As much as Symposia, Hoboken’s only independent bookstore, is a proprietor of the written word, it is also a community hub, a place where Hobokenites often come together to discuss the issues of the day, do yoga, or watch a puppet show.
But even though it’s more than a bookstore, it must sell books to stay afloat. It doesn’t sell them for much, one and two dollars at times. The key is that the store relies heavily on a continued stream book donations from the community, but lately the river’s run dry.
“We need constant donations of books in order to survive,” said Carmen Rusu, who runs the store, which operates as a non-profit, along with volunteer Enrique Villabol.
Anything except magazines and periodicals can be donated, and all donations are tax deductible. The store will even arrange a pickup from your home or office within a certain distance from the store.
Located on Washington Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets, Symposia conjures a feeling of a Hoboken of decades past, when the city was a bit more bohemian and full of struggling artists and writers.
The books are displayed systematically, but appear haphazard, giving the customer the sense that buried treasure could be just out of view. The store’s artwork is rotating, often the work of Hoboken locals. And the furniture is easily removable, so as to easily transform the space into a lecture space, yoga studio, or children’s puppet theater.
“This is definitely more than simply a bookstore.” – Carmen Rusu
“This is definitely more than simply a bookstore,” said Rusu. “We try to operate as a community hub that has activities that are of interest to the people of Hoboken, most of which are free.”
A place for everyone
For instance, many of the activities held at Symposia are geared towards children. It wasn’t always that way, but as goes Hoboken, so goes Symposia. “Puppetonia,” which is held every weekday from 10 a.m. to noon, strives to teach toddlers more than simply their ABC’s.
“The music and puppets incorporate important social skills, early academics, motor skills, and self-expression,” according to Rusu.
Additionally, the store is widening its yoga-for-beginners classes, which are held every Wednesday at 7 p.m. for just five dollars, to include babies. There are also baby-specific “Puppetonias” that are held every Tuesday at 2 p.m. and Thursday at 1:30 p.m.
Other programs, geared towards adults, represent Hoboken’s diverse interests as well. While the store hosts a guitar circle every Thursday night to appeal to the artistic community, it has also taken steps to appeal to the business community.
Last month, it hosted Hoboken’s first Ethical Business Summit, which had the tagline “How to make money and make the world a better place at the same time.”
The store’s book choices reflect the city’s interests as well. Because most of its stock comes from donations, Rusu says that most of what Symposia sells is what Hoboken is reading.
“It’s interesting to see the breakdown, because you know that’s what the city is reading,” she said, before joking, “About 30 percent of our books are for children, and we have a huge biography and fiction section, but a very little philosophy section.”
Former mayor involved
It’s easy to scratch one’s head at the fact that a used bookstore which operates on a non-profit model has been able to stay afloat on Washington Street, where rents have skyrocketed in recent years and businesses like the Gap and Anthropologie have moved in.
Symposia has had some help. The store used to be located on Willow Street, and began looking for a new space when their lease ran out in 2005. Around that time, Mayor David Roberts, who owns East L.A., the Mexican restaurant next door to Symposia’s present home, had been looking to expand his business.
However, he met Rusu and decided that their mission was one worth supporting. So he rented space to Symposia at a fraction of its market value. He continues to support the store to this day, simply because “it serves a very important community purpose.”
“We had hoped to expand our own business, but once we met them, we thought it would be a positive thing for Hoboken to support them, and we are happy to continue to be their benefactors,” he said.
Roberts noted that, at the time, Symposia wasn’t Hoboken’s only bookstore (there was a Barnes & Noble downtown), but it was the only one hosting the types of events the former mayor believed could make Hoboken a better place to live.
“It’s not just that it’s a bookstore, but also about the types of programs they have their and the discussions they facilitate,” he said. “I don’t always agree with what they’re talking about, but the conversation is good for the community, it makes the community stronger.”
Symposia is located at 510 Washington Street. For more information, call (201) 963-0909.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org