By Tom Momberg
Now a part of the Bayside community for over five years, Turn The Page … Again, has become the neighborhood bookstore. More so, it has now given employment and vocational training opportunities to countless numbers of individuals who have mental disabilities like anxiety or mood disorders.
The independent bookstore is by and large a business, but works as part of a non-profit organization to be so much more.
As an arm of Transitional Services for New York Inc., the store’s revolving 14 staffers work for minimum wage for nine to 12 months as the non-profit helps them identify vocational goals and to develop skills to secure employment after leaving the bookstore.
Store Manager Elle Fliegel said about half of the individuals coming to work at the staff, many of whom were just recently released from hospitals or group care, find work or other training after finishing Transitional Services’ program at the store.
“They do everything from outreach in the community, cashier, stocking, labeling, pricing, customer service,” which Fliegel said transfers over to those disabled people being more independent and being able to at least partially take care of themselves.
The store sells coffee and snacks, which encourages many of the staffers to obtain the state’s food handlers’ certificate. Other staffers come up with programs, specials, educational incentives for community children, and design posters and input data on spreadsheets — all skills transferable to their next chapter in life, whatever it may be.
“For some of them, this is a big step — to transition into regular employment. One of the things I wanted with this store is not so much to be testing people all the time as to what their skills might be, but rather to give them actual hands-on experience and evaluate them,” Transitional Services CEO Larry Grubler said.
“They are actually finding what (they’re good at) themselves and saying I like this and get a lot of feedback, or saying I didn’t know I could do this,” Fliegel chimed in.
Five years in, the store is functional without real management. The staff take on leadership roles and help train other staff, come up with business ideas and assist customers in finding whatever they need. They will even take a wish list and call customers if they find a book they are looking for.
“They did this,” Grubler said. “This was not the business model I came up with when we started. Elle and the staff here changed it, and definitely for the better to the point where they run the store themselves.”
Transitional Services and the bookstore rely heavily on funding from the state Office of Mental Health and the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“I honestly think if we could replicate this business model across the city, many more people would be employed,” Grubler said.