[WORDS] Bookstore

[WORDS] Bookstore
179 Maplewood Ave, Maplewood, NJ 07040
(a second smaller location is now open in LifeTown village, the Friendship Circle program in Livingston, NJ)
(973) 763-9500


Name of contact/founder: Jonah Zimiles

“Bookstore in New Jersey suburb of Maplewood where people with autism receive training and work. Owner is proud that many use this training and move on to other jobs. Store is a “safe space” for people with autism and their families. The well-stocked bookstore has a disabilities/special needs section with books and resources. Store features regular author talks as well.”

My Visit/The Story of [Words]:

I originally learned of [Words] and its founder/owner, Jonah Zimiles, at the HIlibrand Autism Conference in NYC a few years ago. Jonah was kind enough to invite me to visit , take a tour, and learn about the book store.
Jonah had been a lawyer and law clerk and eventually worked in the Jewish community as head of planned giving for Council of Jewish Federations. He then began cutting back his work hours to spend more time with his son with autism. He was considering various “more manageable” job opportunities and decided to get an MBA in social enterprise. He considered starting a consulting firm or a fund. One idea was to consult to small businesses in exchange for getting them to hire people with disabilities. His wife, Ellen wanted to open a vocational institute when their son with autism was 12. She then saw a sign for a bookstore which was closing. They decided to purchase the book store, run the business and do the training.

The tour of the book store with Jonah included such well stocked sections as adult and children’s books, fiction, non-fiction, travel, test preparation, disabilities and more. The store also sells such items as book lights, mugs, socks, greeting cards and more. The store features advertisements for upcoming author talk and other events which take place on a regular basis in the same downstairs space where many of the employees with disabilities work.

Jonah’s original plan when they started the store in 2008 was for a 6-month apprenticeship which “gave a heksher” to the training participants receive. They would then get hired to work in another industry or store (in a Barnes and Noble, for example). Jonah has observed that many job sites focus on the highest functioning people with autism, whereas he focuses on “middle to bottom” and people who are nonverbal. He notes that most skills learned in the bookstore are applicable outside of a bookstore environment.

To date, more than 100 people with disabilities have received training and worked in the bookstore, doing such jobs as recycling, breaking down boxes, making deliveries, driving to the town dump (some participants have driving licenses), cleaning, and shelving books. Some workers do direct work with customers, though most do the types of behind the scenes jobs mentioned above. Jonah commented on just how difficult it is for even a person who is neuroypical to be a salesperson as they need to know books and be hyper-social with a sales personality. As we discussed training in both hard (job) skills and soft (interpersonal, job site) skills, Jonah was emphatic in noting, “If they can do the task, we don’t care what the behaviors are.” Jonah would prefer they get jobs done which are valued by society (i.e laundry), “even if they are making noises while working!” Jonah pays his employees (though he is not permitted to pay the trainees who come through the school district). He feels the concern often raised that people with disabilities jeopardize their Social Security benefits by working is “overblown” since most can’t and don’t work that many hours.

From the website:

Our mission & vision: [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.

Lessons Learned/Observations:

  • We didn’t know how to do retail when we started off. We were not vocational training experts when we started—these were two big challenges
  • The special needs part is the easiest part of the job; running a business is extremely difficult (“I sell over a million dollars of books in the store and still struggle to break even”)
  • Autism Speaks and Extraordinary Ventures identified 10-15 businesses like Words, Rising Tide Car Wash, etc. approximately five years ago and had a conference—informs me there WAS a similar initiative to what I am doing (he also suggests that this has not continued and feels there is a need for bringing various stakeholders together.
  • Most of the jobs available to people with autism deal with a small segment the autism population (he calls them “The Ivy Leagues.” He reports, “We are interested in the much tougher “middle to bottom” part of the spectrum. I am interested in people with limited language. A disproportionate number of programs focus on the higher functioning group.”
  • Google and other companies hiring people with disabilities is wonderful BUT it gives a very distorted view of autism and disabilities (most do not function at this level) More people need to address the problem.
  • Families of children with disabilities, even those “of means” often can’t make big donations of money to organizations since they will have life-long financial needs related to their children (as they age).
  • The number of details I need to know about stuff can be overwhelming. I need to review 20,000 books per year and this is just front list adult buying (others do kids and replenishment). These take time and effort. It is a LOT of work.
  • There are always new and unexpected costs. For example, there is a new charge for green in the town; it is constant (the charge), but it is the reality. Also, there is competition (others in the same business)Websites are ridiculously hard (and costly)—they require constant upkeep
  • If they can do the task, we don’t care what the behaviors are” (teach them to get jobs done which are valued by society. For example, I’d prefer they “get the laundry done!”—even if they are making noises while working!
  • Wife Ellen reports in a CBS 880 radio interview: “People with autism are adults longer than they are children”—this is why we need job sites and jobs!
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