Features

Cover up with alums’ quirky book jackets

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Don’t judge a book by its cover — and don’t judge a Brown grad just by his day job.

Last summer, corporate lawyer Jeremy Schwartz ’02 co-founded Book City Jackets, for him an unexpected foray into the world of literature and the arts. The company’s book jackets, designed by co-founder Emma Gaines-Ross ’04, save readers from embarrassment by cloaking their favorite guilty pleasures in brown paper adorned by little more than simple designs.

While Schwartz handles the nuts and bolts of running the small business, Gaines-Ross is the creative partner who helps translate Schwartz’s artistic vision into tangible paper covers, relying on her experience in graphic design to function as Book City Jackets’ “art department,” Schwartz said.

The most common reaction Schwartz hears is relief: “Oh, thank God. I’m so embarrassed when I read ‘Twilight’ on the subway.”

Indeed, it was commuting that gave Schwartz his inspiration, which came almost two years ago. During his daily rides on New York City’s subways, Schwartz always noticed the books people were reading, which led him to think about the public nature of reading.

“Part of being on the subway in New York is being with other people,” Schwartz said, and that includes “seeing the books they’re reading.”

Gaines-Ross agreed that people often make assumptions about others based on the books they’re reading.

Not so with a book jacket “divorcing the surface from the content of the book,” said Gaines-Ross, who concentrated in art-semiotics at Brown.

“Book covers were a good idea in junior high school and they’re a good idea now,” advertises the Brooklyn-based company’s Web site.

The covers are made with “recycled kraft paper,” according to the site, recalling the brown paper bags used to adorn middle-school textbooks. Gaines-Ross designed the original set, whose covers feature the words “fiction,” “non-fiction” and “favorite” in simple typefaces.

The jackets are sold in sets of three. “I thought that people like sets,” Schwartz said. “There’s something about a set that makes something more special than a piece of paper by itself.”

Though the small start-up sells its products through its Web site, the jackets are also sold at stores across the U.S.

And its product line is diversifying. Last month, Book City Jackets launched “artist editions” featuring printed drawings from young artists, including RISD grad Morgan Blair.

Its also reaching a new — and familiar — market. Though some Brown students may not feel the need to cover up their love for teen vampire novels, Book City Jackets’ products have arrived on College Hill. The first shipment hit the Brown Bookstore two weeks ago.

Mania Dardeen, an assistant buyer for the bookstore who decided to order Book City Jackets’ covers, said supporting alumni products is important. “They’re our biggest customers,” she said.

But so far sales of the jackets have been dragging, according to Dardeen, perhaps because of students like Mark Morales ’10. “I’m impressed by how they look,” said Morales, “but I haven’t had to cover a book since eighth grade.”

Creating a market for the book covers has been difficult, Schwartz acknowledged. The duo expected to cater to book lovers, Gaines-Ross said, but the covers have made the biggest waves among artists and designers.

By his own admission, founding the company has been a learning experience for Schwartz, who said launching a start-up has informed his work as a lawyer and helped him understand small business’ struggles, especially in the current economic climate.

Despite its challenges, the company is gearing up to increase production, put out more artist editions and partner with writers or literary magazines. There is even a holiday set planned, which Schwartz promises will be a “cool — not trite — take on the winter season.”

Not that Schwartz is quitting his day job yet. “Currently, I love being a lawyer,” said Schwartz.

“The dream scenario is that one day I’ll have to make a decision,” he said. “Do you want to be a book-cover baron or a corporate lawyer? I see both of those as viable, plausible outcomes.”