John Horgan and Jim Ingalls are the co-founders of The First Chapter, a new nonprofit bookstore in Leominster, Massachusetts, that employs people with disabilities to help them learn basic job and social skills.
“Our mission is to provide high-quality new and used books while supporting individuals with developmental and/or intellectual disabilities with their vocational needs,” said Horgan, who along with Ingalls, brings a decade of experience in human services to the business.
Most recently, Horgan was a manager for a group home for adults with autism, and Ingalls managed a group home for adults with cerebral palsy. The two met through a training class to become sexuality educators for adults with developmental and/or intellectual disabilities; the program also included training in parenting support.
“While we were doing that, we realized that for the people we were working with, the biggest barrier they were encountering was that they did not have a job, or they had no competitive experience that they could put on their resume to help them get a job,” said Horgan.
Last November, Horgan and Ingalls decided to start their own nonprofit to improve the lives of families with at least one parent with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. While considering a brick-and-mortar space to house the organization, Horgan, whose wife, Susan Ahlin, is a bookseller at Annie’s Bookstop in West Boylston, suggested opening a bookstore that hires and trains employees with disabilities, with the goal of empowering them to get a job they want to do someplace else.
“We focus on teaching them customer service and social skills as well as sorting, categorizing, and looking up books,” said Horgan. “Then, for those who have been here long enough or have an aptitude for it, we will start training them on the cash register. Eventually, it might get to the point where we could leave some individuals here who can run the store themselves.”
Horgan, who is on the autism spectrum, said he has personally experienced employer discrimination and wants to help banish preconceptions about people with disabilities such as autism. One way Horgan is doing this is by giving his employees the option to wear their label or diagnosis on their nametag.
“I can more or less mask my Asperger’s,” said Horgan. “I can get a normal job … but these people who will be working at the store don’t have that option. When I [wear my tag] and interact with customers, they are going to see that they are interacting with someone who has autism, and because of that interaction, the hope is that it will change their view of people with autism.”
The 1,500-square-foot bookstore, which is located inside MAKE, a city-run artists’ collective on Leominster’s Main Street, held a soft opening on April 1 to raise awareness of the business as it continues to set up. According to Horgan, The First Chapter won’t be fully operational until Sunday, May 14.
At the moment, the store’s small stock of used books is comprised, for the most part, of donations from the local community. In the future, The First Chapter will give store credit to people who donate books. The store’s website, soon to be live, will be hosted by IndieCommerce and will sell both new and used books. Once live, the site will also solicit donations, adding to the $1,300 already raised by the store’s GoFundMe page. Donations to the fund will go directly toward purchasing the store’s initial inventory and advertising; any leftover funds will be placed in an account to help employees with the cost of getting a job, which may include the purchase of professional attire.
Since announcing their plans, Horgan said he and Ingalls have received overwhelming support from local human services organizations, group homes, and parent support groups for children with disabilities, as well as from the city of Leominster, specifically Mayor Dean J. Mazzarella and Lisa Marrone, the city’s economic development coordinator.
“We reached out to the mayor and said we were looking for a place in Leominster, and they made sure that the place we got was right on Main Street,” said Horgan. “Other local organizations have stepped up to provide transportation to make sure that the individuals they support could get here.”
The First Chapter has also received backing from The Leominster Autism Project, founded by Mazzarella’s daughter, Stacy Madrigal, who has an autistic child. The project, which is run by local volunteers, provides training to ensure that city employees, public safety workers, and businesses are able to accommodate the needs of differently abled people and their families.
Employees of The First Chapter make $10.25 an hour, the state minimum wage, although Horgan says he wishes he could offer more money. At the moment, the store can afford to employ up to five people, he said, adding, “If we ever secure state funding, which we are exploring, through commissions or through different disability funding sources, we’ll increase our number of employees.”
While The First Chapter won’t compel anyone to leave if they are not ready, Horgan said, “we want to push our employees out the door to get the jobs that they want so that we can open up space to help more people. The goal is definitely to get them to think about what really interests them.”
Donations to The First Chapter can be made via the store’s GoFundMe page.