Points of Sale is an occasional column that shares bookselling tips and ideas from booksellers for booksellers.
Ten years ago, when Jonah Zimiles and his wife, Ellen, opened [words] Bookstore in Maplewood, N.J., they knew they wanted to create a welcoming place for their autistic teenaged son and others like him. The Zimileses stated their commitment in the store’s mission statement, which is posted on its website: "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."
Even so, Jonah Zimiles told PW, "Most customers don’t know we have a connection with autism. We’re a typical bookstore. Most of the accommodations we put in for our special needs customers apply to our regular customers." Those include wide aisles and an uncluttered floor space that makes it easy for physically and developmentally disabled customers to browse. The store also has a large selection of special needs books, as well as books for reluctant readers, which serve as a resource for both parents and teachers. It also holds programming for those with special needs.
"We’re trying to touch the lives of people as best we can,"said Zimiles, who has worked with more than 100 people with autism as trainees at the store, and has hired staffers who are on the autism spectrum. Zimiles credits working with special needs booksellers with helping him develop a successful approach to hiring. Rather than create a job description, he said, "My management strategy is to hire talented people and find out what they like to do."
The store's decision to cater to those with disabilities has contributed to low double digit sales increases each year, according to Zimiles. Earlier this spring, the couple opened a second store in LifeTown, a special needs community in Livingston, N.J. That store caters specifically to people with special needs, including the addition of sensitivity lighting. But to make the point that it’s for everyone, Zimiles held the soft opening on April 3 with adult novelist Harlan Coben, who spoke in conversation with New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson.
Spend a Little
One thing that Drew Sieplinga, who handles events for Wild Rumpus Books in Minneapolis, stresses is that not only is making a bookstore ADA-compliant a good thing for everyone, it doesn’t have to be expensive. She estimates that it cost $200 to turn Wild Rumpus, long known for its diverse collection of animals in-store, into an inclusive bookstore. It received a WNBA Pannell Award in 2016 for its inclusivity and diversity and was named a PW Bookstore of the Year in 2017.
Because the store’s bookcases are on wheels, Wild Rumpus is able to move them easily to make the aisles wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Staffers put down tape to indicate where the shelves need to be to maintain 36" aisles, and they keep a yardstick behind the counter to double check when needed. The store also removed baskets of books and other related items that had previously been placed on the floor. It doesn't use floor dumps and switched out its spinner racks for smaller ones.
The city wouldn't allow Wild Rumpus to place a permanent ramp over a small step at its entryway. So the store purchased a portable ramp for about $100 and installed a doorbell. To simplify transactions for those who can’t reach the counter, the bookstore now keeps a clipboard at the counter.
Echoing Zimiles, Sieplinga said, "Making the store ADA accessible makes it more accessible for everyone." In fact, she added, the first positive feedback about the new floor layout came from a customer who was pleased to be able to easily navigate the aisles with a stroller.
But Wild Rumpus began hiring inclusively long before it became ADA compliant. When Sieplinga, who has epilepsy and can"t drive, was hired more than a decade ago, she was told that the store would arrange for her to have transportation to and from off-site events. After she began working at Wild Rumpus, Sieplinga helped set up a partnership with a local organization to provide a sensitivity training session for staffers to give them a more universal perspective.
"I think it’s up to the manager and owners to make a bookstore feel like the kind of space where nobody’s going to be judgmental, "Sieplinga said. She now feels comfortable enough at Wild Rumpus to not just let other staffers know about her disability but to post a set of instructions above her desk and at the counter, about what to do if she has a seizure.
Kimberly Cake opened Enchanted Passage in Sutton, Mass., with her mother, Sandy Loomis, two and a half years ago to create a welcoming space for children with sensitivity issues and other disabilities. She wanted a store where her daughter Kristiana, who was born prematurely in 2015 at 24 weeks, would be comfortable, and a job that would enable her to spend more time with her daughter. Like Sieplinga, Cake said that she has found that there are little things that can have a big impact on kids with disabilities, particularly former NICU babies like Kristiana.
One of the store’s most popular kid destinations is a sensory sand table, which Cake originally set up temporarily for a dinosaur event. Sensory tables don’t have to be expensive, she noted, and they can be therapeutic, not just for preemie children. Although Cake is careful to keep the toys on the table and throughout the store wiped down and as germ-free as possible, she placed hand sanitizer in different spots in the store for children who need more protection. Cake also has gathered a collection of books and stories for preemie families in an area of the store named for her daughter, Kristiana’s Korner.
"We try to meet kids where they’re at,” Cake said. "If we have kids who need quiet, we will turn off the store’s music." She also stocks a shelf of stuffed animals for children to cuddle with during storytime or crafts time, or any time they need them while they’re visiting Enchanted Passage.