In The Studio With [reads]: On Literature & Lifelong Learning

Emma Stevenson and Rachael Yaeger’s friendship started in the most prophetic way possible—over a book. On an upstate Airbnb trip that both women spontaneously joined, it was a bit like love at first sight, thanks to Gloria Steinem and her new novel, Life on the Road. The rest, as they say, was history.

“I woke up that morning and Rachael was sitting reading the same book that I was reading,” Stevenson recounts. “Outside, in the winter time, wrapped with a blanket. I was like ‘Who is this person?’”

They became fast friends. It wasn’t until later, though, that their love of literature morphed into [reads], their now business which serves as a monthly book subscription slash book lovers community for both far-off digital and New York-based local subscribers alike. [reads] was born out of a pure love of learning (literally, their mission statement is “learn forever”), and no pair exemplifies this mantra more than Stevenson and Yaeger. We sat down with the duo in the [reads] Canal Street studio in the heart of Chinatown to talk more about lifelong learning, expanding your perspective, and why reading is a gift everyone should be able to enjoy.

I love that you guys met through a book and now you do this. It’s such a lovely story.

Stevenson: Yeah, I mean [reads] first started when we went to Marfa on this yoga retreat with our friend Jill. We were at Donald Judd’s library and we were like, “We need everything in here, what can we do around books?” We wanted to touch everything and I was like, “Don’t touch. You are not allowed to touch”… everything was like left exactly like when he died. His pens, everything. We just wanted to go through all the books.

Yaeger: It was funny, it was a Sky Ting yoga retreat and the founder was like “You both really love books, huh.” Everyone else was like, “Okay, cool, it’s a library, let’s leave,” and we were just trying to take pictures and be in there as long as possible. They have a really cool bookstore in town that we both nerded out a lot over.

I’ve been there, yeah!

It was really good. We were just candidly talking a lot about why we gravitate towards certain books. How did they curate this bookstore? How do people find out about books? If we did something in the book space, what would it be? So, we had like months of conversations which was really fun.

And then how did you kind of land on a curated delivery service?

Yaeger: Well, we actually had found Karma Bookstore on Orchard street was coming up for rent, and they’re across from our friends Coming Soon, so we were like, “Oh my gosh, this is a dream space.” They have a bookstore built out already, they have a center, kind of events space, and they had a back studio office space. We were like, “This is incredible, this is what we’ll do.” And then we were like, but, “Okay, this rent is not attainable, this is kind of crazy.”

Stevenson: It was like $15,000 a month. We were like, “Hmm, no.” [Laughs] It’s still for rent. I just walked past it the other day.

We worked a lot on what is the magic of [reads], and more than just a book delivery service, what are we solving for people?

Yaeger: Yep! We both have a digital background, so Emma was actually like, “What if we did something different with books online?” It’s like a tangible reading experience, and we are really people people so we love events and meeting different kinds of people, so to birth a digital business was kind of interesting. But it was also like if you use your network and everything you’ve got to try to launch a business online, that’ll be way more cost effective than this huge physical space. We also were like, “If we have a direct to consumer online business, we don’t necessarily need to have all of this crazy inventory to start.” From that yoga retreat and conceptualizing, we did take a year. We worked a lot on what is the magic of [reads], and more than just a book delivery service, what are we solving for people? How can we mean something? So, we talk a lot about discovery and getting people to read outside of their comfort zones. Like, if you go to buy a book in a bookstore or on Amazon, you’ll probably end up with the same thing that you normally would, but if you sign up for [reads], it’s a new author you haven’t heard of, something that’s pre-released or really hard to find, or a limited edition, or it’s just something that because you didn’t pick it, you wouldn’t normally have access to. So that’s been really fun. We are on our sixth month right now.

Naming and coming up with [reads] was really easy. We liked that yellow, closed captioning vibe. So, we named and LLC-ed and started our Instagram account in a day, like got the URL. Things that brands tend to take so long to do, we were very quickly aligned. I think building [reads] as a brand first is really smart because it allows us to think “Sky is the limit” for the future. We’re not like, “We have this product we can never change,” we’re more like, “What if we did libraries one day? What if we had a research lab?” etcetera. I think [reads] will be around for a really long time. And then we came up with the tagline “Learn forever” because that was the one thing we could agree on is—well we agree on a lot of stuff—but we knew definitely that we would wanna promote forever learners, and that’s why people have to continue reading. So we launched the version one of the website like end of December.

Of 2017?

Yaeger: Yeah.

Cool. So for somebody reading this article who is not familiar with [reads], how does it work?

