For the past five years, Jeshanah Gerald has worked on and off at More Than Words, a bookstore in the South End. The 23-year-old does much of the work you would expect of a bookseller: stocking new titles, shipping out book orders, and providing customer service where needed. But when Gerald first came to work at the store, More Than Words wasn’t just part-time work for a teenager looking to make extra cash — it was a lifeline.
More Than Words is a bookstore and nonprofit that employs disenfranchised youth between the ages of 16 and 24 to help “take charge of their lives” and run a business while offering them a range of resources and services. Graduates like Gerald return to the store not just to pick up shifts and lead tours, but to serve as mentors to other youth.
“Growing up in an unstable household and being a homeless youth, you [can be] very angry,” Gerald said. “I used to have big anger issues. More Than Words taught me a lot of coping mechanisms, support for when I am having those days. More Than Words [is] like family more than anything. I take their opinion and point of view very seriously.”
The program gave Gerald a job and a support system, which helped her open a bank account and secure housing. Most importantly, it has offered her steadiness while she “figure[s] out the way that life works.”
Jodi Rosenbaum, the CEO and founder of the bookstore, got the idea for More Than Words after a friend came across a pile of used books with titles that they thought could be worth good money. As someone with a background in child welfare and juvenile justice, the discovery got Rosenbaum thinking.
“My wheels just started turning. I could imagine some of those young people I had worked with sitting with books and selling them… It was an idea that I couldn’t get out of my head,” she said.
Rosenbaum’s vision became More Than Words. The non-profit opened its first storefront in Waltham in 2005. The business has gone on to open a second location in Boston’s South End neighborhood.
The young people they employ have been in the foster care system, faced homelessness, are court-involved, out of school, or involved with the Department of Mental Health, according to More Than Words’ website.
“More Than Words was founded on this deep belief that young people can do more,” Rosenbaum said. “They can be part of their own solutions, and they can be empowered to take charge of their lives. There’s a better way to do this work — social services don’t need to look like remediation and rehabilitation. It can look like giving young people high expectations and paid jobs.”
We asked Boston.com readers for the small businesses that they most enjoy frequenting, and More Than Words made our local shopping guide. Earlier this year, the shop also appeared in our independent bookstore guide, and reader Will W. from Dorchester shared what makes it special.
“The mix of new and used books makes it an ideal one-stop shop, the merchandise is perfect for a last-minute present run, and the mission of the bookstore is phenomenal,” he told us. “One of my favorite Sunday pastimes is wandering through the shelves and seeing what I discover.”
The South End shop is “high-end and beautiful,” according to Rosenbaum. In addition to new and used books, customers can also find products from other mission-driven businesses selling jewelry, candles, granola, and more. The bookshelves are designed with wheels on the bottom, so they can be moved away for events. The second floor is a “beehive of activity,” Rosenbaum said, filled with an inventory of books, spaces for workshops, and offices.
Before a young person can start working at More Than Words, they participate in a readiness program that trains them for the job and assesses their needs, whether that be a safe place to sleep at night or access to healthy meals. Through their work at the bookstore, they learn teamwork and problem-solving, in addition to skills like merchandising, how to work the register, how to ship out books, and much more.
Aside from working their shifts, the young people participate in workshops, map out their goals through case management, and have a chance to work with career coaches. They do advocacy and policy work, meeting with legislators and testifying at the State House, with a “[focus] on criminal justice and reforming the child welfare cliff.” More Than Words staff members support youth outside of the bookshop, as well: They show up at court dates, help them find housing, and generally assist them in transitioning to adulthood.
The youth who work at More Than Words come a long way, Rosenbaum said. One transformation Rosenbaum has noticed is among youth who don’t necessarily think they like books when they first come to More Than Words.
“We have a lot of young people who come to More Than Words who don’t think they like books, who don’t see themselves as people who read. I think it’s a little bit of a discomfort, at first,” she said. “… All of a sudden, they start to really understand, what’s the difference between sociology and anthropology, what’s current affairs. They start to really learn the genres of books.”
More Than Words does something more than giving at-risk youth a job, Rosenbaum said. It instills a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.
“We’re in the business of centering young people and helping them feel valued, important, and connected,” she said. “More Than Words is a pretty special non-profit in that the public can come in. They can interact with our young people. They can support our young people by shopping, donating books, hosting their events… There’s just more tangible ways to connect with our young people, with our mission, because of the nature of the model.”
More Than Words; 242 E. Berkeley St., Boston; 56 Felton St., Waltham.
This store is one of more than 100 local businesses recommended by readers or Boston.com staff as among the best in the Greater Boston area. See Boston.com’s guides to local businesses in and outside of Boston, and find a small business near you using the interactive map below.