In 2009, at the height of the recession and in the era of Amazon and the e-book, Ellen and Jonah Zimiles opened an independent bookstore. They believed that a cozy space in downtown Maplewood, N.J. would lure people to browse and buy. The shop, called [words] Bookstore, has proved them right. They imagined inviting nationally recognized authors to the store for readings and the authors showed up, along with large audiences eager to buy books.
They also chose to create a store that would employ people with disabilities and welcome families raising children with disabilities. For the last eight years, [words] Bookstore has offered a free “Second Sunday” program in the store’s basement, bringing in acting, dance, cooking and karate teachers to lead workshops for children and teens with disabilities. They have trained 75 people who have disabilities to work in various bookstore positions and employ a number of them in their own business.
The store’s carefully crafted mission is featured on its website: [words] mission is to serve Maplewood and surrounding communities by offering an engaging and welcoming atmosphere for people and families of all stripes to pursue their literary interests. In particular, we are dedicated to the families in our community that have a member with a developmental disability. We strive to help Maplewood become a model community of inclusion through our treatment of disabled customers and employees, especially those with autism.
In addition to creating a warm, welcoming, supportive space, the Zimilies recognized the store’s potential for training and employing people with disabilities. Jonah Zimiles, a former lawyer who became a stay-at-home dad after his son’s autism diagnosis to support his therapeutic program, went back to school for an M.B.A. at Columbia University, with a concentration in social enterprise. He recognized that the many tasks involved in running a bookstore — from organizing books to breaking down boxes and putting stickers with the bookstore logo on shopping bags — involved repetitive steps, tasks in which people with autism and intellectual disabilities could shine. “Our employees [with disabilities] excel at certain assignments that often go unaccomplished in their absence and increase all of our employees’ job efficiency,” he said.
In the vocational training program, [words] partners with local schools to bring in young people with autism who will soon be transitioning from school to a workplace. Students work between two and five hours a week in the store, doing specialized tasks matched to their individual abilities and challenges. Many of the students have found work at larger bookstores like Barnes & Noble and other companies that can utilize the job skills they learned.
And, when positions become available, Zimiles brings people he has trained onto his own staff.
“Working at [words] is like being in Disney World and Wonderland. It’s lots of fun and full of wonder. I never get bored and always learn,” said employee Barbara Siegel.