Ellen And Jonah Zimlies

Sean Adams/WCBS 880

Stories From Main Street: Vocational Training For People With Autism At Maplewood, N.J. Bookstore

August 12, 2018 - 12:00 am

MAPLEWOOD, N.J. (WCBS 880) -- There’s something unique about Words Bookstore in Maplewood, New Jersey.

“We have about 300 autism titles, which is probably 20 times the amount that most small, independent bookstores would have,” said owner Jonah Zimiles.

There is a reason Jonah and his wife, Ellen carry the books.

“Our second child, Daniel, was born in 1995, and a few years later, he was diagnosed with autism,” he said.

Jonah and Ellen Zimiles are both attorneys. He chose to stay home with their son.

Over time, they started to consider the future.

“People with autism are older – are adults longer than they are children, and it’s very important that they can have some sort of vocation and be productive members of society,” Ellen said.

So during the recession of 2008, when a local bookstore was for sale, there was a light-bulb moment.

“Maybe we could have a vocational program in a bookstore,” Ellen said..” Jonah’s response was, ‘What are you talking about?’”

But having just obtained a business degree, Jonah took a chance. And Words became a community hub.

Words Bookstore
Sean Adams/WCBS 880

“We also started convening meetings of autism parents here. We made it quite clear that this was a safe space or a great place for kids to come in, and maybe receive a warm welcome,” Jonah said.

And it became a place where older teens with autism could learn a skill and earn a paycheck.

“Jonah has done something called job crafting – figuring out what the right work is to address their skillset,” Ellen said.

“Restocking a lot of our shelves; sometimes there’s some, you know, kind of moderate cleaning work; putting labels on books; shelving books,” Jonah said.

Added Ellen, “We can’t hire everyone, but what we can do is give them the ability to get hired elsewhere.”

“Many people have told us that we’re the heart of Maplewood, and we’re very gratified whenever anyone says that,” Jonah added.