More than Words Take Bold Move with Books on East Berkeley

May 17, 2018
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Every neighborhood dreams of a cozy bookstore in their area, but neighbors in the South End’s East Berkeley Street area are not just getting that dream bookstore, but also a youth-led bookstore whose mission is to change the life trajectory of young people in Boston.

More Than Words (MTW) expanded to the South End six years ago in the second floor of a building on East Berkeley Street across from the Pine Street Inn. Their first location in Waltham allowed youth to learn life skills and build a business at the same time by selling books online. The move to the South End allowed them to open a small retail store to sell high-quality donated, used books.

It’s a program that has turned many people around, empowering young people in the foster care system, who are court-involved, homeless or out of school.

“When I started I was pessimistic,” said Emmanuel, 19, of Boston, who said he was spending most of his days doing nothing. “I didn’t want to do it. As I went through the program, my eyes opened and I saw they were teaching me universal tools I could use anywhere. I was certainly not the most productive individual when I came here. Now, I’m a software developer. I can thank More Than Words for that.”

Apart from turning around lives of young people through their bookstore and online book sales, the non-profit is turning over a new leaf by expanding the operation to the first floor where Medieval Manor used to exist. Now, a bright, inviting new retail bookstore space will greet visitors on the street level. Next to that, the warehouse operations – which are now far-flung at a Winchester facility – will move to the first floor as well, with all loading operations moving from the street (which has slowed down traffic in the past) to a new back-door loading dock. The first-floor space will also include a flexible community space and an area to view movies or documentaries.

On the second floor, the operation will continue with the life skills center, the online sales operations center and office functions.

Founder Jodi Rosenbaum said the project would likely be completed in June, with an opening date slated for August.

“Our landlord Stuart Rose really believes in our organization, and we had the opportunity to expand to the first floor and so we have started a construction project already,” said Naomi Parker, marketing manager. “Having the warehouse here rather than in Winchester will make us more efficient and more youth will get to learn about working in the warehouse. The overall expansion will allow us to serve 60 percent more youth and grow our bookstore to 10,500 square feet. and increase revenue from the youth-led social enterprise by 75 percent. We’ll be able to have more online inventory and, very importantly, a freight elevator.”

Rose, who is very active in the East Berkeley Neighborhood Association (EBNA), has said he really likes the direction of MTW and fully supports their expansion. He said he felt that that program and the new bookstore space will be a natural fit in the neighborhood.

It’s easy to see why it’s an inspiring place to shop.

In the current second-floor space, young people are moving about frenetically sorting books, cataloging books, and selling books.

On the wall is a big board full of sales goals and intake goals. The youth have to scan in 3,000 new books per day, post 500 books for sale online, sell $3,321 in books online, sell $100 worth of merchandise in the store, and add 20 books to the store inventory. That must be done every day, and young people aged 16 to 24 can be seen making that happen.

In 2017, the operation scanned 2.6 million books, sold $2.1 million in books, with those sales amounting to 45 percent of the operating budget.

“Our motto is to empower youth to take charge of their lives through taking charge of a business,” said Lia, 24, who graduated from the program in January and is at the two-year ‘graduate’ stage.

In the program, those hired become trainees, associates, partners, senior partners and shift leaders. Throughout the process they learn more and more about the business, but they also work on the ‘You’ part of the business. That includes getting themselves together – doing things like opening a bank account, getting a driver’s license, and making plans for the future.

Lia said when she came, she wasn’t sure what she would learn, but the experience has propelled her to enrolling online at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) to get an associate’s degree.

“I really wasn’t being productive in my life when I came here either,” said Lia. I was out of school and attempting to go back to school. It didn’t work out, and they helped me here find SNHU. If it wasn’t for More Than Words, I don’t think I would have found that opportunity.”

For Emmanuel, he was able to find the Resilient Coders program, which put him on the path to learning about being a software designer. That was something he always wanted to do but found it to be out of reach.

That changed after he graduated from More Than Words last year.

“I don’t see myself ever finding Resilient Coders without More Than Words, to be totally honest,” he said.

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