Bookish subscription boxes are all the rage. Here’s one that started in Utah.

LitJoy Crate started in a Utah garage in 2016, and has grown around the idea of putting ‘a book club in a box.’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kelly Dearth, left, and Alix Lewis Burrows are co-CEOs of LitJoy Crate, a book subscription box service based in Lehi. They were photographed in the lobby of their business, on Wednesday, April 17, 2024.

When Kelly Dearth and Alix Lewis Burrows connected at a blogging conference eight years ago, they hit it off immediately.

“It was a really interesting, almost spiritual, moment where we both felt like we’d known each other forever, but I barely, barely knew her,” Dearth said of the meeting. “But we just talked about books nonstop.”

The two first met in a book club that Dearth, who lives in Highland, founded almost 20 years ago. It still meets monthly.

“My book club was a blog at the time,” she said. People wanted to follow along with the club’s activities, Death said, because “we would pull out all the different references within the book to create menus, powerpoints, giveaways and quizzes” to share online.

Both women say they’ve been big readers and writers since they were young. Lewis Burrows, who also lives in Highland, was creating content at the time for such businesses as Home Depot and Vivint.

As they talked about books — the works of Sarah J. Maas were a particular favorite for both women — Dearth pitched the notion of creating a book subscription box service, monetizing the idea of a “book club in a box.”

They stayed up all night talking — and before the conversation was over, Dearth asked Lewis Burrows to be her business partner, and LitJoy Crate was born.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) LitJoy Crate founders Kelly Dearth, left, and Alix Lewis Burrows at the LitJoy headquarters in Lehi, on Wednesday, April 17, 2024.

Since the women started the business in 2016, initially setting up in Lewis Burrows’ garage, LitJoy Crate has grown into a thriving company that creates custom sub-licensed bookish merchandise, special edition books and more.

The company is part of a growing field of book subscription box services — a facet of publishing that has increased in popularity over the past few years, particularly with women, helping transport readers into the magical worlds they know and love.

Dearth and Lewis Burrows are co-CEOs of LitJoy Crate, based in Lehi. The company employs 41 people, and 39 of them are women, said Robin King, LitJoy Crate’s business coordinator.

King also said that 90% of LitJoy’s customers are women between 18 and 44, “with the bulk between 25 and 34.” The company was listed No. 27 in MountainWest Capital Network’s list of the fastest-growing companies in Utah, and No. 24 on Inc.com’s list of fast-growing companies in the Rocky Mountain region.

The company’s boxes usually stick to the young-adult, adult fiction and fantasy genres, Lewis Burrows said, along with a few science fiction, romance, classics and women’s literature titles.

Among the notable authors and works for which they’ve crafted items and editions are Stephanie Garber’s “Caraval” books, Maas’ “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books, and romance novels by such authors as Ali Hazelwood and Tessa Bailey.

Lewis Burrows said “literature joy” which inspired the startup, is still core to its mission. “LitJoy’s purpose is to cultivate connection and joy through stories,” she said.

From garage to warehouse

When they started the company in 2016, the two CEOs had four kids between them.

The subscription service took three months to start, from licensure to launch. Most of it happened in Lewis Burrows’ house — first in her kitchen, where boxes were stacked to the ceiling, then in her garage.

“The majority of the work that we did was at naptime, or after the kids went to bed,” Lewis Burrows said. “Every now and then, we’d have to get packages out the door in time for USPS pickup, so we’d work late into the night, but then we’d get together the next morning.”

Both CEOs recalled memories of their kids helping them pack boxes, each one given a section to complete.

“We would just participate with them as much as possible and make it fun,” Dearth said. “The kids even helped us pick out our children’s books, things like that.”

From the garage, which everyone at LitJoy had the code to at one point, they graduated to the basement. They soon realized they needed to move into a warehouse space.

“There were times where we were kitting boxes in the garage and then running up and down the stairs to the basement to grab shop orders,” Lewis Burrows said. “[It was] this beautiful and chaotic moment where LitJoy really was just, like, a huge portion of my home.”

