The Buzz, drawn by Ian L Hayes.
I remember my first TOM BIHN bag. When I was in college, laptops were still bulky, awkward things, but they were necessary for taking notes and writing papers. The Liberal Arts program I was enrolled in assigned a hundred or so pages of reading every night, so books had to jostle with my computer for position in my bag.
At the time, I was using a hemp messenger bag, but it was really just a sack that slung over my shoulder with a tight nylon belt. It had one large pocket to cram everything into, and smaller pocket attached to it that always seemed to lose its contents when the main pocket folded over on itself. There were a couple of pen holders and a wide pocket fit for a cellphone, but they were stitched onto the outside of the same floppy flap of the inner pockets. My pens fell out every time I plopped the bag down, and I eventually stopped using the pen holders entirely.
It had to go.
I took to the Internet to find something that would fit my needs. I wanted a bag that was intentional, that would let me carry my computer and my books, that would have thoughtful organization for things like pens and Moleskine notebooks. In New Mexico, you have to make an effort to stay hydrated, so some kind of water bottle holder would be nice. During the Summer monsoons, heavy rain storms can whip up out of nowhere, making it imperative that the bag be waterproof. I also really like being able to get things out of my bag without having to take it off.
There are some great bags out there. I considered another hemp bag, but they weren't waterproof at all. I found some messenger bags that were waterproof, but had an exterior texture like vinyl as a result. I wanted my bag to be pleasant to the touch. That ruled out a number of other backpacks and messenger bags from a half-dozen other brands. There had to be a bag out there for me. I knew there had to be, something that fit everything on my list and maybe had a couple of surprises for me.
My search came to an end when I found an article reviewing different laptop bags for commuters and airline travelers. The review considered things like comfort, ease of removing laptop for airport security checkpoints, organization, and bulk. I scrolled through a number of backpacks before I found the Buzz.
It look like nothing I had ever seen before. It was a backpack with one shoulder strap. Even though it was only secured on one side, it looked balanced and even. I clicked through to discover that the main compartment had a padded laptop cover sewn in so you could tuck your computer underneath the rest of the contents and remove either without disturbing the other. Tom Bihn only claimed it was water-resistant, but the reviewer said that he left it in the shower for several hours and everything inside stayed dry.
The Buzz had an organizer pocket on the back, but it was integrated into the teardrop exterior of the bag so it doesn't disturb the clean lines. Some might see this as a purely aesthetic decision, but the design allowed the wearer to move through crowds of people without having to worry about snagging or jostling anyone. That's a valuable feature for students, commuters, and travelers. It's not just considered design, it's consideratedesign.
Inside the pocket were pen holders and a wide pocket for a wallet or a notebook, set at an angle. There was enough room in the organizer pocket for a couple of energy bars or a stack of flash cards. It was just the right size to make sure I only packed things I would need. There's no reason to carry something that never gets used. Tucked in the upper corner of the pocket was an O-ring and a keystrap.
The strap that crossed the front of the bag was a thick, padded backpack strap, not at all like the thin nylon webs with sharp edges that graced almost every other messenger bag I had seen. It crossed the chest and ended with a big quick-release buckle on the Buzz's bottom left corner. The utility of the buckle was immediately apparent to me, having spent so much time awkwardly performing the messenger bag crossover. There's just no graceful way to sling a bag over your head!
The front of the strap had a convenient little pocket with a Velcro flap that sat right in the middle of the wearer's chest. It was the perfect size for a smartphone, so I didn't have to fumble around with my pants pockets. The Velcro flap had a cutout to allow headphone cables a way through.
There was a water bottle holster on the right side of the bag that had two compression straps to accommodate bottles of different sizes. TOM BIHN's site also suggested it was the right size for an umbrella. I fitted mine with a 27oz Klean Kanteen. The compression straps were essential for the bag's surprise feature.
When wearing the Buzz, you could swing the whole bag around so that the backpack portion was in front of your midsection and the strap was on your back. Tom designed the angle of the pockets and the organizers inside them so that all of the contents could be accessed without anything falling out. If you were wearing the bag and wanted to get something out of it, you just pulled up on the buckle corner, unzipped the bag, and reached for it. The whole system could be operated one-handed, which was really helpful when I was biking to campus and needed to check if I forgot anything. Even the water bottle was accessible.
Of course, I didn't discover all of these features from one review, but I could tell at first sight that this was the perfect bag for what I needed. Once it arrived, I saw that the stripe along the organizer pocket was reflective, for safety. Lifting the bag over my shoulder, I clipped into the strap and never looked back.
The Buzz is retired now, but my needs from a backpack have changed since college anyway. I gave mine to a good friend who was moving to New York City, and she still uses it daily. Now I have two Synapses, a Small Café Bag, and more organizer pouches than I know what to do with. These bags have taught me to appreciate thoughtful design, minimalist packing, and a spirit of wanderlust. When everything you need fits your knapsack, you're free to go anywhere.
Do you remember your first TOM BIHN bag? What drew you to it? And can anybody send in pictures of their Buzz, or post them in the thread I started in the TOM BIHN Forums? I can't seem to find more than a handful on the Internet.
Ian L Hayes, author at TOMIH, lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.