There are some amazing bookstores all over the world, many of which call New York City their home, which luckily, so do I. Just a skip and a throw away from the Bookstr office is the Housing Works bookstore, located at 126 Crosby Street. The bookstore, along with other branches of Housing Works, engages in an array of advocacy strategies to further their mission of ending the twin crises of AIDS and homelessness. The collaborative initiative has been committed to ending the AIDS epidemic for over three decades, and hopes to see the disease disappear from New York State by 2020, in the United States by 2025, and worldwide by 2030.
I sat down with Daniel and Rosemary and asked them a few questions about the bookstore, the organization as a whole, and of course, I took some photos.
So, how did Housing Works start?
AIDS advocacy group Act Up was very active in the late 80s, early 90s, distributing medicine, and with the traction they received, a variety of different committees were formed: one of those being the Housing Committee which focused on finding housing for those who are/were impacted by HIV/AIDS.
The program was initially focused on advocacy, though ran into trouble with government allotted funding, resulting in the birth of the Housing Works thrift stores, with over ten locations throughout New York City. As more and more books were donated to the thrift stores, there became a need and an opportunity to create the bookstore. The revenue created by the bookstore allows the organization to use their money as they please – no strings allowed – allowing for more care and assistance for those in need.
Why secondhand books?
That’s what people will give us! (Laughs) Secondhand is a loose definition. Some books have been upwards of one hundred years old, while others we receive as donations from publishers. We’ve developed a number of really great relationships with publishers in New York. Penguin Random House, for instance, will donate unsold copies from trade shows, which we then mark down below the cover price.
How many donations do you get in a year?
(Laughs) I really couldn’t tell you, just because how we receive them. We receive anywhere between four hundred and five hundred boxes of books a week. Not everything is sellable, and not everything is sold in the bookstore.
How does the donation to shelf process work?
There are three channels – people who walk in the front door and donate, and then we receive weekly truckloads from our thrift stores, as well as donations from publishers. Downstairs, there’s a sorting area. The books are “triaged”, with some pulled for online sales, where they’re then scanned and added to the online store. Books that will be sold in the bookstore are separated by genre and curated by staff specializing in each genre.
How is bookselling different at Housing Works rather than at other bookstores?
We don’t know what books we’re going to receive, and stock changes daily, so it’s very unpredictable and that can be a challenge. We’ll have a book one day and not the next. There are two other bookstores with the same model as Housing Works, but they do sell new books, while all the books at Housing Works are previously owned/donated. Additionally, the space hosts a variety of events, both public and private. During wedding season, it’s every single weekend.
What sort of services do you provide?
Raising income for the organization and funding other aspects of Housing Works is the main service provided by the bookstore, but on the seventh floor of the building, there’s a methadone clinic, a needle exchange, and a harm reduction center. Additionally, the bookstore is a safe and comfortable space for people experiencing homelessness. Making people feel welcome when they come in is of utmost importance. It’s cold out, and a warm place to sit makes all the difference.
Are there any new books that come out that you wish you could carry?
Oh definitely. Lately, with Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. When people would come in asking for it, we’d tell them how the bookstore worked and why we didn’t have any copies. Since then, we’ve received copies, but they don’t stay on the shelves. When Ursula Le Guin passed away, we would have loved to have bought a lot of her books to sell, but people buy them straight away anyway.
What sort of events does Housing Works hold?
We’re trying to do some of everything, though trying to broaden it further. Our bread and butter is literary events – we don’t do readings, we try and make it a bit more interesting than that. We do conversations or panels about fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. We also do live music. Live From Home is one event we do where various established bands will do a one-off intimate show in the bookstore to raise money. We’ve had Bjork, The Black Keys, and Conor Oberst, to name a few. It’s a great way to see a band in an intimate venue and to get people into the store. The Moth has a bimonthly residency that is almost always completely sold out. We’re trying to show more films as well.
How will Housing Works be expanding the next few years?
It’s more maintenance than expansion, but one type of expansion the organization has been working on is the establishment of a safe injection site. The executives have been researching services within Canada and are hoping to replicate within New York City. Physical housing is always something we’re hoping to expand, at a recent Town Hall meeting at the bookstore we spoke about a new site in East New York that was just purchased that will eventually become between thirty and forty housing units. The bookstore itself is expanding within online sales, which is something many people don’t know is available.
So there you have it! Housing Works is an incredible asset to the city both in terms of bookselling and advocacy. The bookstore is located at 126 Crosby Street in Soho, and there are thrift stores around the city. Go check it out, you’ll be glad you did!
And while you’re at it, keep scrolling to check out some images from my trip to the bookstore!
Featured image, and all other images, Via Hilary Schuhmacher Photography.