That era is full of start-up associated nostalgia. Back then, they couldn’t afford to order specialized boxes for their first specialty crate, so they ordered a rubber stamp and stamped each box themselves, sometimes until the bleak hours of the early morning.

“It started to get to where [the stamp] was missing spots, so then we were taking a Sharpie to make sure that it looked really nice,” Dearth recalled.

Their first magical crate, which they sold less than 100 of, wasn’t part of a subscription. But when they launched their first subscription boxes, they sold to 3,000 customers, King said.

They performed a lot of DIY back then, like the time a publisher sent them free maps for a book, printed on card stock. The pair thought it didn’t look “fantasy enough,” so they took lighters to the edges of each map and burned them. They said they sustained a few blisters in the process, but it made the package more exciting for their customers.

When LitJoy first started, King said, they did three to four different crates for different reading levels, like board books, picture books, middle-grade and young adult — and those had different themes every month. Their speciality, “magical” crates came along later.

Eventually, they decided to cut back. Now, they do a subscription box, To Bee Read, once every quarter, where customers can customize their box from two or three different book choices, and with different levels of merchandise items to pick from.

“We’re the first to do a fully customizable subscription box,” Lewis Burrows said.

As the company grew, so did their ambitions. “Once we had enough budget, we talked publishers into doing special editions, which they had never done for subscription boxes. Or if they had, it was very limited.”

The customized editions are the crown jewel of book boxes everywhere, and what has made the boxes so popular. Lewis Burrows said they told publishers back then they wanted to not only do signed copies, but an original cover design, a reversible dust jacket, tipped-in pages and customized end pages.

“When I look back, eight years ago, subscription boxes were barely budding,” Dearth said. “When I used to talk about what we did for a company, I always had to back up and explain what a subscription [box] was first. Nobody knew what that meant. [Now,] it’s completely changed.”

‘Do the hard thing’

At the LitJoy Crate warehouse in Lehi, the lobby holds an arch made of books, and under it a bookshelf containing many of the special edition books the company has helped create: popular series like “Red Queen” by Victoria Aveyard, as well as such classics as “Pride and Prejudice,” “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre.”

Mindy Widdowson, the warehouse manager, oversees a crew of 10 people who look over shop orders, subscription fulfillment and receiving. “It’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades crew,” Widdowson said. There are a few “pick and pack” tables, where the boxes and orders are assembled “where we fulfill and make all the magic happen,” she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The LitJoy headquarters in Lehi, on Wednesday, April 17, 2024.

Many of LitJoy’s employees are readers, and some were customers and fans first.

Debra Hawkins, the director of product development, filmed an unboxing video of the very first LitJoy crate — the first video from a customer that Dearth ever watched. Hawkins also still owns one of those hand-burnt maps from an early box.

The LitJoy staff collectively share their ideas for products and Hawkins is the main mastermind who makes things happen. With special editions, she helps bring the books to life through design and by finding artists, adding touches that only die-hard fans will understand and appreciate.

Approaching the special editions, Hawkins said, “we always start with the source material.”

The company finds fan artists, Hawkins said, through several channels: There’s an online submission form; they take tips from fans on social media; and LitJoy gets ideas from its Lunacorns Facebook group — which is her favorite.

Hawkins said they keep a growing database of artists to keep up with, even if it takes time for them to contact those artists.

Recently, for example, LitJoy announced a new special edition of Leigh Bardugo’s “King of Scars” and “Rule of Wolves” duology. (LitJoy has previously created special editions for Bardugo’s other duology, “Six of Crows,” and is working on a “Shadow and Bone” trilogy edition — all three series are in the “Grishaverse.”)

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A specialty edition of Leigh Bardugo’s “King of Scars” and “Rule of Wolves” duology is one of the offerings at LitJoy Crate, seen here in the company's Lehi headquarters on Wednesday, April 17, 2024.

“King of Scars” and “Rule of Wolves” revolve heavily around three characters — two of them are Zoya Nazyalensky and Nikolai Lantsov — and fan-favorite artist Kolarp Em specializes in drawing them. Kolarp Em has designed tipped-in pages for the duology.

