve toured numerous Chinese leather factories and can assure you that many of the bags sold on Via Spiga, Bond Street, Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive begin their careers in China. And this is a good thing.
The Chinese for decades have invested in the leather industry for both low-end and high-end goods. They have trained a vast labor pool of skilled workers required for the labor-intensive work that fine leather goods require. Owners and workers have benefited. In the twenty years I’ve been traveling to China, I’ve seen the parking lots jammed full of bicycles transform into lots full of motor scooters and cars. I’ve seen their factories add amenities (including libraries and computer learning centers) as they compete for skilled employees. I’ve seen the employees gain weight, which perhaps isn’t healthy for them, but nevertheless marks their improving wealth.
In the early years, we stayed at Spartan factory dorms. These days, factory owners drive us with pride to luxury Hyatt Hotels, where Audis and Land Rovers owned by Chinese executives are parked outside.
The Chinese have the infrastructure (tanneries, equipment suppliers, hardware) to support the quick sampling and rapid scaling of production that our fast-paced world demands.
I’m all for more highly skilled jobs in America that require education, creativity and hard work—all things that Americans are eminently capable of. American business executives have to play to our strengths, including innovation, entrepreneurism, and an understanding that doing the right thing can be profitable. A growing number of major firms are embracing this latter philosophy, which is one of the cornerstones of Conscious Capitalism.
But let’s not kid ourselves that protectionist trade policies will have any long-term beneficial effect for us or for our trading partners. Isolation breeds alienation. The world is too small to be alone in anymore. We’ll excel as a nation as we always have—the old-fashioned way, with our smarts and hard work.
I’m seeing promising things.
Our American leather partner in western Massachusetts has more automation than most Chinese factories—for example, automated folding machines that yield higher-quality products faster.
Our American printing partner in Maine links to us with a network of computers so that the moment you press the order button on Levenger.com, a digital printing press in Maine begins to make your custom creation. Then, through plain New England hustle, the sons and daughters of Maine fishermen pack and ship those orders the same day they are produced.
For a wonderful historical perspective on trade, I recommend The Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World by William J. Bernstein. I quote from his summary:
World trade has yielded not only a bounty of material goods, but also of intellectual and cultural capital, an understanding of our neighbors, and a desire to sell things to others rather than annihilate them.
For an uplifting look at the general decline in world violence and the contributing role of capitalism, I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s meticulously researched and beautifully written The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
And now, come take an around-the-world trip to the origins of Levenger products. I’ve asked Levenger Press editor Mim Harrison to act as our tour guide:
Wicked good leather goods from Massachusetts. Pick up some of our embossed leatherware and know that while the leather comes from Italy, the crafting of it is done in the Bay State.
London, France, China and the world…by way of Wisconsin. Levenger Press may be the only publisher in America to have a book on China that was printed in America. We’re proud to say that nearly all Levenger Press books are printed by Worzalla, an employee-owned Master Printer in Wisconsin.Our newest book with Worzalla, Seeing the World Anew, tells the story of a 16th-century mapmaker from France who created two world maps that signaled a radically new world view.
For the book’s presentation at the Library of Congress National Book Festival in September, Rodger Beyer from Worzalla joined Levenger in cheering on the authors.
And Dickens may have penned his Christmas Carol in London, but the only true facsimile of his furiously scrawled pages was printed in America.
Mandarin from Michigan. We recently designed a set of Multilingual Learning Blocks that feature words in six different languages, including Mandarin. A family-owned company in Michigan hand-manufactured the blocks from replenishable local basswood. We worked with another U.S. organization, the Long Now Foundation, in selecting the languages and the words.
Microbrew from Jersey. That would be our microbrewed Levenger Bottled Ink, and the secret recipe is known to only a few at a secret plant in New Jersey.
Well-dotted i’s from Iowa. If you’ve written with a flourish with our Signature Stub Nib, you’ve gotten a feel for Iowa craftsmanship. That’s where the nibs are ground—by hand, by a master.
Mile-high Churchill. An original painting by Sir Winston Churchill goes for sky-high prices. Come to Levenger and you can get a laser-cut wooden puzzle featuring one of the few paintings to feature his initials. It’s crafted by a precision puzzler in Colorado.
Down-East on demand. Our Circa print-on-demand notebooks and our personalized 3 x 5 cards are made in Maine. The natives there have been paper makers almost as long as they’ve been bankers (as in fishermen who ply the Grand Banks).
Barristers heart New York. They are the real deal: the barrister bookcases with the glass fronts that you pull out and slide back in the best Atticus Finch tradition. Levenger Barrister Bookcases are manufactured in the best small-town-America tradition, in Herkimer, New York, by a company that’s been making them for more than a century.
Cabinets from the Keystone State. Our Lateral and Stackable File Cabinets come from Pennsylvania and are made from solid cherry, oak or walnut.
Byron does the Big Easy. Our Shirt Pocket Poetry is pouched and packaged in New Orleans. And the cards? They’ve made in Memphis, the same city where you’ll find our customer service center. (Steve is partial to the fried pickles there.)
Amish country. From Indiana comes the Book Snug desk-size book holder that Amish craftsmen there make for us. As is their custom, they do not wish to have their faces photographed. But they did allow us to show you some photos of their hand work, which you can see on the link.
Americas the beautiful. From Argentina comes some of the leather we use; from Chile, some of the pulp for the paper our Taiwanese manufacturer makes. From Haiti come iPad sleeves hand-quilted by women under the wing of an American humanitarian group, whom we hooked up with by way of Martha’s Vineyard. Indeed, it is a small world after all.
Oh, to be from England. That’s where all our Tusting leather bags are from. They’re made in the True Brit tradition of a small, family-run manufactory that’s been turning out quality for generations. England is also where our Bodleian Bilingual Bags for books comes from, and you can’t get much more British than that.
Do the Continental. The paper in the Rhodia notebooks we offer comes from France. (The notebooks are actually printed and bound in Buffalo, New York.) From the land of IKEA come Whitelines, the notebooks from Sweden. We look to Germany for our pen nibs and Italy for both pens and some leather. And like Marco Polo, we look farther East for additional craftsmanship.
Silk Road, Levenger-style. Our Thai Pad is handmade in Thailand from silk. From artisans in India come the India Cloud Kantha Book Pillow. From Korea comes leather; Malaysia, paper; Japan, the resin for our Kyoto pen. And In Taiwan and mainland China we work with artisans, entrepreneurs and factories to produce a number of our paper and leather products, as well as deskware.
If Levenger had a manufacturing map app, you’d find us—well, all over the map. But only where there are people with a like-minded passion for quality. That makes it a small world after all.
And now to you, dear reader: have you bought something recently based on where it was made? I’d love to hear. Just click on the Comments link below with your submission. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).