Housing Works Bookstore and Café: Where Public and Private Coexist

Photo of Housing Works Café and Bookstore: Photo By Jamie Toto

Tucked away on Crosby Street in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan is one of Housing Work’s properties, a unique space that serves a multitude of purposes, but is predominantly a bookstore for used items, and a café. This space has the astonishing ability to be considered public and private at the same time – characteristics developed by Michael Warner in his book Publics and Counterpublics. This bookstore and café can be seen as public when it is a bookstore, but private when the space is rented out for events such as weddings and benefit shows.

In order to fully comprehend how this is possible, a trip to this bookstore is warranted. Entering the bookstore, one is first greeted by the comforting smell of books and the welcoming sight of smiling volunteers. One of those volunteers, who can be found sorting through the mass of donated books that fills the store, is Natasha. A recent addition to the bookstore, Natasha is one of the many volunteers who is more than willing to boast about the work and mission that Housing Works, and this bookstore, stands for, in addition to the roles they play towards the function of the space.

According to Natasha, Housing Works is an organization that was founded in New York City during the 1990’s and functions to serve the tens of thousands of homeless men, women, and children in New York City with HIV and AIDS. She explained that Housing Works owns multiple thrift shops which are spread around the city, but only one bookstore. What is interesting about this bookstore, she went on to say, is that the majority of the people that work in the space are volunteers who were all attracted to the uniqueness of this space.

For Natasha, she became involved after being a devoted customer. Her love of the space, books, and the opportunity to promote the mission of Housing Works drove her to find out how she could personally be a part of this bookstore. This mission, which is proudly painted onto the wall above a bookcase in the café section, is the main reason that many of the volunteers devote their time.

The Housing Works’ mission statement, painted onto the wall of the Café: Photo by Jamie Toto

The mission reads, “Our mission is to end the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS through relentless advocacy, the provision of lifesaving services, and entrepreneurial businesses that sustain our efforts.” This statement fully embodies exactly what the volunteers, bookstore, and Housing Works aim to do with this space. It is made possible by the sometimes public, sometimes private nature of the space.

After hearing about the mission of the space, it is incredible to realize how all the money that is made at the bookstore goes towards the Housing Works organization itself. The large monetary donations that are raised by selling the donated books, along with the work from the volunteer staff, makes this possible. All of this money is then able to go to the many services that Housing Works provides, such as medical and dental care, behavioral counseling, personal healthcare management workshops, emotional supportive services, and housing resources (www.housingworks.org).

It is even more astonishing that on some weekends the Housing Works bookstore and café is able to make even more money to put towards its mission. On certain weekends the store is closed off from the public, the tables and chairs are moved, and the space is rented out for personal use. This includes hosting shows such as “Ask Roulette with Robert Krulwich, Rembert Browne, Eli Bolin and More,” where people can pay money to see people answer personal questions about their lives (www.housingworks.org). Natasha explained that on some weekends, the Housing Works bookstore and café is closed so that they can host weddings. It is astonishing how this establishment is able to raise so much money through how the space is used both publically and privately. The bookstore and café can be converted from such a public space to a private one so quickly, and this all contributes to the uniqueness and high-functionality of this space.

Inside the Housing Works’ bookstore and café: Photo By Jamie Toto

For a Wednesday afternoon, the bookstore was pretty busy. There were people of all different ages that were chatting with other customers about books and the bookstore itself. In the café area, there were some people sitting alone working on their laptops, while others were reading. There were also other groups of people catching up with each other, including the shocking reunion of two friends who spotted each other from the across the bookstore. They were overfilled with joy and this bookstore/café surprisingly became their place to catch up and talk.

The joy between the two old friends exemplifies how the Housing Works’ bookstore café has the ability to change its space attributes so quickly. Michael Warner argues in his book Publics and Counterpublics that , “throughout western tradition, private and public have been commonly and sensibly understood as distinct zones” – much like a bedroom being compared to a living room” (Warner, 26). However, at Housing Works these zones do not exist since the distinct entities with the public and private attributes are able to coexist. Warner’s criteria for a public space are that it is open to everyone, it is outside the home, and it is known widely (Warner, 29). His criteria for a private space are that it is special and also personal. What makes the Housing Works bookstore café unique is that it can qualify as both at once. It has the ability to shift between public and private depending on what is going on at the bookstore, contradicting Warner’s original argument of a space divided into distinct zones.

Second floor of the Housing Works bookstore and café: Photo by Jamie Toto

The general atmosphere of the bookstore/café and the warmth of the staff and customers make it difficult to leave. The smell of the books and the acceptance of everyone who walks through the door creates such a friendly and welcoming environment that it is easy to see how people, like Natasha, grow to become passionate about this space. The ever-changing environment of the Housing Work’s bookstore/café has added to the uniqueness of the space, making it more capable to promote their mission and positively affect the lives of the homeless and AIDS community.

To learn more about Housing Works and their mission, make sure to check out their website: www.housingworks.org


Book Source:

Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone, 2002. Print.


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