After Plain Talk Books & Coffee’s success, Optimar LifeServices opened three additional small businesses, an antique furniture store, a farm and an additional bookstore. Photos by Duane Tinkey and Anneka Gustafson
After Plain Talk Books & Coffee’s success, Optimar LifeServices opened three additional small businesses, an antique furniture store, a farm and an additional bookstore. Photos by Duane Tinkey and Anneka Gustafson

You can stop into Plain Talk Books & Coffee for no other reason than to grab a freshly made sandwich, a cup of fair-trade coffee or a good book.

However the store in the historic East Village does more than just supply coffee lovers with their daily caffeine fix; it provides high-quality jobs to those with mental and learning disabilities.

“People come in here and have no idea what we do,” said Anneke Gustafson, who manages Plain Talk Books. “They think we’re just like any other East Village business, and I like that.”

Mental health service provider Optimae LifeServices operates the used-book retailer, which opened its doors in January 2008. The group, formally known as ResCare, provides psychiatric, psychotherapy and counseling services to those with mental health problems or intellectual disabilities throughout Southeastern, Central and Eastern Iowa.

Even before the recession, the unemployment rate for those with mental disabilities was high, floating between 80 and 90 percent. Optimae created job training programs and educational services to help its clients land a job, Gustafson said.

The idea behind the bookstore soon followed: By starting a small business that gives jobs only to those with disabilities, the organization could help its clients get out of poverty while helping the economy at the same time.

Gustafson said Optimae decided on a book and coffee shop after nine months of meeting with its clients and community members.

The business is off to a good start, she said, adding the store quickly acquired some regulars who frequently stop in before work or during their lunch hours.

“But (our business is) a little slower – we’re working on getting the process done faster,” Gustafson said. “Right now it will take you 10 minutes to get a sandwich.”

After the initial success of Plain Talk Books, Optimae started three other small businesses, which now all operate under the umbrella of Raccoon Forks Cos.

Raccoon Forks Trading Co., which sells antiques and furniture, opened in February 2009. The store moved around the downtown area several times before settling in the East Village this March.

Raccoon Forks Farms grows seasonal, chemical-free vegetables and pasture-raised eggs. The eight-acre farm located in Redfield provides farm jobs for disabled adults and sells its produce through a 26-week community supported agriculture program and at the Waukee Farmers Market.

Brick Street Books & Café, located in Adel, offers the same goods and services as the bookstore in the East Village. The Adel location contracts with a baker for fresh pastries and bread, Gustafson said. It also has a full-scale kitchen, which gives the store greater flexibility with its menu.

Gustafson said working at Raccoon Forks Cos. is a good first step for their clients with disabilities because managers are more understanding when it comes to things like tardiness and unexpected hospital stays, and there is a longer training period.

The bookstores and trading company also offer training in a variety of skills, such as food preparation, working a cash register and alphabetizing items.

She added that several people have successfully found jobs outside Raccoon Forks Cos. or moved from part-time to full-time positions within the company and now receive benefits.

“Work is a very valued role, it makes your life more complete,” she said. “They notice there is something missing from their lives, and this is a good way to get that validation.”