“When we were working on ‘King of Scars,’ it was absolutely the perfect project to bring her onto,” Hawkins said of the artist. “We always love adding artists to that database, and we especially love getting it from customers who love our products.”

Hawkins said the company likes to push the boundaries of what they can do with special edition design — what she dubs “crazy ideas.”

“I can think of a couple where we’re, like, ‘This book is about ghosts,’ so we want to put the ghosts on a translucent dust jacket and then print the rest of the cover behind it, so the ghosts look like they’re see-through.” Another example she gives is the metal pieces on their “Vampire Academy” covers.

“There’s never this, like, squashing of things because of time, energy or commitment that [it’s] going to take. It’s always like, ‘Well, let’s try it. Let’s do the hard thing,’” Hawkins said.

Kara Hobson, the director of business management, said that attitude is something publishers admire about LitJoy.

“There was a project in particular, and [the publishers] were just really, like, ‘We cannot create the level that LitJoy does, so to do this project, you’re going to have to do a sublicense, because we want what you’re describing to happen and we know that we can deliver,’” she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) at the LitJoy headquarters in Lehi, on Wednesday, April 17, 2024.

Another popular item from LitJoy, Hawkins said, is their collectible keys — which have elaborate designs, and are meant to let readers unlock the magical world to which each key belongs. The keys, she said, are something they are “grateful that customers took a leap of faith with.”

“We weren’t sure that anyone was going to be as excited as we were to have a key to a fictional place,” Hawkins said. “That feeling like you could step into that world and unlock that building, I think, has been really special.”

LitJoy also sells decorative items, such as light boxes and bookshelf alleys, that have the same thinking behind them — to transport readers into a magical world with one look.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) at the LitJoy headquarters in Lehi, on Wednesday, April 17, 2024.

The company also has a podcast, which has featured chats with such authors as Cassandra Clare, Holly Black and Jay Kristoff. Dearth and Lewis Burrows host the podcast, which is coordinated by Brittany Willison, who said, “building community with our viewers is our goal.”

Each author also has a different approach to how they work with LitJoy, Lewis Burrows said. For example, she said, Bardugo was very communicative about such things as colors and symbols, while Kristoff wrote more than 700 annotations for them for “Nevernight.”

What sets LitJoy apart?

Lewis Burrows said she thinks LitJoy works because the company works with their customers so directly.

“Humans just connect so deeply to stories of fiction, because they have such human principles in them. … That’s where they just feel so seen and heard in stories,” she said. “What incentivizes me, in a lot of ways, is LitJoy is always trying to push the envelope in what we produce in the publishing and book world.”

Bobbye Granderson, a LitJoy Crate customer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said the book subscription service has helped her discover a lot of new books in the fantasy genre.

Granderson said she owns a lot of items from the company, but her favorite is her special edition “Mortal Instruments” set — which she called a “top part” of her book collection.

“The artwork on the flip cover is gorgeous. I love all the different details, how they’re coordinated. Each book has the cover art and they’re all different, but then coordinated with each cover is the symbols that are sprayed on the edges,” she said. “Everything just meshes really well together.”

Another thing Granderson said she loves about the LitJoy box is the ability to pick and choose what she wants, which isn’t an option with some other book subscription boxes.

“When you have a special edition, it not only gives you so much beauty to look at, to go along with the story, [but it] kind of helps bring the story alive,” she said.

LitJoy just announced its first special edition middle-grade project, for Utah author Brandon Mull’s “Fablehaven” series.

Eight years on, Dearth said Lit Joy still “feels like a giant book club that also does business on the side some days.”

Dearth added, “When I’m sitting in our warehouse with 40 employees, I’m just like, ‘How did that happen? Last thing I remember, we were in [Alix’s] garage with our cute little kids barely carrying one box at a time.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) LitJoy founders Alix Lewis Burrows and Kelly Dearth with their employees at their headquarters in Lehi, on Wednesday, April 17, 2024.

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