Symposia’s Secrets of Survival  

Hoboken bibliophiles beat the odds

Photos by Victor M. Rodriguez

Usually when a big-box chain store comes to town, its mom-and-pop equivalent gets nervous. Maybe they even start thinking of a plan B. But Symposia Bookstore and Community Center is the exception. The small, indie bookstore survived in Hoboken when Barnes and Noble could not.

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The place is a treasure trove of affordable used books. The variety is impressive. It has everything from fiction and biographies to bestsellers, self-help, art books, and kids’ books. In fair weather, passersby can stop and peruse tables with a myriad of book selections on view.

“You can see what Hoboken has been reading when you stop in,” says Manager Carmen Rusu, who runs the shop with her husband, Director Corneliu Rusu. A nonprofit, its merchandise is donated by area residents. The shelves thus become a window into the mind of the average Hobokenite. (There’s a sizable self-help section.)

“People read a lot, and apartments are small,” Carmen says. That means that the shop, which is always looking for new books and offers tax-deductible receipts, has a wide selection.

Symposia also sells books online in its Amazon store, which is accessible through the website.

Outlasting Goliath

So how did this small shop outlive Barnes and Noble?  The book chain closed its Hoboken location in 2010, citing high rent as a major reason. Carmen says that they’ve gotten lucky when it comes to the rent for their location on Washington Street.

The couple first opened Symposia on Willow Street in 2002. Carmen says that the store was off the beaten track, and they struggled to find a regular customer base. One night, at their monthly conversation group, an event that they still regularly hold, a friend mentioned that she knew of a space for rent. The friend knew Dave Roberts who was mayor at that time. Roberts had an empty store that was formerly a political office. Carmen and Corneliu spoke to Roberts.

“He liked what we were doing,” Carmen says. Symposia moved into the Washington Street store in 2004. “He allows us to stay here for a fraction of the market value,” she says.

The move to a more visible location helped the bookstore find new customers.

But there’s another reason that Symposia is thriving. “We are being creative,” Carmen says. “We try to see what the community needs, and we adjust.”

The Community Component

One way Symposia serves the community is with events like yoga classes and guitar circle. “Our mission is to empower the community,” Carmen says. That means that they offer their space, for a small donation or in some cases for free, to community members looking for a place where they can do something positive in Hoboken. “We had one woman who had a passion to teach young women and girls how to be assertive through drama,” Carmen recalls. The woman used Symposia to hold meetings and a performance. “It was very moving.”

Another event that’s in the rotation is Puppetonia, interactive puppet shows for babies and children. Puppetonia is a business that the couple created. “We have over a hundred shows, all original scripts,” Carmen says. They noticed that the store was pretty quiet in the morning, so they created Puppetonia in 2006 to appeal to young children and parents. The musicals are educational. “We have generations of kids now,” Carmen says. “We have teenagers stopping in to tell us that they have fond memories.”

Symposia seeks volunteers, who are given a chance to play to their strengths. Jobs include stocking shelves, sorting through donations, assisting customers, and organizing events. Their hours depend on their availability.

Plus, the position comes with some pretty cool perks. “We give free books to our volunteers,” Carmen says. “It’s a great opportunity for bookworms.”—07030

Symposia Bookstore
510 Washington St.
(201) 963-0909

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