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SoHo Broadway’s Town Square: Housing Works Bookstore Cafe

If there is any place in SoHo that could be called a town square or a community center, it is the Housing Works Bookstore Café at 126 Crosby Street (also known as the rear address of 594 Broadway).

A true social equalizer, Housing Works Bookstore Cafe is the one place along SoHo Broadway where all SoHo constituents, residents, workers, and tourists, may come together for the opportunity to have the “chance encounter” that urbanist Jane Jacobs posited as essential to urban living. The Bookstore also qualifies as SoHo Broadway’s premier “third place,” a term coined by  sociologist Ray Oldenburg and refers to places where people spend time between home (‘first’ place) and work (‘second’ place). They are “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction (Wikipedia).

And yet Housing Works Bookstore Cafe is so much more than just a bookstore and cafe. Housing Works, the bookstore’s umbrella organization, was founded in 1990 to “end the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS through relentless advocacy, the provision of lifesaving services, and entrepreneurial businesses that sustain our efforts.” The Bookstore falls into the third prong of its mission.

The Bookstore opened in 1996 to fund advocacy, treatment, and housing for homeless populations living with HIV/AIDS. Having experienced earlier pushback from the community, it was also seen as “complete vindication from those naysayers who fear that service programs like those operated by Housing Works would have a negative impact on the presence of the neighborhood,” as cited by Gavin Browning in his Housing Works History timeline.

Patrons read, sip coffee, and chat at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe (photo: Housing Works)

The Bookstore is a vast, high-ceilinged space built in the style of the bookstores of yesteryear, with wooden staircases leading to a mezzanine level and a few glass-fronted cases that house rare and collectible books. All stock (books, records, media, food) is donated, and most of the staff are unpaid volunteers who take weekly shifts working the cash register, making coffee drinks, and stocking shelves.

The Bookstore also has a very active public programming roster, holding several events per week including book launches, music concerts, and The Moth, a live storytelling series. It is also a popular venue for charity events and can be rented for parties and weddings.

The lot where the Bookstore stands today was part of Niblo’s Garden from the 1820’s until 1895 (image: New York Public Library)

Before the 594 Broadway/126 Crosby building was built in 1898, the lot where the Bookstore stands today was part of Niblo’s Garden from the 1820’s until 1895, one of New York City’s premier “pleasure gardens,” venues where wealthy New Yorkers could find diversion and amusement, both indoors and out, prior to the advent of public parks.  The garden’s main entrance was at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street and extended all the way to Crosby Street to the east and Houston Street to the north.

Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe has changed little over the past 22 years. It is a quiet behemoth in our community’s cultural landscape, one that serves all of our constituents on a level playing field, and it is therefore a local gem, simultaneously icon and iconoclast.

Yukie Ohta is founder of SoHo Memory Project.
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