With a schedule full of readings, launches and events, SoHo’s Housing Works Bookstore and Café at 128 Crosby St. has been an integral part of New York’s literary scene since 1996.
For many New York book lovers, a weekly volunteer shift on the sales floor, at the café, or working in the store’s online bookselling operation in the building’s basement provides a sense of connection and community. The shop’s hardwood floors, spiral staircases and faint musty smell give it an air of authenticity that its SoHo retail neighbors can only dream of. Some of those brands allude to social responsibility to sell their product, but Housing Works does it the other way around. The nonprofit, an offshoot of pioneering HIV/AIDS activist group ACT UP, operates its stores to fund housing, treatment, and harm-reduction services for marginalized populations facing HIV/AIDS and homelessness.
In order to maximize the amount of money that is raised, the bookstore’s inventory is donated and most of the labor is unpaid volunteers. Volunteer Coordinator Ida Kutechko said that the bookstore employs 25 paid staff members, and its over 300 volunteers put in over 2,000 hours a month.
“I just like being here, I feel like I’m doing something good,” said Kristi Kelly, 57, one of the café’s newest volunteers. She recently moved back to the city from Pittsburgh to care for her parents while looking for a fresh start after a divorce. She found a weekly shift at the café fits her schedule.
“It beats sitting on a computer or watching your 84- and 85-year-old parents watch Dr. Phil,” she said.
At the shop’s front register, Maria Moxon, 51, rang up customers’ finds before asking if they’d like to donate their change in her pleasant Yorkshire accent.
Moxon began volunteering in May of 2016, after relocating from San Francisco for her husband’s job. “I wasn’t working and this city is the hardest place to get to know people,” she said. “Sometimes it feels even harder because you’re surrounded by people. I live in this big apartment building and I hardly see anyone.”
Her shift-mate Lauren Oster, 39, a writer, priced a pile of books beside her. In 2014, she lost her job as an editor. A weekly shift “made the transition from an office job to alone time much easier,” she said.
While shoppers may not even realize they’re supporting a nonprofit, the mission is never far away. Upstairs from the bookstore is Housing Works’ Manhattan Harm Reduction Center. Its clients often kill time in the cafe, sipping drinks or reading books.
In some ways, this is by design. The bookstore was intended to be a “complete vindication from those naysayers who fear that service programs like those operated by Housing Works would have a negative impact on the presence of the neighborhood,” according to a Housing Works newsletter cited in a history of the organization by Gavin Browning.
Volunteers say they benefit as well.
“I’m normally a person who gets mad at someone wearing a backpack on the subway,” Oster joked. But a few years of volunteering imparted “radical acceptance.”
“It can be tricky—people in the store are not always polite, friendly, and well-behaved,” she said. “But part of what we do is be accepting of everyone.”
Volunteers need not be entirely altruistic, either. They get 50 percent off their purchases. And there’s plenty to choose from across the store’s two floors.
Biographies, histories, science, and poetry hold court on the second floor, a balcony lined with wooden shelves and small tables overlooking the café. Hot-sellers like fiction, mysteries, art and cookbooks line the ground floor.
As the store’s by-donation inventory is not catalogued, Oster compared the shopping experience to “literary off-roading.”
“Then you stumble across something you’ve never heard of and get the feeling that you need it right now,” she said.
Though not required, bibliophilia is common among volunteers. “I didn’t care too much about the mission, I just saw books!” said Moxon, recalling her feelings as a new volunteer.
For Maggie Ruggiero, a 10-year volunteer, the store’s stock and trade represents something more.
“It restores my faith in humankind, these endless mountains of books,” she said. “They’re heavy. And yet people make an effort to bring them here selflessly.”
Ola Nilsson, a café volunteer spending a year in the city with his diplomat husband, spoke of the joy he gets seeing piles of donated books in the basement.
“And then you think that there’s stories with every book and people are paying them forward,” he said. “It’s an organism that lives and gives.”