Words Bookstore will open a second location this April in a 53,000 sq. ft. center in Livingston, N.J., designed entirely for people with special needs. The facility, which is called LifeTown, will include a small village with shops, a swimming pool, and a 400-seat theater, where author Harlan Coben will read for the bookstore’s opening on April 3.
For co-owners Jonah and Ellen Zimiles, the bookstore and facility are an extension of work they have done for years through their Maplewood, N.J., store, providing vocational training and support for people with autism, including their 23 year-old son, Daniel.
In an interview with PW, Jonah Zimiles described the new center as “a place where special needs kids can come during the school day and learn community and daily living skills. LifeTown provides a safe integrated environment specially designed for these students,” Zimiles added, including evening and weekend activities for the entire community.
The small bookstore will feature some differences when compared with many other bookstores. Lights have been adjusted for sensitivity, and aisles are wide. Zimiles also says the store will also adhere to two lessons he has learned in the course of working alongside people with autism, and now applies to bookselling every day.
The first lesson, Zimiles said, is to “be wary and careful about making assumptions about the appropriateness of reading level for people.” The second is to break tasks up for employees so that they can excel in their work: “See what they’re good at, and then try to craft jobs and assignments that utilize these skills or passions in a way that motivates the employees and provides value to the bookstore,” Zimiles said.
After careers in law, consulting, and not-for-profit work, the couple purchased the Maplewood location from Goldfinch Books in 2008 and reopened in a new location as Words in 2009. From the outset, Zimiles said, the store was intended to be a hub for people with disabilities. There are more than 300 books on autism and related subjects on its shelves, and the store hosts regular events specifically designed for children with special needs.
The vocational training program, which is a cornerstone of the store’s work, has provided bookstore jobs for over 100 people with more severe forms of autism. As of its tenth anniversary, Zimiles said, the store’s compound annual growth has been 11% each year since the couple bought it.
The couple first became involved with the LifeTown facility seven years ago as donors, and later decided to open the bookstore in the space. Zimiles said that Coben’s reading to celebrate the opening of the space—a homecoming for the Livingston-raised author—is a kind of “reverse integration” that encourages people without disabilities to see the facility as a community hub. In that way, he said, the store is the same as any bookstore trying to make its way as a community institution: “It’s about bringing the community to you.”