Across from a booming liquor store in Westmont sits a little shop that sells recovery.
Its name is officially Eleventh Step Books, but some in South Jersey's clean-and-sober community refer to it as "our store."
Others just call it Ray and Mae's.
"We do have a niche," says Mae Jacobs-Skinner, who runs Eleventh Step (a reference to what is arguably the most meditative of Alcoholics Anonymous' 12 Steps) with her husband, Ray Skinner.
"We haven't had a single 'no sale' day since the day we opened," Ray says.
That was Oct. 13, 1991. Since then, the Haddon Avenue shop has sold many thousands of books, recordings, cards, coffee mugs, and all manner of sobriety-inspiring items.
With shelves stocked with self-help, New Age, and Eastern spirituality volumes, along with 12-step books from AA, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and other programs, Eleventh Step is one of an increasingly rare breed: a brick-and-mortar store that sells print.
(It nevertheless embraced the Internet early. Ray, a computer guy, set up a website in 1994).
Eleventh Step is a landmark for a diverse community of people recovering from alcoholism, drug addiction, or both. For their families and friends, too.
"Over the years, we've heard a lot of stories," says Ray, who's been in recovery for 26 of his 69 years.
One fellow was headed for the liquor store but took a detour into Eleventh Step. He talked with Ray and Mae, went home, and stayed sober.
Another customer who had been unable to find the store finally discovered it after getting into a fender bender on Haddon Avenue. "God has a sense of humor," Ray says.
"We've helped a lot of people," adds Mae, 56, who's not an alcoholic but who may know more about the varieties of recovery than those of us who take it one day at a time.
Married for 19 years, she and her husband live above the shop, which is neither the first nor the only store of its kind in South Jersey.
In Bordentown City, Square Peg Round Hole opened in July. Co-owner Cindy Ridolfino calls it "an art gallery and recovery store."
"There was nothing here like this," says the 53-year-old Hamilton resident, who's been in recovery since 2007.
"This is a place where people can talk about recovery without being judged," Ridolfino adds. "A place you can be accepted for who you are."
Ray remembers being snickered at when he asked a store clerk in his native California for a recovery book in the 1980s. He vowed to make Eleventh Step a welcoming place, and it surely is that.
Occasionally a customer suggests the store is "making a lot of money off recovery," Ray says. "That sort of irritates me, but I understand it."
As AA literature emphasizes, resentments are a major "character defect" of alcoholics that a bit of humor can salve.
Not for nothing does Eleventh Step sell little tins of candies labeled "Resent-mints."
Also popular, though currently unavailable: toilet tissue printed with Easy Does It and other recovery slogans.
"It just flew out of here," recalls Mae, laughing.
A regular customer from Westmont credits the personal warmth of Ray and Mae, as much as any merchandise, for the store's atmosphere.
"There's something about walking into the Eleventh Step. I don't know what it is," says Naomi, 38, who's in recovery and asked me not to use her last name.
"People know there's something there that's going to help them. Even people who aren't in recovery."
New customers may think Eleventh Step is an "AA store" (there's no such thing) or that Ray and Mae are counselors (they aren't).
Others seem afraid to say anything at all, until they meet Mae.
"Then I get their life story," she says. "And that's OK.
"I see what we do as a service. We're helping people help themselves."
Meet the owners of Eleventh Step Books in Westmont. www.philly.com/sobrietygiftsEndText