How book donations help Housing Works provide social services

More than 80,000 books live below Crosby Street in SoHo, but you’d never know it.

They’re part of Housing Works’ inventory, stacked and saved to sell either in-store or online through sites such as eBay, Amazon and AbeBooks, as part of the nonprofit bookstore’s lesser-known e-commerce business. It’s just one of the many ways the 24-year-old bookstore and cafe stays competitive.

Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe is run by the nonprofit organization which has a chain of thrift stores in New York City. All proceeds go toward helping Housing Works manage housing and provide a range of services, from job placement and health care to homeless and low-income people living with or affected by HIV and AIDS.

The bookstore is open to anyone helped by Housing Works as well as shoppers, drawn into the charming store characterized by swirling staircases leading up to an atrium, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lining all the walls.

“This is a community space and a bookstore,” says Sarah Morrow, executive director of the bookstore.

All the books and other media, such as DVDs and records, are donated to the store by individuals and larger organizations cleaning out their collections. Publications often receive advance review copies, which later also end up on Housing Works’ shelves.

“We don’t have an inventory system, which makes this a great place to browse and find a book that was missing in your life,” Morrow says.

Sections ranging from mythology to fiction are curated by volunteers who help shoppers seek out books based on their interests. Books are priced competitively, with most in close-to-new condition.

Beyond book browsing, a nightly calendar of events lures in a range of New Yorkers.

“We get an incredible range of people coming to do events with us — musicians, writers, poets, comedians, burlesque performers…,” says Rosie Clarke, Housing Works’ director of public programming. “Our diverse programs appeal to the New Yorker who reads The New Yorker but also the people we serve with Housing Works, our neighbors and tourists.”

The Moth, a live storytelling program, also takes up residency in the store twice a month, consistently luring in new faces who have yet to visit the bookstore.

All bar sales and any ticket fees go to Housing Works’ social services. Corporate sponsorships also help Housing Works rent its SoHo shop, and online book sales contribute to the store’s success. Every book sold online is also donated, and Morrow considers the unseen basement a 24/7 operation to ensure orders get shipped out promptly.

“It’s been a really robust part of our business that enables us to stay in SoHo and do these public programs,” Morrow says.

Though stock at Housing Works changes daily, the shop’s quickest sellers include literature by primarily white male authors, with an exception being the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. To counteract this, staffers try and display titles by more diverse and lesser-known authors.

“We need to keep classics on the shelves but we try and infuse various sections with important people who should be read,” Morrow says.

Fast facts

  • A few staffers help run the cafe and online sales department, but more than 150 active volunteers come in for four or more hours a week to support the store. Interested volunteers can sign up online.
  • Book donations are accepted daily and donors can get a tax receipt. Those with larger libraries to donate can arrange a pickup.
  • Rare books aren’t uncommon to find in donation boxes. Recently someone dropped off a first edition of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” valued at $4,000. It’s now in a locked case in the store.
  • The entire store is 30 percent off on Black Friday every year.
  • The bookstore is located at 126 Crosby St. For more info, visit housingworks.org.