A former theater in downtown Ossining has been reimagined as a place where books take a second turn in the spotlight.
Hudson Valley Books for Humanity opened in December on the first floor of the former Olive Opera House on Central Avenue, which had been vacant since a fire in 2018.
Owner Amy Hall has lined the sunny room’s shelves with thousands of “pre-loved” books, many of them hewing closely to the themes of social justice and environmental sustainability that she has spent decades championing.
A wide variety of titles highlight those topics, and are by and about women, people of color, LGBTQ+ and other underrepresented communities. Children’s and young adult books, fiction and nonfiction by noted authors, poetry and drama also share shelf space.
Some juxtapositions are playful: One December morning, Charles Dickens’ Christmas Stories rested on a wooden table alongside James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Holiday Stories.
There is a selection of new books on the shelves, as well, and Hall will order anything upon request. “If you want to come in and order the latest Stephen King bestseller, we’ll order that for you. It’s just that we don’t carry it in the store,” she said.
The shop stocks a sampling of cards, gifts and toys, many of them from local, women-owned artists and vendors.
Cozy second-hand chairs and tables are scattered throughout the airy, high-ceilinged room, which was soon to have a small stage built to host live programs that could include music and poetry readings. There’s free tea and hot chocolate in the back.
“It started simply as a way to funnel highly readable used books and a way to give them a second life,” Hall said. “And then I thought, why not do that in Ossining where I live, the community I love, and bring together this idea of diversity, which is a key pillar of Ossining and is something that I think many of us struggle with, how to bring all these diverse people in Ossining together in a shared space. It’s a way to provide books at an affordable cost to all people and a place for them to interact together here.”
Click below to hear Amy talk about Hudson Valley Books for Humanity
The longtime Town of Ossining resident is well known in local circles for her activism at work and at play: Her LinkedIn profile highlights her corporate role at Eileen Fisher and also includes a photo of her bamboo-frame bicycle.
For nearly three decades Hall has been spearheading the Irvington-based clothing maker’s commitment to corporate social responsibility, and also runs a consultancy for other businesses that want to follow suit.
Her social justice activism stems from being severely bullied while growing up as a mixed-race child — Hall is half-Chinese and half English/Scottish. “It’s given me a desire to help the people who are maybe less privileged or who are trying to find their own identity in this world,” she said.
About her environmental advocacy she said: “Once I had my first child who’s now 19 I really started thinking much more seriously about what goes into my body and onto my body, and where do all those things come from, and of course through my work that has been very pervasive. Once you start learning these things, you can’t unlearn them.”
Her first foray into owning a retail business comes at a time when Ossining’s downtown business hub is ramping up, as is the community’s social and political engagement.
The village recently received a $10 million state grant for revitalizing a downtown that has recently become home to a handful of independent businesses, including a toy store, coffee shop and brewery.
“I thought this could be another addition to that legacy,” Hall said. “And I feel like because we are on the train line from New York City, this part of town is walkable from the train, why not make this a destination, so it’s not just a place for Ossining but a place to help other people discover Ossining.”
Local events connected with the Black Lives Matter protests, and the Green Ossining Earth Day fair are evidence of an active and engaged citizenry, she said.
While she and her husband, Rob Lowenthal, hadn’t finished unpacking and pricing cartons filled with books, Hall said she was continuing to seek donations.
“We accept any books,” she said. “The one thing that we’re lacking that we’d love to have more of are books in Spanish. If we really want to serve the community, that’s an important component. It’s very hard to come by used books in Spanish, for children or adults.”
Hall added: “But the reason we’ll take any books is, first, we’re too young yet to know what will appeal to people, Secondly even books that are in terrible condition that we can’t sell, we have three local artisans who have agreed to take the paper from those books and use them to turn them into artisanal paper.”
Hudson Valley Books for Humanity
- 67 Central Ave., Ossining, NY 1056
- Open Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday: closed.
914-847-0773 or 0774
Video and photos by Robert Brum