Discover the Soho Bookstore That Makes Drinking PBR Selfless

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There are very few solid arguments in favor of drinking PBR (unless you’re a hipster or broke college student rationing those loan dollars), but you can feel better about your questionable taste in beer by drinking at Housing Works Bookstore Café, where money from that $3 can will go towards fighting AIDs and homelessness.

“We joke that it’s the one chance in the world that you get to do good with a PBR,” said Housing Works Bookstore Manager Merril Speck.

This eclectic hangout is the product of Housing Works, a New York-based nonprofit funded by this bookstore as well as 13 thrift shops sprinkled throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. The organization provides services like healthcare and affordable housing to residents living with HIV or AIDS.

In a time when many prefer buying the latest best seller with the simple click of the mouse (usually at a cheaper price), brick and mortar bookstores are struggling. Just last month, St. Marks Bookshop closed its east village doors after being open for nearly 40 years. These small businesses need to offer up much more than just a shopping experience, and that’s how Housing Works sets itself apart—by being absolutely everything. A trip to Crosby Street in Soho will lead you to this neighborhood joint where you can unwind with a grilled cheese and beer; donate to charity; contemplate your political ineptitude during a discussion on disaster capitalism one night and laugh at comedian Aziz Ansari’s stand up on another; rent out the venue to host your wedding; purchase Pretty Little Liars (the guilty pleasure you’ll read at home) along with A Lesson Before Dying (the respectable novel you’ll read on the subway) and get a free stash of condoms from a small bowl near the register (in case you happen to meet a hot date while browsing the LPs).

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Rooted in giving, everything inside the shop is a gift of altruism. The CDS, DVDS, records and books are donated by New York residents or publishers. The food and beverages are provided by businesses like Intelligentsia Coffee and Balthazar Restaurant. The cashiers are volunteers who give up four hours of their time one day a week to work a retail job.

“They are really what makes this place function,” Speck said of the nearly 200 volunteers that help run the bookstore and café.

Working in retail isn’t likely to be at the top of anyone’s list of dream jobs, so finding 200 people willing to do it for absolutely nothing is a little shocking—even if it is for a good cause.

“People [here] seem very appreciative I guess, and we always want to feel appreciated,” said Karen Varano, who finds time to volunteer at Housing Works in between her part-time job as a parent advocate for the Administration of Children Services and her other volunteer position with the National Alliance of Mental Illness. She found the store while playing tourist after moving from New Jersey nearly two and a half years ago. She signed up to volunteer during her first visit.

“I fell in love initially with the ambiance,” she said. “That old world feeling of a bookstore that we’re all kind of missing.”

No space is wasted in this two-story building. Wood and glass display cases house records of popular artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Eminem and The Beatles. Boxes of donated books are stacked in a corner. Clearly labeled bookcases line the walls to help readers find the material best suited to their literary palates. Carts of books featuring new additions as well as $.50 and $1 selections entice customers to browse. Even pillars do double duty with added shelves to display additional inventory.

Because everything is donated, Housing Works has a mix of items that looks a lot different than a corporate chain like Barnes & Noble.  There are the typical genres found in any bookstore: science fiction, fitness, theater and self help, but that latest best seller on your to-read list isn’t guaranteed to be on display. A glance through the $1 cart of books had a varied selection featuring works by prominent authors like Toni Morrison and Wally Lamb along with those less known for their bookish brilliance like Mary Kate and Ashley Olson. It’s also not uncommon for rare and valuable texts to find their way on the shelves, though those are kept safely behind the counter.

“We had a book worth a couple of thousand dollars,” said Varano. The work she’s referring to was an autographed book by graffiti artist Keith Haring.

The décor is minimalist and not at all fancy. Small, round tables perfect for solo readers and long, wooden ones suitable for spreading out with laptops and work make up the back of the store where the café is located. Christmas lights are strung throughout, and posters from old bookstore events cover the walls. Housing Works is like the home of that really quirky aunt in New Jersey—lived in and cluttered enough to feel cozy and comfortable, but not too chaotic that it crosses over to hoarder territory.

IMG_9760A winding stairwell leads to the second floor where you can search through more rows of reading or people watch from afar, which is one reason to visit as the patrons are an interesting mix of hipsters sporting glasses and well-fitted jeans, young professionals and the 50s and older crowd.

“We’re open to everybody,” said Varano as she explained how Housing Works customers runs the gamut, from affluent Soho types who work out at the high-end Equinox gym down the street, to people she suspects might be homeless.
It’s not surprising to see the wide range of customers considering all of the roles Housing Works Bookstore plays. Kristie Walsh, who works at Italian eatery Rubirosa around the corner, makes frequent stops and likes that she never knows what to expect, like when she popped in after work to relax and found herself at a discussion on disaster capitalism.

“I was actually just coming here to read, and then I found out this event was up, and I thought, ‘Oh awesome,'” she said.

Or the answer to the store’s broad appeal could be much simpler.

“We’re probably the only public restrooms in all of Soho,” said Speck.

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