Small Bookstore, Big Mission

Words bookstore, founded by Jonah Zimiles ’08, embraces the autism community and its stories.

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Jonah Zimiles '08 with his wife, Ellen, and son, Daniel.

Jonah Zimiles ’08 left his career as a lawyer to run a home program for his son, Daniel, after Daniel was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism. When Zimiles was ready to return to work, he knew he wanted to do something meaningful for the autism community—but didn’t know what.

To reset after working in law, Zimiles earned his MBA—a decision he credits for the success of his business—and his time at Columbia gave him the tools he needed to put his ideas into action. Along with his wife, Ellen, he founded Words bookstore in 2008 in his hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey.

Words is not just an award-winning bookstore; it’s a hub for the special-needs community that incorporates employment opportunities and training for people with autism, a dedicated section of autism books, and frequent special events for individuals with autism and their families.

Though words is a passion project built from Zimiles’s love for his son and dedication to the special-needs community, it is also a profitable, thriving business, with a second location opening this Spring.

Zimiles discusses why he founded Words and why there should be more special-needs resources like it.

What led you to get your MBA?

I wanted to pursue a path related to helping individuals with autism. I was particularly attracted to the School’s Social Enterprise Program and one of its components, the Nonprofit Board Leadership Program run by Sandi Drucker Wright. I was not originally sure what path I would follow after business school; I considered consulting to assist businesses that hired individuals with special needs or creating a fund that would either underwrite research into treatments for autism or fund capital projects for autism infrastructure.

What inspired you to start Words?

Words was founded shortly after my graduation from CBS in 2008. Credit for this inspiration, like most great ideas that I encounter (including applying to business school), goes to my wife, Ellen. She wanted us to offer vocational training for young people with autism. When the economy tanked, and she saw that the local independent bookstore was closing, she suggested that we buy the store and do our program through it.

How did you take the concept to a functioning business?

One of the best things that we did was to buy an existing business rather than start one from scratch. Although we completely rebranded and changed the focus of the business, and moved it from a small storefront on our town’s side street to one of the largest spaces on our town’s main street, buying an existing business enabled us to start with an intact infrastructure and, most importantly, a knowledgeable and dedicated staff, several of whom are still working for us 10 years later.

What makes Words different?

Words has two core missions. The first is to serve as an intellectual and commercial hub for our community. Our business area was a bit down in the dumps when we bought the bookstore. Now, we have been voted as the best downtown in the entire state of New Jersey. Second, we are a physical and social center for the autism community in Maplewood and surrounding areas.

Can you talk more about the autism books section?

We carry approximately 300 autism titles, which is probably more than 50 times what a typical small independent bookstore would have. Collecting these titles is not difficult—one of my jobs at the store is reviewing approximately 20,000 new adult book titles each year. From these, I pull out autism titles of interest, plus any others that I learn about through our autism network.

How does Words provide vocational training and support for people with autism as well as special programming for autism families?

We have had more than 100 young people with autism work in our store, either as paid employees or under our job-crafting program in which we attempt to find or create assignments in our business that meet the skills and interests of our special-needs employees or trainees. We work with special-needs schools and day programs in our area, as well as with vocational training organizations. In addition, because we work primarily with individuals with moderate to severe autism, we are providing opportunities to experience being part of the community that may not often be available to them.

Second Sundays is a program that we started many years ago to assist families in finding extracurricular activities for their special-needs children. We offer a variety of free programs, including art, woodworking, martial arts, music, drama, and crafts.

What other steps have you taken to make Words a welcoming place for the special-needs community?

We set up our store with wide aisles and places that would appeal to people with sensory challenges. We brought in consultants to train our staff when we first opened, which was quite helpful. Although I do not get to spend a great deal of time of the sales floor on a day-to-day basis, I try to always be available when an autism family visits the store, and I think that our staff has learned from watching these interactions. In addition, my son is in the store on a regular basis.

Did you find that the Maplewood community has been receptive to Words?

Maplewood is an extraordinary community that we have been proud to call our home for almost 30 years after migrating from Brooklyn. Our Township Committee regularly observes Autism Awareness Month and the town has a well-deserved reputation for being diverse and inclusive, as well as for embracing differences.

Did your time at Columbia Business School prepare you for opening your own business?

It would have been extremely difficult if not impossible for me to run our bookstore without the invaluable lessons learned at Columbia Business School. I still use the wisdom imparted in my management courses on an almost daily basis, the accounting courses were critical to my understanding of our finances, and the marketing courses were indispensable to a small business, in which marketing and public relations is an integral and quite successful part of our operations. Since graduation, online courses from professors Hitendra Wadhwa and Daniel Ames have kept me on track with my objectives and focused in my daily negotiations, and Professor William Duggan’s ongoing counsel has enabled me to keep moving forward and find new sources of inspiration. Finally, I rely heavily on the advice and emotional support of my incredible former classmates.

Is Words feeling economic pressure, as many other small bookstores are, with the rise of Amazon?

We are proud to run a profitable business. We have experienced double-digit sales growth (a compound annual growth rate of approximately 12 percent) throughout our 10 years in business and have enjoyed over 10 percent in sales growth for virtually every individual year of business. Community is our watchword, and we have been mindful of Professor Greenwald’s advice to use geography to maintain a competitive advantage.

Words is opening a second location in LifeTown–a center in Livingston, New Jersey, that will offer services for the special-needs community—how did this project come to be?

We made the first donation to LifeTown eight years ago, when it was just a dream concept. I serve on the board of LifeTown, and since that original gift, its leadership and our community have raised $15 million to build a 53,000-square-foot recreational, therapeutic, and educational center that has just opened and is redefining the landscape for individuals with special needs. When we were asked to open a small second store in LifeTown, we agreed to do so in the hopes of expanding awareness of our mission and enlarging our geographic reach.

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