When Jenna Bush Hager started her book club, her primary goals were to promote literacy across the United States and to create an uplifting, inclusive community of readers. During the coronavirus pandemic, this became more important than ever.
COVID-19 safety restrictions on libraries and bookstores limited our access to books, and reduced these places' abilities to serve as the literary and social focal points of their towns. In particular, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on small local bookstores around the country, many of which had to lay off employees and close their doors.
Now, as Read With Jenna heads into its third year and the pandemic continues to impact local businesses, it's an opportunity to highlight local bookstores.
Since April is Autism Awareness Month, our very first local bookstore spotlight is [words] Bookstore in Maplewood, New Jersey — an independent, award-winning bookstore with a focus on helping the special-needs community.
"[words] Bookstore opened on January 20, 2009 in Maplewood, New Jersey, with twin missions," store owner Jonah Zimiles told TODAY via email. "To serve the literary and social needs of everyone in our diverse community, and to provide vocational training and a warm and welcoming environment for individuals with autism."
About 18 years ago, Zimiles left a successful legal practice to take care of his son, Daniel, who has autism. When he and his wife, Ellen, learned that the local bookstore in their town was closing, they decided to buy the store and reinvent it, turning it into a social hub for the town of Maplewood and a haven for those with special needs. The store has a section devoted exclusively to books on special needs, one of the largest of its kind in the entire country, and Zimiles is proud to say that his bookstore has provided jobs or job training to more than 100 young adults with autism.
"In addition to our vocational training program, for the past decade, [words] has offered free monthly extracurricular activities for children with special needs, brought in many top speakers in the area, provided meeting space for parents, book selections for educators, the list goes on and on!" said Zimiles.
Sadly, Zimiles also said that the pandemic has had a "severe impact" on the store's business. "We had to pivot almost exclusively to online sales, which previously accounted for a very small portion of our business. And on top of that, we had to stop all in-store events." Despite this, he remains optimistic that the store's community will help [words] come back better than ever once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
To stay up to date on the latest book club news, subscribe to the Read With Jenna newsletter!
For more book recommendations, check out: