Among the row of restaurants, salons and convenience stores along Bell Boulevard, it is easy to miss Turn the Page Again, a used bookstore. But the little Bayside shop is making a big difference in the lives of its workers.
The store is operated by Transitional Services for New York (TSINY), an organization that provides rehabilitative, housing, vocational and other services to people living with a mental illness. About 18 years ago, TSINY approached the city to open an affirmative business for people who have had a psychiatric diagnosis.
The goal was to rehabilitate and train these individuals in order for them to successfully move on and get a job, according to CEO Larry Grubler.
“A lot of people came to us and they’ve never had a job before,” Grubler told QNS. “There’s a misconception about people’s intellectual ability if you have a mental health disability. People are smart. They can work the register. They can learn those skills, but they’ve never had the opportunity.”
The organization opened Arts and Crafts Cafe in Jamaica. The business was successful, Grubler said, but he realized a food service model was difficult to sustain. Further, workers were staying at the cafe and not moving on, thus not meeting its goal to provide transitional employment.
“We said, ‘Okay, this is great, but it’s not getting people to transition and move on,'” he said.
Grubler, a Bayside resident, approached the city with a new model and saw an opportunity in a small local storefront on Bell Boulevard. Turn the Page Again was opened in 2010, with Grubler and his wife supplying books from their personal collection to get the business on its feet.
Today, books are sourced from the Queens Borough Public Library system and donations from local residents and are available for purchase for $1 to $5 each.
At the shop, individuals over the age of 18 from areas around New York City work at the bookstore for six to nine months and learn valuable employment skills, including punctuality, customer service and how to interact with a supervisor. The employees are then offered services by a job developer, who helps them set realistic career goals, write a resume and move on to another job.
When the bookstore was first established, Grubler made regular visits. However, he quickly came to a realization: the workers were “more than capable” of running the shop.
“After we opened, I became less and less involved,” he said. “They open and close. They do the banking. They came up with a program for kids in the neighborhood where, if you came with a ‘B’ or better on your report card, you come in to get a free book … They took a business model — I guess I came up with the concept — but they took it and ran with it.”
When the group decided to add a small cafe area to the shop to offer customers coffee and cake, Grubler realized workers handling the food needed to be certified by the city. This addition wound up having a valuable impact.
“An added benefit is that [skill] then gets transferred to the next level of employment. They can put that on their resume,” the CEO said. “Some people have gotten hired by restaurants and movie theaters because they could say, ‘I already have that certificate.'”
Workers also took on the store’s marketing, coming up with monthly specials and organizing programming for children and parents.
Those who have worked at Turn the Page Again have moved on to a number of new opportunities over the years. Some moved on to achieve their GED or study in higher education, while others gained employment in the pharmacy, retail and service industries.
In recent years, Grubler has been approached by other Queens Community Boards who want to see the organization bring a similar affirmative business to their community. This is a dream Grubler hopes can become reality.
“This really does help to break the stigma of mental illness,” he said. “When somebody comes and says, ‘We want your people here’: that doesn’t happen in our world.”
The biggest and only challenge, he said, is funding.
“The store will never be self-supporting,” Grubler said. “We’ll never sell as many books as we need to even pay the rent.”
The store is granted annual funding by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and New York state for its operations. However, TSINY is actively seeking funds to continue and expand its affirmative business program.
This summer, the bookstore will join a national movement and participate in PBS’ “The Great American Read,” an eight-part television series and campaign designed to inspire Americans to read, vote and share their personal connections to titles on a top 100 list, as selected through a national survey.
Hosted by Meredith Vieira, the series will feature interviews with notables including George R.R. Martin, Lauren Graham and Seth Meyers and begins on May 22 at 8 p.m. The Bayside bookstore will offer books, programming and other opportunities in coordination with the national event.
Turn the Page Again is located at 39-15 Bell Blvd. and can be reached at 718-767-2341. Visit the shop’s website for updates.