Book Samaritans

Housing Works a Hit With Lit Crowd

Housing Works also sells rare books online, a venture King says he intends to expand. Recent sales include a first edition of Junkie, which went for $450, and a first edition of Wilhelm Reich's 1951 treatise on "orgone energy," which brought $500. The current prize, locked in a case at the front of the store, is a 1958 French edition of Les Américains, a book of photographs by Robert Frank. Asking price: $2750.

The store owes some of its status to Jennifer Bluestein, a 27-year-old publicist at Howard Rubenstein Associates. Bluestein, who discovered Housing Works when she worked at The New Yorkerand Harper's, recognized the need for the managers to systematically seek out contacts in the literary world who could help publicize the space. To that end, she assembled an advisory board that includes fiction writers, book review editors, book publicists, and lit-mag editors whose ages range from 26 to 35.

The board does a lot of brainstorming, but its main job is to suggest authors for readings and then persuade publicists to donate the required 20 copies of the author's book. Bluestein says the board's existence proves there are industry people who are "generous," "intellectually curious," and not consumed with "café society." "It's a sitcom for smart, committed people," she jokes.

Jonathan Lethem, a novelist who sits on the board, says he was inspired to serve both by the "almost eerie quietude and generosity" of the store and the "funk and ferocity" of the mother organization. Lethem finds "something tonic" about turning publishing types into altruists, given that the literary world tends to be "pretty snide and selfish."

"Whether it's through volunteering or donating books or providing readings," says Charles King, "this is a very tangible way for people in publishing to support the fight against homelessness and AIDS."

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