Knowing what books someone reads is like getting a glimpse into the deepest depths of their brains: what excites them, what makes them tick, the works. Now, imagine you could get an in-person peek into what Hoboken residents read throughout the year (and essentially, their brain). Well, at Symposia Bookstore and Community Center in Hoboken, that’s exactly what you’ll get. Carmen Rusu, owner and operator of Symposia, describes the store as just that, “a reflection of what Hoboken reads throughout the year.” Read on for a closer look at one of Washington Street’s surprising hidden gems, Symposia Bookstore, a local bookshop and non-profit in Hoboken, located at 510 Washington Street.
Symposia Bookstore is a public benefit nonprofit corporation run exclusively for educational and charitable purposes. The store has many functions, but its main goal is to offer a sense of community through reading, arts, and learning within Hoboken and the surrounding areas. This mission has been carried out over the past 18 years, as it is a second-hand bookstore with over 1,500 books sold annually at extremely affordable rates.
Despite being a neighborhood gathering place, Symposia can still be supported from afar (or in a pandemic-safe way) by searching the store’s Amazon storefront. Current and past Hobokenites have taken advantage of this tool to stock beach reading stashes, rainy day book piles, and now quarantine reading queues. Because all of Symposia’s stock is donated from Hoboken community members, there is still a local connection.
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How It Came to Be
^ Owner Carmen Rusu
Symposia opened its doors in 2001 on Willow Avenue to provide a platform for artists in the area to share their passions with the community and give residents a place to come together, read, and discuss their findings. Carmen and her husband Cornel were both professors in Romania and wanted to bring their love of educating others to the U.S. After three years in business, Symposia relocated to Washington Street in 2004, where it took over the campaign office of former Hoboken Mayor David Roberts.
As a gesture to keep the store functional, Mr. Roberts offered Symposia a rent price similar to the Willow Avenue location in the new storefront so that the business could experience the increase in foot traffic without the increase in rent. For the past 15 years, Symposia has thrived through donations of books, theatre classes, birthday parties, and the beloved puppet shows hosted by Puppetonia.
Puppetonia is a puppet show brand owned by Carmen and Cornel. “We have over 100 scripts written,” shares Carmen. “We make the shows fun and interactive for the children while keeping adults engaged with subtle adult humor throughout the show.” Most of the scripts are written by Cornel while all performances are done by Carmen herself. Every weekday morning at 10:00AM and 11:00AM, families are invited to watch the puppet show in-store. The show costs $17 to attend and children are entertained for the hour through songs, educational stories, problem-solving, and interactive fun.
Carmen showed us the puppets that she and her husband make and purchase to bring the scripts to life. There are dozens of props and characters stored on shelves that line the walls. Looking at many of them, it’s easy to see the years of love and excitement these puppet shows continue to bring to the community.
Events at Symposia
In addition to the puppet shows, Symposia holds various events regularly. The calendar is often filled with open mic nights, conversation groups, book signings, and more.
Every Wednesday, Carmen teaches a free yoga class at 7:00PM. The website is updated with events, and locals can stop in to inquire as there are always new classes providing opportunities to acquire new skills. Residents can also host private events in the store and, because of the mission to provide a platform for passions, Symposia will advertise the event for residents.
Carmen reflected on her favorite private event held in the store: a wedding. “We have had three couples meet here through coming to our events regularly.” Carmen went on to tell us that one couple was so thankful to have met one another through their shared interest in reading at Symposia, that they decided to have the wedding in the store. This is a testament to the community that Symposia has built within Hoboken.
A Community Focus
Symposia is run with the help of volunteers and donations as Carmen is the only full-time, paid employee on staff. Ron, a long-time volunteer, was in the store when we stopped by. He explained that he got involved with volunteering because he was in the store so often that Carmen asked if he wanted to volunteer regularly, and he accepted. “We meet a lot of different people here,” Ron stated when sharing about what has kept him involved with the store for so long.
Symposia also receives help during the school year from Stevens University students, as the store’s part-time positions are a part of the University’s Work-Study program. The students are able to work at the store and take home free books, as needed.
Symposia is looking for local residents to be a part of the community by volunteering regularly. Stop by the store at 510 Washington Street to speak with Carmen about opportunities to get involved. Residents can drop off book donations during business hours which are seven days a week from 12:00-5:00PM.