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Pay-What-You-Can Bookstore Brings More Affordable Reading to the Heights

Rene and Natalie Clairin walked into Recirculation, a nonprofit bookstore in Washington Heights, on a Wednesday night and browsed through the shelves. Some of their finds included an illustrated edition of Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” “Kingdom Come,” an award-winning graphic novel, and Ralph Ellison’s classic “Invisible Man.”

They carried eight books to the register, where instead of being told what they owed, they informed the woman behind the counter that they could pay $15. She jotted down the titles, for inventory purposes; they loaded their books into a fabric Target bag and walked out. Since they live in the neighborhood, “we’ll be back next month,” said Rene Clairin, an artist.

Recirculation, a pay-what-you-can shop located at 876 Riverside Drive near West 160th Street, brings a different approach to book browsing and buying.

The store is crammed with shelves of secondhand books, plus some new volumes. After customers make their selections, they decide what to pay for their purchases.

“It’s a very cool vibe,” said Carolina Valencia, an employee. “There is a treasure hunting aspect to it.”

Patricia Vindel and Jose Ferrero, regulars of Recirculation since they stumbled into it, walked in on a Saturday morning. They now visit every two weeks.

“We love getting to find unique books,” Vindel said. “And even though we could pay very little for them” – the whole idea behind Recirculation – “we try to buy them at regular prices because they are still books, and it helps the store stay open.”

The bookstore was born out of the dying wish of Tom Burgess, who taught social sciences at City University of New York and volunteered at Word Up, a multilingual community bookshop at 2113 Amsterdam Ave. on the opposite side of Washington Heights, about a mile away.

He had contracted COVID-19 early in the pandemic and after being hospitalized, he let Veronica Liu, the store’s founder, know that he planned to donate all his books and records. He gave instructions on how to retrieve his books, from both his apartment and from the three storage units he rented, so that they could be sorted and given away. He died shortly afterwards.

Moving the “tens of thousands” of books took hours of labor from a lot of volunteers.

“There were layers and layers of bookcases,” Liu recalled, of his apartment. “Bookcases in the kitchen, in the bathroom, desks turned sideways to be able to hold books.”

Burgess’s library formed the inspiration and initial inventory for Recirculation. In fact, his email address gave the bookshop its name.

Volunteers sorted through Burgess’s collection, figuring out which books it included and how to place them around an empty space they had found in a co-op building and were allowed to use. They put together shelves from wooden wine boxes Burgess used as bookstands and created a logo from one of his drawings.

In 2019, an estimated 204,096 people lived in the district that includes Washington Heights and Inwood. In its 2.8 square miles, only three public libraries serve the community, along with no more than six bookshops, besides Word Up and Recirculation. This gives local readers few choices for book-buying; low-earning households might have scant opportunity to read if not for organizations offering affordably priced books.

Recirculation is primarily run by volunteers and depends on financial and book donations. The store has acquired “mountains of books” from neighborhood residents, Valencia said. At times, workers have stopped accepting donations because its shelves were full.

When Maria Mercado walked into Recirculation for the first time, she was pleasantly surprised by the Spanish section, containing some books she hadn’t seen in a while and many others she had never come across. When she asked how the shop acquired got the books and a volunteer told her they were donated, her face lit up.

“I have many books at home,” she said. “I can bring them in and donate them.”

Volunteers often come to Recirculation looking for a sense of community, too. Charlie Keys McKay recently moved to Washington Heights and in February began volunteering at Recirculation and at Word Up.

“I wanted to be a part of the community, and this was the perfect way to do it,” he said. He has enjoyed assisting customers navigate the store.

Memphis Washington, a volunteer at Word Up for more than eight years, attended some of the first meetings for Recirculation in 2020.

“It has been interesting to see people from all around the community excited for this,” Washington said.

Last month Recirculation, previously open only on weekends, extended its hours to Tuesday through Thursday, from 6 to 9 p.m., and Saturdays from 12 to 4 p.m.

And this summer, Liu signed a year-long lease for its current space, which the store had arranged to use month-to-month. Knowing Recirculation will be there at least through July gives its staff and volunteers the opportunity to host more community gatherings and educational programs.

“We want to use this space, which was empty for so long, and be able to recirculate it too,” Liu said.

Written by

Andrea Quezada is a Guatemalan journalist pursuing her graduate degree at Columbia Journalism School, having completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Charleston.