Book Smart: Honor company boasts nationwide reach with compressed tees
You could say Jack Gyr has written the book on cross-marketing.
His cleverly packaged, tightly folded t-shirts emblazoned with logos and/or specifically crafted messages look like books … but are anything but.
From his location next to the Cherry Bowl Drive-In just west of Honor, Gyr provides the book shirts and other marketing and promotional tools not only for colleges, but for associations, healthcare corporations, even breweries and wineries.
The twin businesses of BookWear (compressed t-shirt books) and Field Crafts (all other logo-based promotional items) have called the unprepossessing building home since 2007, but Gyr has worked in the promotional and advertising business for 43 years.
Creating t-shirts and promotional items wasn’t his original focus. He studied photography and graphic design in college and then did some filmmaking.
While he contemplated exactly what he wanted to do for a career, he used his darkroom equipment and skills to start screen printing, going to art fairs to offer his wares. He did a leaf pattern (which he still uses today) on some canvas bags and totes, which morphed into t-shirts.
“Anytime someone hears you’re a screen printer, people ask, ‘Can you do t-shirts?’” he said.
Gyr moved north from Ann Arbor in 1977. His wife’s family had a summer camp and they winterized one of the outbuildings to live in, putting a studio upstairs.
Over the years he became acquainted with members of the arts scene, eventually working with Traverse City artist/musician Glenn Wolff; Terri Haugen, a Frankfort-based batik artist; and Kristin Hurlin, an illustrator from Glen Arbor, among others.
“I loved working with them and other artists,” Gyr said.
It was when a friend in sales told him about seeing a shirt folded to look like a thick postcard that Gyr began experimenting with compressing them.
“He called and said, ‘If you do that, I’ll sell thousands.’ I borrowed a friend’s press and had a machine shop make some molds.”
Gyr was off and running. By 1994, the company was up to 23 employees. As he refined the process and technology improved, BookWear continued to grow, from 10 shows in 2002 to 25 in 2007 – when the Great Recession hit.
“The recession greatly affected BookWear. Colleges were on a budget. BookWear was 80% of annual sales at that time,” said Gyr, estimating pre-recession sales at $1,250,000. “That was a good gig.”
But with the recession, colleges pulled back. As an example, Gyr pointed to the college shows at which the company would typically exhibit.
“The show in Chicago had 1,500 attendees in 2008. In 2009 there were 750,” he said. For six years, from 2008 to 2014, the company bled sales.
But while the shows have dwindled since the recession, he had a fallback position, focusing on logo sales via Field Crafts.
“That appeared to be a really good direction,” said Gyr.
At least until the pandemic hit.
“Now it’s tough times,” he said. “A lot of promo products are going to web-based marketing.”
Today he has six full-time employees plus himself, along with some part-time sales reps – and he is looking for more. BookWear and Field Crafts offer a host of products, from logowear for Stormcloud Brewing and Art’s Tavern to a North Carolina law school, plus flags, pillowcases, sunglasses, mugs and other items.
The company has received two patents for its processes: One in 2001 and a second in 2004. Its facility at 9930 Honor Highway is about a quarter offices and showroom, with the rest serving as a production and shipping facility. The production side includes a 50-ton compressor.
Technology improvements have allowed for an easier flow from concept to completion.
“The production software is huge. It’s so interconnected. It’s a dream. It will look up the shirt, where it’s at, and automatically load the price. That’s a huge advance,” said Gyr, making it much easier to actually show a finished product to customers.
The twofold approach is helping. Gyr believes the custom printing side at Field Crafts will continue to be strong. Meanwhile, of all things, the pandemic is helping to buoy BookWear. Gyr received an order from Pfizer pharmaceuticals: a BookWear tee emblazoned with the message “Thank You, Science Will Win” for the Pfizer team.
Colleges are also once again turning to BookWear. Gyr said with so many campuses closing, the universities are using BookWear products in conjunction with the company’s mailing service to reach out to prospective students.
“We have new orders coming up for University of Southern California and Texas Southern University,” he said. “We’ve done 7,000 ‘books’ a year for USC for 16 years in a row. We did 2,700 of our little books for Montclair State University.”
Gyr said the shutdown of businesses in the early days of the pandemic left him without business for a while. As other businesses reopened, he found that local establishments were providing a lifeline.
“I think the good old northern Michigan and American spirit came out,” he said. “(Co-owner Rick Schmitt) at Stormcloud went through a lot of shirts.”
In addition to Stormcloud, Gyr and his team are producing products for St. Ambrose Cellars, Art’s Tavern, Bel Lago Vineyards and Winery, and Northern Latitudes Distillery.
“The local market is very good. I do a lot for Rare Bird and just got a new order from Five Shores,” he said. “That place has been heroic in terms of opening up (during the pandemic).”
At this point, Gyr estimated that about two-thirds of sales are through Field Crafts and the other third from BookWear.
“I think the business will be strong,” he said. “We have a good product and a good crew. My challenge is to market to colleges, do corporate campaigns.”