The Warby Parker book club has gone through multiple iterations in the last four years. What began as a few people talking about their current reads has evolved into multiple department-specific book clubs and a company-wide speaker series.
"It happened very organically," Warby Parker cofounder Neil Blumenthal says. In the summer of 2010, he and some of the early employees at the eyeglass retailer started exchanging books. Soon enough, they had all read each others' books and decided it would be nice to talk about them. They would swivel their desk chairs into the office showroom and have informal discussions.
That soon transformed into a weekly book club at the company-wide meeting. Each week someone would read a book and present it to the 20 or so other employees with key findings. "The hope was that if it was fiction that it would spur creativity and that if it was nonfiction there would be inherent lessons from other industries and walks of life that allow us to be better at designing eyewear," Blumenthal told Fast Company. One of the first books the group read was The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, which inspired Warby to strive for an exceptional level of customer service.
Today, among Warby's 300 employees, there are 11 mini book clubs, which meet at least once a month. Now, the company-wide book club has turned into a speaker series. At least once a month Warby brings in people like Lucky magazine's Eva Chen and Danny Meyer, who talked about his book Setting the Table.
Although the company-wide book club no longer exists, at the team meeting, Blumenthal or another executive will suggest a book for the smaller sessions (although the clubs can pick whatever they want to read). This month, the recommended read is Wharton professor Adam Grant's book Give and Take. "His whole message is the way to success and happiness is by giving, as opposed to taking," explained Blumenthal. "So the best thing that you can do for your career, but also for your personal satisfaction, is to ask people: 'How can I help?'"
That ethos clearly jibes with Warby Parker's mission, which not only makes money selling fashionable eyewear, but also distributes glasses to those in need through its buy one, give one program. But sometimes the benefits of the book club are more subtle. "From a team dynamic standpoint, it helps build stronger working relationships," explained Blumenthal. "It helps build trust when you create what is a safe environment to share ideas, or to debate ideas."
Literary Rx: Pale Fire
Welcome to Jeopardy—the literary edition.
This novel contains a 999-line poem, an exiled king, an assassin, and one reference to Sherlock Holmes.
What is: Pale Fire
Given the success of the clubs in-house, Warby chose to extend its book clubs to the public. The retailer has partnered with The Believer magazine, hosting a reading from each new issue. The retail stores also sell a selection of titles, handpicked from 14 independent publishers that Warby works with, including McSweeney's and PowerHouse Books. Some of the events come straight from the employee book clubs. For example, next week Warby will host an event around Adelle Waldman's The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., one of the books the creative team read.
Reading fits squarely with Warby Parker's brand. Before the recent glasses comeback, eyewear was associated with book-loving dorks. From its beginnings, Warby Parker has taken advantage of that connection, finding inspiration from literature and using it as the connective thread in its marketing. The company name, for example, came from two Jack Kerouac characters. "We've always been inspired by the master wordsmith and pop culture icon, Mr. Jack Kerouac. Two of his earliest characters, recently uncovered in his personal journals, bore the names Zagg Parker and Warby Pepper," the Warby website explains.
The book club helps keep that tradition alive. "At Warby Parker, we're constantly looking to find new ways to both challenge and inspire our employees," said Blumenthal. "One of the most obvious, but often overlooked, ways is simply to pick up a book and read."