Two childhood friends created a t-shirt company to promote reading. Four years later, they're in 700 stores and have donated 1 million books.
Everyone has a list of books they’re embarrassed to have never read. But instead of finally reading that hefty novel—whether it’s Middlemarch, War and Peace or Infinite Jest—you could just buy the t-shirt.
It started that way for the writer Joe Hill, whose novel, Horns, has been made into a movie that premieres today.
“I felt really guilty about the fact that I was 40 and still hadn’t read Moby-Dick, and make my living in American letters,” Hill says. “And I saw this beautiful Moby-Dick shirt [made by Out of Print] and thought it would help me get stoked to read the book, and that was the beginning of a real fixation with the company.”
Hill estimates he now owns 30 of their shirts. Among his collection: 1984; Fahrenheit 451; and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
That’s how Brooklyn-based apparel company Out of Print started: by putting famous, recognizable book covers on t-shirts. But since its founding in 2010, the company has expanded into all kinds of literary merchandise, from tote bags to iPhone cases to socks to baby onesies. And it has done so with the requisite charitable element, by donating one book to the charity Books for Africa for every product it sells – 1 million books donated to date.
LeBlanc and his co-founder Todd Lawton were childhood friends who met in second grade in Portland, Ore. LeBlanc moved away in seventh grade, and the two didn’t meet again until 2004, when both were in New York. In 2010, they decided to create a literary t-shirt label.
“The passion for books is huge,” says Lawton. “And there really wasn’t anything out there that allowed people to express this passion the way we thought they should. If you look at people who love a band, they can go to the concert and come home with the shirt. So we thought a similar thing could be done with readers.”
LeBlanc brought the finance chops—he had worked as a consultant at McKinsey, spent a couple of years in Silicon Valley, then went to GE Capital, and finally spent five years working at the hedge fund Greenlight Capital. Lawton brought apparel experience from working for four years as a brand manager at Nike. Together, the pair found a factory in Brooklyn to do all the screen printing and shipping. The tees are manufactured mostly in Central America, though the tote bags, children’s tees and other items are all made in the U.S.
The company launched in January 2010, the day after famed author J.D. Salinger died, and the day after the first iPad was announced. “A lot was happening in the world of publishing and the way people were consuming books,” Lawton says.
Indeed, the rise of the e-reader has, in its way, created opportunity for Out of Print. Peter Mendelsund, the celebrated book designer and author of the new book What We See When We Read, suggests part of the reason people buy the company’s shirts is to show off what they’ve read. Thanks to the tablet, gone are the days of showing off the book you’re reading at a cafe or on the train.
“Books used to telegraph what kind of person you are,” Mendelsund says, “and now everyone is on their e-reader, so you can’t see anything. So there’s this kind of pride and identity [to Out of Print’s products]. We buy things partially to identify who we are.”
Mendelsund says he was always getting requests from people to put his designs on merchandise, especially his re-imagined Franz Kafka covers, but it never happened. Then he discovered Out of Print, partnered with them, and they made it happen.
“Their reach is really far,” he says. “Someone sent me some photos of bags with my designs on them in Paris, which is crazy.”
Authors and artists like Hill and Mendelsund have been key to Out of Print’s growth—along with celebrities. The actress Kristen Bell, of Veronica Mars fame, loves the shirts, as does her husband Dax Shepard. Bell, who is an investor in snack-bar seller This Bar Saves Lives, orchestrated a partnership with Out of Print to distribute a book and a bar to people in need.
“I am a believer that the future of business will be conscious companies that give back,” she tells Fortune. “Literacy is of course a wonderful cause and for me, I will always choose an item with a give over an item without.”
Actors including Chris O’Dowd, Josh Brolin, Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe, and James Franco have all worn Out of Print shirts either in public or on the screen, helping to raise the company’s visibility. Even LeBlanc’s former boss at Greenlight Capital, financial whiz David Einhorn, is a fan.
“It’s been fun to watch Jeff transform from analyst to entrepreneur,” Einhorn says. “I always sensed he would make his mark off Wall Street.”
But it was getting into brick-and-mortar retail right away that the co-founders say was crucial. Their first retail account was Newbury Comics, and it grew from there. Out of Print products are now in 700 retailers across 80 countries, including Urban Outfitters and J. Crew. But getting attention online, from blogs like Cool Hunting, Thrillist, and Urban Daddy, also helped push the shirts early on.
And, unsurprisingly, independent bookstores have been a boon and loyal friend to Out of Print. Allison Hill, president of Vroman’s Bookstore in Los Angeles, says Out of Print merchandise is one of her top-ten sellers every year for gift items.
“They obviously recognized a need that could be met in the marketplace, but then they took it to such a different level,” she says. “I’s not just about books, it’s about great design, and about this nostalgic feeling we all have about books, and about social entrepreneurship, too.”
It’s not as though the duo hasn’t had their startup speed bumps, of course. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, it was just before the holiday season of their pivotal third year in business. The Brooklyn factory got hit hard by the storm, and fully flooded, losing power for weeks.
“It threw everything off for a bit,” recalls Lawton. “But then, being there and seeing the product get produced, and helping with my own hands, seeing an entire factory dedicated to fulfilling our orders was a moment where I said, ‘Wow, this is really big.'”
The product line grew naturally. On their Facebook page, fans suggest ideas for covers to put on products, and not just on t-shirts, but on all range of accoutrements. Next up: going digital. “Our business is all about starting conversations around books, and there are other ways to do that outside of just physical products,” says LeBlanc. “We are hoping to do something by next year of a more digital nature.”
For a tiny Brooklyn t-shirt label with just north of $5 million in annual sales, Out of Print has some big accounts. It just shipped a large order to the Virgin Megastore chain in the Middle East, and it has its shirts in many Barnes & Noble college campus bookstores. Out of Print is self-funded, but its Brooklyn manufacturer, Apsco Enterprises, has a small stake in the company.
Those 1 million donated books have landed in 22 different countries in Africa; Lawton and LeBlanc now have 10 full-time employees; and new designs get made every month. Those in publishing are pumped.
“In publishing, as an industry, we need to find other incomes sources, no matter how small,” says Mendelsund. “We’re really great at what we do, which is publishing books, but not very good at much else. Out of Print is really good at it.”