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Updated: April 11, 2012 8:02AM



Chealon Shears’ passion for cooking finds its delectable fulfillment in her detailed notekeeping, and not just with any old paper.

Shears, a part-time personal chef who gives cooking lessons and hosts occasional parties at her North Side home, juggles her iPhone with what’s called the Levenger “Circa” system of note taking to quickly find recipes, meal plans, to-do lists and even sketches of dishes for the evening.

The tools show how young professionals easily switch from digital to analog and how Levenger, the Delray Beach, Fla.-based paper-goods maker with a shop at Macy’s on State Street, combines what its executives call “slow” technology with “fast” technology. There’s even a session today at the South by Southwest interactive festival in Austin, Texas, about how printed material is evolving in the digital age.

Indeed, Levenger stays profitable and innovative as a sea-change swallows people’s writing and note-taking habits.

“I have put certain notes and key words on my iPhone so I can keep them with me while I’m cooking or teaching,” said Shears, 40, a senior development manager at The Habitat Co., a property development and management firm.

Shears whips out her paper-based tools to burrow into her meal-preparation details: Circa discs, a project planner, a “Things To Do” list, a junior-sized Circa master folio, annotated ruled and full-page grid paper and a pocket briefcase with 3-by-5-inch cards.

The Circa note-taking method can involve a variety of methods of remembering and organizing one’s notes, depending on the user’s favorite methods of recall. They could include color coding annotations and augmentations, reviewing and annotating notes the day after a meeting and using sticky notes sparingly to write on top of notes that require extra attention.

Shears epitomizes the type of detail-oriented and quality-minded professional who wouldn’t go anywhere without both her iPhone and her Levenger paper products. She earned her undergraduate psychology degree and her MBA and master’s of urban and regional planning degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and later a culinary certificate from Kendall College.

“The Circa system helps me get everything down in detail with pen and paper,” Shears said. “I put the abridged version on my iPhone and use the phone as a quick reference.”

Shears does the same at work.

She started using Levenger’s day planners four years ago and graduated to the Circa organizing system and the Levenger system of keeping sketches, calendars, meeting notes and to-do lists side-by-side. The Levenger system suggests memory-enhancing ways of note-taking such as developing one’s own shorthand and by actively listening rather than trying to record every word.

“I take meeting notes on blank ‘grid’ or ‘ruled’ pages, and depending on the project, I’ll draw an image of a building or a building site,” she said. “I use a catch-all ‘to-do’ list for everything I need to do each day, whether it’s work-related or not.”

Steve Leveen, CEO and co-founder of Levenger with wife Lori Granger Leveen, likens the company’s efforts to stay profitable and relevant these past 25 years to how the bicycle evolved after most Americans no longer had to choose bikes as their main way to get around. Bikes evolved into specialty uses: Spinning for exercise, and trail and mountain biking for recreation.

“Today, bicycles are amazing in terms of their technical and design aesthetics,” he said. “They’ve leveraged technology like carbon fiber, disk brakes and electronic transmissions from the car industry. They continue to delight.”

Levenger, which operates three retail stores nationwide but depends on e-commerce and catalogs for more than 90 percent of its business, is placing more detail on its specialty products that support high tech, including accessories for the iPad and e-readers such as a bamboo iPad holder and an iPad travel pack. Women’s totes and briefcases include “smart” pockets to hold smartphones and other electronic devices. Levenger also lets customers order special Circa notebook and 3-by-5 notecard designs within two days with its “print on demand” feature.

Last year, the 13-year-old Levenger Press started selling its first e-book, “More Words That Make a Difference,” an electronic version of its vocabulary print book.

The transition hasn’t been without pain, especially as customers stopped buying throughout the recession. Levenger has cut 20 percent of its workforce in the past five years, to its current 180, and reined in spending by the same amount.

Phil Baker, a Solana Beach, Calif., technology consultant and author of “From Concept to Consumer: How to Turn Ideas into Money,” said it’s a real challenge to get a high-quality product on the market and keep it there, especially as hundreds of retailers shutter their stores.

“I see Levenger as breaking the mold because their products are well thought out, made of high-quality materials and bring utility and value,” said Baker, who made the folding keyboard for the Palm handheld.

Perhaps the best combination of on- and off-line technology is creating peace of mind.

Leveen takes the advice of Julie Morgenstern, known as ‘the diva of organization’ for her productivity expertise, to spend the first and last hour of each day screenless.

“We are so busy ‘doing,’ we don’t have time to stare out of the window and twiddle our pens and doodle,” Leveen said. “The most fun I have during the day is reviewing my notes in a notebook, annotating them in different colors of ink and thinking.”

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