~Todd Lawton, Out of Print
The year was 1984. Second graders Todd Lawton and Jeff LeBlanc met for the first time and became fast friends, sharing many common interests, but most particularly a love for books. Fast-forward to 2010, and the long-time friends took their love of books to the next level by starting Out of Print Clothing, a company based on a project encouraging people to talk about books.
Today, Out of Print, located in the heart of New York, works closely with authors, publishers and artists for their ever-expanding collection, which now includes iPhone cases, totes, greeting cards, and shirts for the entire family. The Out of Print tees cover an impressive bookshelf, featuring beloved literary works—The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Fahrenheit 451, Invisible Man and Moby Dick. And with celebs like Margaret Cho and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea sporting their shirts, the staff is excited to see where they’ll show up next.
I spent some time recently at the Out of Print office and must admit I feel honored to be the first writer to do an in-house interview, bragging rights for the year. Todd and I sat down to chat about the company’s start, the tedious creation process, and of course, their fabulous fans. We all have a story to tell, and here Out of Print shares their story of keeping the physical reading experience alive with books, art, passion, and giving back.
Life of Riley: How did you and Jeff become business partners and decide on this specific business?
Lawton: We met in second grade, hence the 1984 on the logo. The business incubation stage took a little longer than most companies. We’ve always had a good interest in books. We’ve always wanted to start a business. And we’ve always wanted to use that business to do good. We think we’re doing good through raising awareness about books. Getting people talking.
LOR: What’s the Out of Print mission?
Lawton: We started out as a project to get people talking about books. It was when things were changing so fast with the way people were reading. The experience of reading was going from being this paper tactile kind of experience where you had the smell of the book and these great covers to a digital format, which has its own benefits like increasing the ease of reading.
We started thinking, what would the world be like without physical books. And how would we want to keep those pieces of the physical reading experience alive. Our focus landed on the great book art. It’s something in the digital age that has a much different meaning. When you look at a cover that’s been on the shelves for decades communicating what that book’s about compared to a thumbnail image on a website, the impact originally intended becomes lost.
We thought about how to make a statement with books. How do we celebrate great books and great book art? We thought that the ideal conversation starter would be a line of graphic tees that give a certain fashion to being bookish. We started to reach out to different publishers, artists and authors and found out a lot of people were interested in supporting this mission.
LOR: In a short amount of time, you’ve built quite a collection.
Lawton: When I look at the collection I’m really blown away by the canon that’s represented.
LOR: What’s the process of selecting the next book and the cover art?
Lawton: It’s funny, because we’re actually going through that right now. It is a process. When we first started out, it was just a guess, because we didn’t have feedback from anyone. Now we receive requests from our customers. We keep a list, and it’s massive at this point. We use that list like a guide.
We can’t just say, oh that’s a great book we should put that on a shirt. We have to go though the research and rights process. As many books as we’d love to have on our shirts, there are only so many that we can do. That’s the most important part of the process.
The other part: we look at the art. Is this cover attractive? Does it say something that’s in with our brand? We have some random covers that struck a chord in us. We thought it was an interesting statement or fashion piece or refreshing to see something you wouldn’t expect out there. It’s something that people react to and want to wear.
LOR: There’s also a really great philanthropic element to Out of Print. Can you talk a little about Books for Africa?
Lawton: This is a great part of the business. We feel it’s helping people who really need it in the communities that value the books. It’s helping them achieve a better life. We did a lot of research. When we came across Books for Africa, we really liked what they were doing. They operated extremely efficient. Their mission is to supply schools and libraries with the books that are needed. They collect those books from partners, publishers with overstock, and schools changing editions. These books are just continuing to have a life beyond their shelf life.
LOR: How does it work?
Lawton: You buy a tee, and we donate a book. 220,000 books and growing—it exceeded our expectations. We want to do more. We’d love at some point to say we’ve helped to donate a million books.
LOR: What stores carry Out of Print?
Lawton: We work with different independent bookstores like Strand Book Store, McNally Jackson, Powell’s, Vroman’s, The Tattered Cover, and college bookstores. We also work with a lot of boutiques. I like the way we have a foot in both worlds, bookstores and fashion boutiques. It’s two different audiences, and they don’t always cross over, but in this case they’re interested in the same thing.
We continue to appeal to stores that are doing things a little different, in a creative way. On the fashion side they’re really attracted to the story, but also the visual nature of the art; it’s stand alone in a lot of cases. If you took the title away, you’d still say wow, that’s really cool. Then when you put the title, the author and the story in it has more meaning.
LOR: Are you only in the U.S.?
Lawton: We’re starting to show up in different countries. We’re in some stores in Japan. We work in the UK. We hopefully are going to be in France soon. Even countries that don’t read in English are picking up these shirts . . . I guess they’re titles that mean a lot to them as well.
LOR: What are your thoughts on the constant changes in the book world?
Lawton: I think we can continue to be that nostalgia element for some readers out there. I personally like the paper reading experience. I hope it doesn’t leave us entirely.
LOR: I really love the creativity of asking your fans, What’s Your Story? It’s a great way to engage.
Lawton: It wasn’t our idea. It was our fans’ idea. They just started sending in pictures. From there we asked them to send in photos of them wearing the shirts, like Fahrenheit. They responded, staging photo shoots and all. It’s very cool to see how much this community wants to share their love of books. And how we’re a small piece in helping them do that.