Interview with a Bookstore: Housing Works Bookstore in New York

They sell books, but they also provide care for thousands of homeless and low-income New Yorkers living with HIV/ AIDS. Welcome to the largest community-based AIDS service organization in the US and a fantastic bookstore

Housing Works Bookstore Cafes opening is a bit of a mystery, but lets say it opened, in our beloved Crosby Street location, in 1996. But the history of the bookstore goes back to the history of Housing Works, Inc, which was founded in 1993 by Charles King and Keith Cylar and other members of the groundbreaking AIDS activist group ACT UP. It was simple: if you had AIDS and you had no place to live, it was impossible to receive the lifesaving care that you needed. Today we are the largest community-based AIDS service organization in the country. We provide housing, primary care, job training, and legal help, to more than 20 K homeless and low-income New Yorkers living with HIV/ AIDS.

As the tale goes, in 1993, an angel investor approached Housing Works with a proposal: an investment in a second hand store of designer goods, stylishly presented and frequently rotated, sold at not rock-bottom but irresistible-bargain prices. The thrift shop swiftly opened and exceeding its three month fiscal objectives within the first weeks.

The key reason that Housing Works has always been a leader in delivering necessary and cutting-edge services, such as needle exchanges and much of our work for NYCs homeless population, is that we do not rely exclusively on outside fund from government and other sources. This work is part of “whats called” Social Enterprise and it is part of our core mission.

Social enterprise is the key to the bookstore in every route: Housing Works decided in 1996 that a perfect offshoot would be a use bookstore& cafe the intersection of books and food being a wonderful style to engage with the community. Not only is Housing Works supporting its lifesaving services and relentless advocacy by selling great second-hand goods now were a place where you can come and hang out, read a book, drink a coffee or a beer or feed a delicious pastry.

Overtime, due to the hustle of our board members and volunteers, the community space of our bookstore caf became a significant culture institution. We now present public programming most weeknights, bring back hundreds of New Yorkers into our space to educate them about our mission and share great books and culture with them. And to show them a really great time. On the weekends, the place gets dressed up by real nice for bridals and private functions, another key part of our community efforts and fundraising, which are conducted by our award-winning in-house catering company, The Works.

Molly Rose Quinn,( Director of Public Programming)

housing-works-event housing-works-event Photograph: Courtesy of Housing Works Bookstore

Whats your favorite section of the store?

Merril Speck( Store Manager ): Graphic novels.

Rebecca Shaughnessy( Bookseller& Cafe Staff ): I read mostly fiction, so thats my immediate answer; but one of my favorite things to do is browse the smaller sections that arent as popular, like math, surrounding/ wildlife, or health. Theyre full of concealed gem! I lately find a volume on country medication and remedies: did you know the simplest way to get rid of a blister is to have a snail crawl over it?

Tom Morris( Bookseller ): Art! When I started volunteering I had no vague notion that my background in art( especially modern and contemporary art) would be particularly useful. But within a few weeks I realized that not everyone knows about that stuff in the same style that I know little or nothing about areas where many staff and volunteers have amazing knowledge and absolutely brilliant insights. The Bookstore benefits enormously from New Yorks art community when it comes to donations , not to mention that our clients include artists, collectors, educators, and curators.

Brent MacKenzie( Bookseller ): My favorite section in the store is the graphic novel segment. We get some great titles donated and always have a great selection. Im always observing things I never knew about, hard to find and out of publish books.

Meagan Kavouras( Bookseller ): My favorite segment of the store, the section I always check before I leave the store, is the proofs wall. We have a group of clients we refer to as the proofies because they come in daily to scour that wall. I like it because its the best way to find upcoming debut novels from young female writers. The proofies usually skip those in favor of the Ishiguros and Morrisons. On the flipside, I love our fifty cent cart because its the best style to read the classics on the cheap.

Rebecca Merrill( Bookseller ): I read principally non-fiction and the memoir segment is mine to curate, but thats not the reason I love it. Over the past century, memoir has changed so much as a genre and the donation-based nature of our store entails the section reflects it. Not only do we sell new releases( Between the World and Me ), recent classics( Just Kids ), classic-classics( The Autobiography of Mark Twain) but harder to find quirky editions, too. Right now, we have an advanced readers copy of 1976 s A Loving Gentleman by Meta Carpenter Wilde about her love affair with William Faulkner.

housing-works-interior Over the past century, memoir has changed so much as a genre and the donation-based nature of our store entails the section reflects it. Photograph: Politenes of Housing Works Bookstore

If you had infinite space what would you add?

Rebecca: If I had infinite space in the bookstore( and no NYC health code ), I would add cats and lounges !! My favorite place to read is on my sofa with my cats, so Im just assuming everyone else would love that too. And Im right, arent I?

What do you do better than any other bookstore?

Molly: I think we bringing new meaning and new life to the idea of a bookstore being a community space. When we get to do concerts and slapstick depicts and such, some of those folks never even going to see bookstores, but we enticement them in with nightlife and beer. And on the other side of that, we have many regulars, used book and vinyl collectors, longtime neighbors, and also Housing Works clients who hang in our space during the daytime, many of them dont even know we hold events in the evening. And my favorite thing is spying on some of my favorite writers when they come to write in the cafe during the day. Also, our cafe attains something called MENSTRUATION BROWNIES.

