Maplewood’s WORDS bookstore opened its doors on January 9, 2009, adding an independent bookseller’s marquee to the shops and restaurants along Maplewood Avenue. Owners Jonah and Ellen Zimiles, both former lawyers, envisioned WORDS as both a neighborhood bookstore and an operating vocational program for people with autism. The store is designed to be a welcoming, comfortable environment for autistic kids, the staff is specially trained to serve the needs of those with autism, and several WORDS employees are autistic. Jonah recently spoke to Barista Kids about this specialized focus for the store.
How does WORDS serve autistic kids?
We have really a five-pronged approach. The first is providing a warm, welcoming environment for families with autistic children, a place where they can spend time and feel comfortable. We’ve done done some sensitivity training with the YAI Autism Center in New York for our staff, to help them understand or not overreact in the event that kids exhibit unusual behaviors. Second is our vocational training program for young people with autism, which is administered primarily through local schools, where we give kids the opportunity to do job sampling and try out different activities in a work environment. Third is as a general resource: we have a very broad and deep collection of books on autism, ranging from books for children with autism or for other kids to learn about autism, to books for parents and grandparents to lean about autism. Fourth is through events: we bring in speakers to talk to parents and educators about special needs, including a whole series in April. Finally there’s public awareness, which is kind of a combination of all of the above.
What sort of training do your employees receive?
For the typical employees, we have brought in counselors to talk about possible behaviors and scenarios and have our employees get a greater understanding of special-needs kids, focusing on autism. In terms of the special-needs kids, when it comes to autism we deal pretty much throughout the spectrum. So we have kids who are pretty challenged who are putting stickers with WORDS’ name on the bag; we intentionally didn’t get bags with the logo printed because we wanted to have this job of putting the sticker on the bag. We’ve set up jobs in the store with specific functions stripped out for these kids to do. Special-needs people are doing all of our recycling, which is considerable in the book business. Kids with higher skills have been restocking and working on book returns.
What are the results you see for customers?
Most of them are largely unaffected and unaware of the program—we’re mostly a general-service bookstore trying to serve our community in a host of ways. We did a Support Your School Week benefit (donating 20% of each purchase to a local school), and we raised money for 33 different schools.
What is the experience for customers with special-needs kids?
I know that parents express a lot of satisfaction with having the kind of place to bring kids, especially during cold weather when it’s harder to find things for kids with autism to do. There’s a lot of space for them to roam around. They can read books and they can relax while their parents look at books. They don’t feel like they’re hurried or are disturbing customers or staff. They know they’re welcome with open arms in our store.
Is this an exportable model for other bookstores and other kinds of businesses?
Absolutely, yes. We set this bookstore up as for-profit so it’s easily replicable, but this is a tough economic environment for an independent bookstore to operate. We’ve been very gratified from the feedback we’ve gotten from our community. We’re hoping that we will inspire other business owners to hire people with special needs. They boost morale for everyone around them and do a good job—they show up on time, they don’t get bored easily and they work hard.
To see the Zimiles and their staff in action, watch a recent MSNBC profile on WORDS here.
(Excerpt photo from WORDS Facebook page: The Children’s Institute Community-Based Instruction Program visits WORDS)