Ray Skinner couldn’t find a place to buy a “one day at a time” bumper sticker in South Jersey.
“He said, ‘I want to open a recovery bookstore like the ones in California,' and I told him it sounded like an interesting idea," Ray’s wife, Mae Jacobs Skinner, recalled. “That’s how we started.”
Ray, 76, had been sober for 33 years when he died Dec. 4 after a short illness. A service is set for 4 p.m. Saturday at the Falco/Caruso & Leonard Funeral Home in Pennsauken.
Eleventh Step Books, the shop on Haddon Avenue in Westmont that the couple had owned, operated, and lived above since 1991, will remain open “for now,” Mae said from behind the counter Wednesday. “Our customers have come to depend on us.”
With its eclectic inventory of recovery and self-help books and related merchandise of all sorts — including the sober anniversary medallions presented at 12-Step meetings — Eleventh Step (“the meditation step,” Mae noted) is a touchstone for the community of recovering people in South Jersey and beyond.
Since the store opened 27 years ago, public awareness of alcoholism and addiction has grown, the number of recovery memoirs has mushroomed, and many independent brick-and-mortar book retailers have withered.
But with its welcoming, warm, we’re-all-in-this-together vibe, the Eleventh Step has endured.
“It’s a big piece of the fabric, It’s kind of a centerpiece,” said Vince DiPasquale, founder of Starting Point in Westmont, which offers counseling and other programs. He will officiate at Ray’s service Saturday.
“For a lot of years now,” DiPasquale said, "Ray and Mae have been part of my journey, part of my recovery.”
Of mine as well. Eleventh Step is where I bought every one of the nifty leather-bound journals I’ve kept since I (finally) got sober in 2007. It’s where I’ve also picked up countless anniversary cards for friends celebrating recovery milestones. And where I enjoyed the congenial presence of Ray and Mae.
Married for 26 years, they’ve had the sort of deeply compatible, collaborative partnership that’s a pleasure to witness. And Ray, a former labor union official in California, where he grew up, was always ready with a handshake, hug, or offer of assistance to someone struggling.
“He was the engine,” Mae, who is not an alcoholic but considers herself “a friend of AA,” said. “Ray built this place from the bottom up. He built the shelves, he brought in the products. He had the vision.”
She had a vision as well — for a store that would be a resource not only for those recovering from alcoholism or addiction to drugs, food, gambling, or other destructive behaviors, but for people interested in spirituality and personal growth.
“There’s something for everyone in here,” said Casey Smith, a dear friend of Mae’s — they graduated from Lenape Regional High School together in 1973 — who was helping out at the store Wednesday.
“Ray and Mae have been the heart and soul of this place,” Smith said. 'And the world has lost a loving, caring person."
With Ray gone, "it’s a struggle,” Mae said. “I have my moments. You’ve heard of this thing called ‘one day at a time'? Well, I’m having one moment at a time.
“But the community has been so supportive — calling, sending cards, sending flowers, and stopping by the store. It’s beyond words.”
So I’ll gladly offer a few of my own.
We’ve here for you, Mae.
Rest in peace. Ray.
And to Ray and Mae both: Thank you.