Brian Martin and the Amazing Hardback Yoyo


Brian Martin is a successful business owner living in the Chicago suburbs. He has a carefully tended website where he advertises his wares, a business partner he trusts to assist with taxes and accounting, and an eye for new and innovative designs. Brian Martin is just 21 years old, but has already been an entrepreneur for almost 2 years. What sets him apart from his peers isn’t just his age and ability: Brian also has autism.

With a school-required project to find employment as he neared graduation in 2010, Brian and his mother, Joan Martin, had some tough decisions to make. Joan, an ardent supporter of her son and autism activist, wanted to make sure Brian would be giving back to his community, becoming self-sufficient by taking public transit alone, reporting to a boss other than his own mom, and doing physical labor in the process. Brian didn’t need pay, she reasoned, but he did need an environment that was constantly changing, forcing him to adjust and learn to be flexible, traits that are often difficult for people living with autism. Through a mutual friend Joan was introduced to the Friendship Circle of Illinois, a nonprofit group that works to connect individuals with developmental disabilities to friends and real life situations in their community. Friendship Circle, in turn, introduced Joan to Books4Cause and immediately a relationship was formed.

Brian, it was decided by Joan and Books4Cause founder, Yosef Lifchitz, would work in the book warehouse in Skokie once a week helping to sort book donations for the Books4Free program. He would be exposed to all of the things Joan had hoped for, and would learn to function with a team of coworkers, increasing his social interaction and requiring him to adjust to others’ needs. One early issue Brian encountered in his new job, for example, was his annoyance at the kind of music his coworkers played in the warehouse. His initial response would have normally been to get upset and demand the music be changed, but instead Brian learned to bring headphones to work so he could listen to his own music, thereby avoiding conflict.

After Brian had become acclimated with his new career, Joan took things a step further. While attending a folk art festival one day, she noticed a vendor selling journals made from old hardback books, an incredibly popular item with festival-goers. With a creative son who adored books, this kind of craft seemed like a natural progression. Joan approached Brian about starting his own business and, after securing a grant through the organization Life’s Plan Inc. to buy initial supplies, Hardback Yoyo was formed.

Every week that Brian went to work for Books4Cause, he was allowed to take home unsellable, undonatable books for his own craft projects. Joan helped research different craft ideas and would ask Brian whether or not he felt comfortable creating them, and the two would begin the process of manufacturing Hardback Yoyo products. Brian learned very quickly and was soon even getting production help from friends and classmates who were happy to assist his cause. Hardback Yoyo, whose name comes from an amalgamation of an old email address of Brian’s and his love of the yoyo’s ability to always spring back, would be sold in local shops and at craft fairs and festivals, something that created new challenges for Brian along the way.

People living with autism often have difficulty “reading” social situations and body language cues, and Brian was no exception. Selling his craft items at festivals would force him to learn how best to approach people, and when to back off when his selling style was a little too forceful. Joan developed codes, like “PS” for personal space, and Brian quickly learned to be an excellent salesman while representing his brand and company. Though he much prefers manufacturing his products to selling them, Brian has learned to take credit card sales, enjoys it when things are busy, knows how to make deposits at the bank, can pack the car and set up his booth independently for craft shows, and is an excellent ambassador for both his business and individuals with autism. In fact, his favorite events are conferences for individuals with special needs where he can talk about his experience living with autism.

This one job has taught Brian as much as five different jobs could have done, according to his mother, while also nourishing his creativity, industrious nature, and love of the environment. By re-creating products from books that would otherwise end up in landfills, Brian is doing his part to be green, and his sales are proving it. Some of Hardback Yoyo’s most popular items are framed collages, journals and notepads from recycled books, necklaces made from chunks of book spines called “short stories”, and holiday ornaments. Joan and Brian are constantly on the lookout for new craft ideas and have recently begun making three-dimensional apples out of whole books, a wonderful gift for teachers.

In the future, Brian hopes to be a film archivist or librarian, and currently takes classes at a community college for library technical assistance while simultaneously running his business and working for Books 4 Cause. He loves movies and nostalgia, and uses some of his hard-earned profit from Hardback Yoyo sales to fund a passionate hobby for video games, DVDs, and, of course, books. Joan jokes that there is nearly always an Amazon delivery box on their porch and Brian insists on being the first to check the mail every day. When asked if he would like to eventually live on his own, Brian wisecracks that he “doesn’t want to be a 40 year old man living with his parents wearing a pocket protector” but for now the situation suits everyone just fine.

With a never-ending supply of books to work with from Books4Cause, and an eye for creativity and innovation, Brian and Hardback Yoyo are sure to go far. Check out their product line and learn how you can place an order at
-Madeline Marin-Foucher