Whos your favorite regular?

Tom: I cant pick only one. Theres a married couple; the spouse is an artist and art teacher; the husband, a retired carpenter, is severely into US History. Hes written and produced a play based on the late-in-life correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams that has been performed at various New York Public Library branches. Another client owns an art gallery on Bleecker Street and also lives nearby. Weve had many enjoyable dialogues about the art world. She also collects LP records, and some of her LP buys have piqued my own interest in some classical and jazz records that Ive attempted out and acquired.

Brent: Over my past year and a half of volunteering a man named Everett would come in almost every Tuesday. He is always exceedingly kind and is just a great guy. He has been selling volumes in New York for years so we would have conversations about different trends in volumes and reading and I always enjoy ensure him.

Meagan: Theres a man named Peter who lives in the neighborhood and comes in every Tuesday. In his past lives he was a sailor, a musician, and god knows what else, but hes currently a poet and motorcycle fanatic who, as far as I can tell, only walkings around the neighborhood spreading good cheer. Peter comes into the store and talks with me about poetry because I have to take the damn English GRE soon, and I know nothing about verse. Hes helping me learn.

Whats the craziest situation youve ever had to deal with in the store?

Molly: A few hours over the years weve done two events in a single night last month we had Kate Beaton appearing for her new book, which is now being 300+ fans, a three hour long signing line, followed by a sold-out, pop up concert by Glen Hansard. Kates fans were waiting in line to meet her all the way through the bands soundcheck, up until the doors opened, which was shortly before midnight. They played until 2am. Kate and Glen are now friends.

housing-works-interior-2 If I had infinite space in the bookstore( and no NYC health code ), I would add cats and sofas! Photo: Courtesy of Housing Works Bookstore

Whats your earliest memory about visiting a bookstore as small children?

Tom: I grew up on the far northwest side of Chicago. Our street was the bordered on an unincorporated suburbium. No public library within a couple of miles, and no bookstores at all. Beginning around age 10, whenever our family piled in the car and went downtown, I started noticing bookstores, galleries, museums, and theaters. Lots of them, some of them huge. At some phase it dawned on me: “Thats what” I want to be around all the time.

If you werent operating a bookstore, what would you be doing?

Merril: I would want to be the bassist in an indie boulder band circa the 1980 s( Essentially I want to be Peter Hook from Joy Division and New Order ).

Whats been the biggest astound about working in a bookstore?

Rebecca: The biggest astonish about working in this bookstore is( honestly, truly, I am not just saying this) how nice our clients are. Ive heard so many horror narratives from people working in retail that I merely cannot be attributed to. I believe when customers come to this store, they feel good about buying books knowing that the buy supports a great cause. In buying books, they join our community and that creates a culture of a bunch of people who are about to become friends rather than one of a traditional service industry.

Molly: Social enterprise is a keyword at Housing Works, but I also think it is a key principle in New York City and has been a large part of my personal experience working with publishing, bookstores, writers, comedians, musicians, and other artists in NYC. When I try to explain my job to my friends and family in other cities, it is a very long run-on sentence. I get to plan, create, and publicize wildly popular and culturally relevant programs at a beloved NYC institution in order to spread awareness and raise funds for our efforts to end AIDS as an epidemic in New York by 2020. I fill my life and my work with volumes because I believe that literature touches everything and everything touches it. And Housing Works Bookstore Cafe is a perfect example of that.

The Staff Shelf

What are Housing Workss booksellers reading?

teeth The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli( 2015 ). Molly( director of public programming) recommends: Read Valeria Luiselli is a bit like strolling through a beautiful, charming, exploding use bookstore. I find myself scratching down on bits of paper the millions of volumes, poems, philosophers, artists, and unknown tidbits of the world that she folds into her narrations. This book is almost impossible to describe, so I wont try. Just read it?
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis( 2015 ). Molly( director of public programming) recommends: What occurs inside Robin Coste Lewis Voyage of the Sable Venus is demolition, excavation, grandeur, heart. This volume, which lifts devastating words from historical and art archives, argues for living even at its most annihilating moments.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel( 2014 ). Merril( store administrator) recommends: A beautifully conceived, post-apocalypse story that follows a small group of characters in the years following a global pandemic. Mandels gift is to see the innate goodness in humanity, forgoing a Mad Max-style horror show for something more delicate and hopeful. Like the great film directors Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson, Mandel works with a large canvas, ingeniously weaving character arc that tease out surprising connects among the survivors. Wonderful Wonderful Times by Elfriede Jelinek( 1990 ). Rebecca( bookseller) recommends: I just finished reading Wonderful Wonderful Times by Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, and was totally preoccupied the whole way through. The story focuses on four adolescents in Vienna who have no respect for authority and perpetrate violent crimes just because they can. Read it for the write: harsh, direct, and dark, graceful and lyrical.