Stevenson: So, we work with a different curator each month. So it’s either Rachael and I curating, or we partner with different people. It’s kind of like we want to outsource their library to people. It’s like building a collective library. So we worked with Jean Jullien, who is an illustrator. We worked with Molly Young and Joana Avillez.

I love Molly Young, she’s awesome.

Stevenson: Yeah! So that was a really fun month. We usually work with people who have released a book to time in with that or that have worked on some sort of fun project. So, we always include their book as one of the two books of the month. It’s usually two books, sometimes it’s three. We try and make each box really special, so it’s more than just two books in a box. I think that was our biggest struggle, cause people would be like, “Cool, I’ll just get it on Amazon.” And it’s like no, [reads] is an experience. You’re not just getting two books in a box, you’re getting access to a community, you’re getting curated taste, you’re getting really thoughtful packaging. We make these cards each month that go with the books which are really thoughtful and we sit down and we are like, “Why did we pick this curator?” and then we ask them to write a little bit about why they picked the book, so someone who is kind of cool and never read this kind of book before can get out of it. What was the process of either writing the book, or why is this book important?

Yaeger: Yeah, we’ve been trying to work because if you go to, and you’re like, “Let me try this,” or gift a box, so you can just order one [reads] box, but I think people will hopefully want to sign up to read [reads] every month because they don’t want to miss out. So I think people will probably build their own personal libraries or their studio libraries. We also put library cards in all the books so you can pass books to a friend, which is how Emma and I started. We share a lot of book so we really loved that concept.

I love the zine in the most recent box, too.

Yaeger: People were really, really excited about that. I think that’s a prime example of [reads], because people got a zine that they didn’t expect, there are writers that are up-and-coming, and then two books that you haven’t heard of. So, usually one half of the [reads] box is skewed towards more visual and then the other half is a narrative, digestible read. Something that we work really hard on is picking books that aren’t overwhelming for people, because we don’t want people to feel like their [reads] are stacking up and they can’t keep up, so we will always work to give people something that you can chew through in a couple of weekends so it’s not a huge overwhelming novel.

Stevenson: The visual ones are like … I don’t know if we have any more, but we did a big Joseph Alvaraz one, and then we did a little Werner Herzog novel, and Rachael’s boyfriend read it in like a weekend and we were like, “Okay, if he can read it…!” [Laughs]

Yaeger: He reads like one book a year. He was so excited! He was feeling really proud of himself and I was like, “This this how people should feel!” I actually used the things that were in my [reads] box and I finished them. It was cool, yesterday we called a subscriber that lives in Austin, Texas just to be like, “Why did you sign up for [reads]? How did you feel when you opened [reads]? What’s your favorite thing about it? What can we do better?” And she was like, “[reads] feels like your friend has sent you a gift.” So that’s great, because it is a surprise every month, and it’s just something she’s really looking forward to. I think she was happy to be one of the first subscribers because she’s seen us curate now for a little while and she’s still excited, which is great. And then we were like, “What can we do better?” And she was like, “More [reads] swag!” So I think that’s a good sign.

Stevenson: At the end of the day we just try to make sure are we are really in love with what’s going in the box, and I think that translates really well.

And the events you guys are doing, are those specifically correlated with the boxes? How does everything flow together?

Yaeger: Well, we had started with launching the website because launching a website takes a long time. We had the Instagram up, and then we wanted to just start talking about [reads] and crystalizing our vision and getting the word out and building a community. So we did an event with Camilla Engstrom, The Book of Dicks

Love her work.

Yaeger: Yeah! So we did this event where everyone got a [reads] stack including her book, so we were doing [reads] without our site being up. So you got a curated package and then you got a live Q&A with us interviewing Camilla, and then she signed the books. Then we did the same thing with our friend Ana Kras, she had just launched the Ikebana book. It was funny because Camila’s quite shy and then Ana’s a huge talker, so both events were very different but…

Stevenson: We also had Sky Ting yoga, so we had meditation with the girls from Sky Ting, and then the Q&A on the book.

Yaeger: Yeah, and then we Durga Chew-Bose, who wrote Too Much and Not the Mood, and so we did a literary dinner with her, which was really fun! I think that’s meaningful because I never would have read that book if it wasn’t for Emma. She reads poetry, essays, a bunch of different things at one time. She’s very open-minded and I’m like, “Okay I’m finishing this piece of fiction, I’m really excited about this one book, I can’t wait to get it done.” So that was really fun, we also shared the book so we both had underlines and notes in the margins. The literary dinner was cool because we had someone do an open reading, our friend Adam Beale, and that event was also special because it was equally men and women; [reads] is totally universal. We have a kids box, we have an adult box, men and women are subscribers of [reads]. I think that’s really important—just because we are women, it doesn’t skew feminine. So that was really fun.

