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At first glance, Housing Works Used Book Café seems to lack celebrity draw. Behind a cast-iron entrance, the store offers an unpretentious collection of books. You have to get past Dave Barry Turns 40 and Yoga Baby to find, say, a decent copy of All the Pretty Horses. But there's a café at the back and quiet seating on the balcony above. Book sales will bring in $550,000 this year, all of which goes to Housing Works, Inc., a nonprofit that provides housing to homeless people with HIV and AIDS.
Housing Works founder Charles King knows that his constituencythat is, "people with AIDS, histories of chemical dependence and incarceration"is not a "sympathetic group in the popular mind. If we were going around to publishers asking them to write a check to support these issues, I'm not sure we'd get it."
So what brings the lit crowd to the bookstore? For one thing, it's elegant, with mahogany bookshelves and spiral staircases. Back when Tina Brown was editing The New Yorker, the magazine began its tradition of throwing Housing Works parties for staff writers who had published new books. The high point would be when Tina slightly ascended the staircase, seeking a platform from which to deliver her toast. At one point, The New Yorker's Housing Works parties were so popular that staffers joked they should have Condé Nast buy the space.
It wasn't for sale. Indeed, the store has a spiritual aura that inspires generosity in otherwise stingy publishing types. Thus, at an all-day Literary Magazine Fair in April, 70 journals donated 20 copies of their respective publications, which were sold to participants for $2 each. Fence editor Rebecca Wolff, who organized the event, says the sales raised $3000 for Housing Works.
Slate columnist Lucas Miller goes to Housing Works to hear favorite writers read. For example, at the recent Stanley Crouch reading, Miller got to see Crouch "steal the show" from Ugandan novelist Moses Isegawa. For others, the store has a political draw. Steve Rendall, senior analyst at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, holds panels there because he supports Housing Works' mission and "because they kicked Giuliani's ass in court." (The city was recently rebuked for withholding federal housing funds from Housing Works on political grounds.)
But you don't have to be an activist to be a fan. "I go because it's a good coffee shop," says Nerve online editor Jack Murnighan. "There aren't too many places where one can just sit and read all day. You might think you're innocently spending the afternoon in Barnes & Noble or Starbucks, but by doing that, you're contributing to the demise of the tiny bookshop."
Demise is not on the agenda for Housing Works. King has enlisted Ben Kracauer, the architect who designed the original store, to plan an additional floor downstairs, which is scheduled to open next fall. While the new space will be used "to sell books," says Kracauer, "with a simple moving of furniture on wheels, it will open up into a performance space with lighting and sound." Collapsible chairs are expected to seat up to 200, compared to the café area upstairs, which currently holds about 75.
The downstairs will have two entrances: a new mahogany staircase descending from the main floor, and a passenger elevator that will be accessible from the street. Movable bookcases will allow more books to be displayed, and with the new stage, the space will be able to accommodate not just readings and catered parties but also musical performances, plays, and film screenings. Likely shows might include an underground video series and alternative performers who would not get a venue otherwise. Salon (a heavy book donor) and Lingua Franca have already booked the space for parties in September.
The store was not always so flush. After opening in 1996, it lost money for the first 18 months, in part because the books were priced way too low. In January 1997, after a consultant told King he needed staffers with used-book experience, King hired two Strand employees, Lee Peterson and Nancy Young, who have run the store ever since. (The store is not their only collaboration: Peterson and Young are expecting their first child any day.)
The bookstore relies entirely on random donations, says Peterson, which come variously from people who are moving or deceased, book reviewers, literary agencies, publishers, and collectors. In selecting which books to display, the staff caters to the tastes of regularspeople who live or work in the neighborhood, book dealers, and collectors. "We keep stock moving so fast," he says. "We want them to feel that if they don't come in every day, they'll miss something." The store is known for its first editions of art books, its signed books, and its older first editions of fiction.
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 Yorker and 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."