A used bookstore operated by the West Hartford Public Schools post-secondary students opened Monday on South Main Street.
By Ronni Newton
The Next Chapter is a positive addition to the West Hartford community in so many ways – not only a shop located right in the center of town that is great for browsing and can supply avid readers with their favorite material in a wide array of genres, but it’s also a vocational training site where students enrolled in the district’s post-secondary program will develop important skills.
An intentional play on words, “The Next Chapter” provides new life to old books while preparing students with occupational skills can serve them far into the future as they obtain employment.
Monday morning’s rain did not put even the slightest damper on the excitement as the roughly 20 students in the program, along with educators, West Hartford Public Schools administrators, and town officials gathered for a ribbon cutting hosted by the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce. Mayor Shari Cantor and Weller, one of the students, shared the honor of officially opening the shop.
Inside the well-organized shop, books have been arranged by the students according to genre and target audience. There books for children, young adults, fiction, and varieties of non-fiction on topics like art, sports, and cooking. Seasonal Halloween books are currently highlighted in attractive displays.
“This is something we have been waiting for,” Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore said at the ribbon cutting. “It’s a great idea, it’s a great partnership between our schools and the community, but more importantly we have so many great kids that get a great place to work.”
The community will also have a chance to get to know the students, he said.
“We’re so lucky to have you here and we’re so lucky to have this business as we open The Next Chapter – and we begin a new chapter in West Hartford with this store,” Moore said.
Deb Polun, Board of Education chair, thanked the students for their hard work getting the beautiful store set up, organized, and decorated. “I want to thank our community who has donated so many books to this important project which is the next chapter in your lives as well,” she said.
“I know this is a labor of love,” Mayor Shari Cantor said, noting that it took many hands to make the project reality.
“I’m so happy to see it come to fruition. Used books are a really important treasure. They’ve been loved, and they’re shared and passed on … it’s really a very special experience.”
Cantor said she’s excited to get advice about what to read.
Allie, one of the students in the post-secondary program, said she loves working at the shop and hopes the store will be a big hit. She said she is ready to assist customers in finding books they want to read, and is also ready to recommend alternatives if the shop doesn’t have a specific book they are seeking.
“When thinking about the store I feel happy knowing that I work for something great,” Allie said. “When you buy a book here, you know that someone else has read and loved it.”
She said she really enjoys working with her classmates as well, and thanked the community for their support.
“It’s amazing to see everything come together after months of hard work by the students,” said Melissa Caballero, who as director of Pupil Services has overall responsibility for the post-secondary program.
Hours have gone into preparation for the opening, from the teachers assisting the students getting ready for the site to open, to practice for the retail trade. Students operate the registers, collect money, welcome guests.
“Students have done everything from sorting books, sorting and categorizing by genres, organizing them on shelves – and then reorganizing them if there are too many children’s books,” Caballero said. The students are really the workers in the store.
Gretchen Nelson, the former director of Pupil Services who retired in June, was instrumental in launching The Next Chapter. She said during a previous interview that most of the community sites where post-secondary students (who have completed high school but qualify for services through age 22) obtained vocational training had to be shut down during COVID, so the district developed its own opportunity.
The Next Chapter is a permanent job site for the students, who will be there whenever the shop is open – Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Two students at a time will rotate through the site, which is managed by a paid employee, Nancy Pereau, who formerly worked in the special education department within pupil services.
Pereau said she also has some retail background from running a Halloween store at G. Fox many years ago.
“The register is all pictorial for the students,” Pereau said, and they have been fast learners. The training has gone very well, she said.
Books are priced by category, with children’s books and paperbacks costing $2 each, cookbooks priced at $4, and hard cover books selling for $5 each.
Caballero said donations cannot be accepted at this time because the community was so generous in advance of the opening that there is a warehouse full of books waiting to fill the shelves as stock is sold. They will let people know when, and where, donations will be accepted once there is capacity, but drop offs will be somewhere other than the store, she said.
Not only is there excitement in the school community, but the business community is also happy to welcome The Next Chapter.
“We’re really excited to see The Next Chapter come to fruition here,” said West Hartford Economic Development Coordinator Kristen Gorski. “It was a great grand opening and the students’ hard work and efforts were realized in this event.”
“We’re just happy to be a part of it and help make it happen any way we can,” said Charlie Kaoud, one of the owners of the building where The Next Chapter is leasing space formerly occupied by Omaha Steaks. “I think it’s a great thing for the community and the kids.”
“It’s a great addition to the Center,” added Maurice Kaoud, also a building owner.
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