It was equally men and women; [reads] is totally universal.

Stevenson: Yeah, I think when we first started [reads], our core value was we want to exist offline as much as we are an online book subscription. We want to be in people’s faces. We put our phone numbers on the site first thing and say text us if you want to grab coffee or are confused about [reads] and want to learn more, or you just want to meet us.

Yaeger: A lot of friends will text, or friends of friends, saying they just finished a book and want to know what to read next, so I think opening up that conversation has been really fun.

Stevenson: We add everyone to our slack channel for our [reads] subscribers. So they’re all a part of this digital community. We went to the book launch at Mas books or we’ll go to a show at the Whitney based on one of the books and we are always like, “Does anyone else want to come?”

Yaeger: Yeah, I think people have love/hate relationships with book clubs. People have been like, “Oh, I was in a book club but I couldn’t keep up so I dropped out,” or, “I don’t like my book club because nobody actually talks about the book,” or, “I don’t like my book club because I can’t commit,” so we emphasize we are not a rigid book club. If you sign up for a [reads], you’re a subscriber or a member, is what we say, you’re a member of our [reads] family, but it doesn’t mean you have to have read the book. You get so much more by signing up because then you’re part of our slack channel or you find out about events. The zine was something we only sent to members, so hopefully people will find the value and stick with it.

Stevenson: It was good because when we talked to Kassie yesterday, she was like, “I signed up originally just to try it out and then I was just in love with it, and every month when I was like, ‘Oh, I could cancel, but I kept seeing your Instagram and being like, ‘Oh, but I want the next curator box.’” She was like, “Every month you kept the momentum, and it’s so exciting to receive it.” I think that was really interesting to hear. We’ve been trying to really build out the member platform. We are always asking ourselves, “What does it mean to be a subscriber? What is the point of being a subscriber? What is the benefit?”

So what would you say is at the heart of [reads]? Why books over anything else you could sent people and share?

Yaeger: Oh my gosh. Well, books are huge! We’ve gotten super existential about books because books are tied to learning and tied to being an evolved human, and knowledge as power and currency, and we talked about why we were doing kids [reads] for a while. If kids read, they’re more confident human beings, they can have conversations, they’re more aware, they’re sometimes more outgoing, open-minded or tolerant. They have so many different perspectives and they can get along better with others. Same with adults. If you’re a reader, and you read End of Eddy, which is largely about bullying, all of the sudden you might just have this really empathetic week. Your whole perspective can change really easily just by reading. All of the sudden you have this bank of stories and experiences, so I think other than just the books themselves, the art of reading just makes you a better human being. Something that’s really corny which is why we don’t say it, but we want to create a better world and we think reading is a huge part of that. A lot of people are like, “I don’t have time to read, I’ll just listen to a podcast.” A This American Life episode can affect you just as much as a book—it’s that same feeling—but giving yourself the gift of reading… if you actually carve out time. Reading is also part of self care and giving yourself that gift of reading. But yeah, discovery and then learning forever. You have to continue reading and you have to keep building your knowledge base, and keep sharing and growing.

Stevenson: I think also because before [reads] I was teaching, I’ve watched kids absolutely despise reading because they’ve been given books they have to read, or they’re part of a curriculum where they’ve been told they’re in reading level two so they don’t read anything higher than a certain level. It puts them in a box, so for kids it’s really awesome cause we’re trying to encourage them to read whatever. If you’re reading a comic book, or a magazine, whatever you’re reading, you’re learning something, and be curious about it. For our kids, we’re like, “Be curious, ask questions.” We put a little make-your-own-book kit in the box, and we give them prompts. It’s like my bedroom looks like this… a secret thing about my family is this… we want them to kind of write their own stories.

Yaeger: For adults, it’s like, we live in such a divided culture right now that it’s so polarizing and I think [reads] kind of comes in as this little connector… they’re books, but they also create empathy and create shared perspective and enlarge your own perspective. In all of the books, we were really thoughtful about the way we curate them in a way that’s like… we have a lot of guy subscribers and in the first months we gave them Odd Woman in the City and we wrote in the note, “If you’re a guy, you’re probably looking at this thinking, ‘What the hell did you just give me?’ but this is a story about humility, this is not a feminist story. This is about interactions with people and getting off your phone and paying attention to when you’re walking somewhere.” We love technology and we are not haters of it, it’s just that we also want to encourage people to live offline and read books, get new perspectives, talk about things with people, have an open mind, shared empathy. I think that’s huge for [reads].

Stay tuned to Milk for more studio visits.

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