Raise a toast, the former Medieval Manor, boarded up for more than a year, will come to life again as a sprawling used bookstore with an unusual social mission.
It will be run by More Than Words, a nonprofit whose employees are youth from troubled backgrounds who often live in foster homes and homeless shelters.
Moreover, the owner of the building on East Berkeley Street elected to give More Than Words discounted rent instead of giving in to the tide of gentrification washing over this corner of the South End. The five-story brick building is surrounded by some of the most expensive new real estate in the city, with its neighbor, the Troy, charging as much as $4,600 for a unit.
“This is 100 percent the convergence of everything right in the world,” said Jodi Rosenbaum, who founded More Than Words 13 years ago. “You don’t see that very often.”
More than Words already had a small store on the second floor of the building, above where Medieval Manor had run its boozy period feasts for 35 years before closing at the end of 2015.
The building has been owned by Stuart Rose for decades, who agreed to lease Medieval Manor’s former space to More Than Words at below-market rate for 13 years. Rose declined to be interviewed, saying through a spokesman that he didn’t want to be “knighted” for his good deeds.
In a statement, Rose said More Than Words is “a fascinating, exciting, and unusual retail addition to this changing neighborhood” and he offered the “below-market cost to support their contribution to the community.”
More Than Words describes itself as a social enterprise, and provides on-the-job training for youth who have faced problems in court, at home, or in school and struggled to find work. More than 70 percent of its youth have been involved with the foster care system and 40 percent in the courts. The teens also receive intensive case management working with counselors, who help them work through issues and identify goals.
The books — 2.4 million of them last year — are donated by libraries and other institutions and individuals and sold either through its stores in the South End and Waltham, or online at Amazon, eBay, and Alibris.
Employees are people such as Phedora, an 18-year-old who would give only her first name. She came to the country from the Dominican Republic when she was 14 and currently lives in a foster home in Dorchester. She said the work experience and assistance she’s received from More Than Words helped get her into Bridgewater State University this fall.
“We support each other,” she said of the staff. “You’re free to be yourself here and grow in so many ways.”
The first-floor space will need a significant renovation after decades as a bawdy haven for Renaissance meals. More Than Words has launched a $5 million fund-raising campaign, and Rosenbaum said Liberty Mutual has already donated more than $1 million after its chief executive, David Long, visited the facility.
“We are particularly excited that they’ll be able to grow to serve 60 percent more youth,” Liberty Mutual Foundation president Melissa MacDonnell said.
Plans call for installing a modern glass storefront at street level that will showcase the retail bookstore, as well as the warehouse facility where the teens manage all the logistics. The 10,000-square-foot space will also have room for community events that can be rented and is big enough to host a film festival. There will also be retail space for jewelry, food, and other goods made by social enterprise companies, Rosenbaum said.
More Than Words staff will unveil its plans at a community breakfast Friday featuring Mayor Martin J. Walsh and break ground later this summer.
Kim Zeuli, senior vice president of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a Roxbury nonprofit, said the big question is whether the neighborhood will respond by shopping there. She thinks that’s likely, noting that young, socially minded people have moved to the area, and expects many of them to be drawn to the bookstore because of its uniqueness.
“But you just can’t predict it with total certainty,” she added.
Rosenbaum is moving full-steam ahead. A training space inside the operation will host people from other cities and states interested in recreating the program in their communities. Such inquiries are not unusual, she said.
“Usually when it comes to big dollars and corporations and real estate, it doesn’t come out with our kids as winners,” she said. “And they’re going to triumph here.”