Back in 1989 it occurred to Grant Kornberg, the proprietor of the Hardback Cafe and Bookstore in Chapel Hill, that it would be possible to fashion a marriage among literature, art and commerce.
The place to consummate such a marriage, he decided, would be on that staple of every American wardrobe, the T-shirt.So one night Kornberg approached Steven Cragg, a caricaturist and improvisational actor who was performing at the Hardback.
``We sat down afterward and had a few beers too many and decided to go into the T-shirt business,' said Kornberg, 34, who grew up in Durham and received a master's degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University.
``For Christmas we commissioned Cragg to draw Jack Kerouac, Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde and Flannery O'Connor. We ran off a few hundred and put them on T-shirts. Sales were quite brisk.'
Today, they're quite a bit brisker.
Kornberg's Largely Literary T-shirts now are available in 1,800 bookstores nationwide, including News & Novels and Atticus Books in Greensboro and Rainbow News & Cafe in Winston-Salem. The $17.95 T-shirts have been such a smash that they're being joined by a line of sweat shirts, coffee mugs, calendars and watches.
``They even sell our T-shirts in the Yukon Territory!' Kornberg said. ``They must have the real pioneer spirit up there. I think in the summer the warmest it gets is 45 degrees. I guess there's not much to do in the winter but shoot moose and read Rimbaud.'
In Greensboro, people are reading - or at least wearing - Jack Kerouac.
``He's our best seller,' said News & Novels co-owner Pat O'Rourke. ``After that it's Southern authors - Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor. The shirts are really unique. If people like them, they love them.'
The key to the T-shirts' phenomenal success lies partly in the drawings, partly in the prose that's printed in the catalogs and reproduced on the packaging.
Cragg's drawings are brilliant. Jack Kerouac stands beside the road with his thumb stuck out. Truman Capote wields a slingshot and a cocktail. Herman Melville wields a pen that resembles a harpoon. Henry Miller, in classic dirty-old-man pose, holds his bathrobe open.
``I see the shirts everywhere out here,' says Cragg, who's now free-lancing in Los Angeles. ``They're like little billboards for me, in terms of getting work. Pretty amazing.'
The catalog and packaging copy is written by Kornberg and his partner, Daniel Wallace. Here are a few of their brighter gems:
``What truly mystifies us about F. Scott Fitzgerald is how he drank so much and wrote so well.'
``It was while he was in the Merchant Marines that Jack Kerouac began to develop what, for lack of a better term, might be called his `hipness' (although the Merchant Marines had what they thought was a better term for it: an incredibly bad attitude).'
``Flannery O'Connor didn't mess around. Her stories were violent, bizarre and teeming with metaphor and symbolism: there's a Bible salesman who snatches the wooden leg from a girl he's trying to seduce; a handyman who abandons a retarded girl at a roadside diner in order to steal her mother's car; a couple of poor, misunderstood `misfits' who murder an entire family on their summer vacation. Sort of like last night's national news.'
Henry Miller's ribald masterpiece, ``Tropic of Cancer,' is described as ``a book which makes 'Fanny Hill' look like an afternoon at Seaworld.'
These dazzling, witty sketches have caught the eye of the New York publishing world. Next year Random House plans to bring out a compendium of Largely Literary's prose and drawings. The title, like the T-shirts, is perfect:
``Mr. Nabokov's Neighborhood.'