Though there are only a handful of bookstores in the U.S. that identify themselves as feminist, several report that Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the subsequent #MeToo movement have reinvigorated them, both in terms of sales and of their visibility in the marketplace.
In the late 1980s through the mid-’90s, there were more than 100 feminist bookstores in the U.S. Today, that number has fallen to fewer than 10. One of the newest is Card Carrying Books & Gifts in Corning, N.Y., which opened in September 2017 in a 700-sq.-ft. space on the city’s main street. “We opened very much in response to the election,” co-owner Randi Hewit said. “We wanted to create a safe space in which to organize. Feminist values are American values, and our goal is to create a feminist future.” The store’s top-selling title has been Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, followed closely by Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.
Although Card Carrying was founded in response to the current political climate (as was Violet Valley, a “queer feminist” bookstore that opened three months ago in rural Mississippi), many prominent feminist booksellers closed their doors years ago. Other bookstores whose aim was to sell women’s books tweaked their business models. A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wis., founded in 1975, has transformed itself into a general-interest bookstore after merging five years ago with Avol’s Used Books. Common Language in Ann Arbor, Mich., evolved into an LGBTQ bookstore after Martin Correras and Keith Orr bought it 15 years ago. And Sara’s Table in Duluth, Minn., merged with Chester Creek Café in 2002 after a decade selling feminist books; today, AST/CCC is a restaurant with walls lined with shelves of used books in all genres for sale.
The feminist bookstores in the nation’s largest cities are experiencing the most significant upticks in sales, as well as in foot traffic. “We’ve been joking about the Trump bump,” said E.R. Anderson, a bookseller at Atlanta’s Charis Books & More, who also serves as executive director of Charis Circle, the 44-year-old store’s nonprofit arm. Charis Books reports that in-store sales were up 12% in 2017 over 2016, while off-site sales rose 20%.
The store’s top bestsellers last year reflect the concerns of its customers, which for years have mostly consisted of African-American women. Topping the list was Roxane Gay’s Hunger, followed by such titles as Crunk Feminist Collective: Essays on Hip-Hop Feminism, edited by Brittney C. Cooper et al.; The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a YA novel about a police shooting; Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown, an activist handbook inspired by Octavia Butler’s science fiction novels; Bad Feminist; and Reproductive Justice by Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger. Even the two top-selling children’s books reflect the zeitgeist: A Is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara and When a Bully Is President by Maya Gonzalez.
Attendance at the store’s discussion groups has also exploded in the past year, and they are drawing people beyond the store’s core demographic. Charis’s feminist event group, which, before the 2016 election, typically drew 20–40 people to its monthly discussions, now attracts about 90, and an intergenerational consciousness-raising group, which also meets monthly, has more than quadrupled in size, from 15–20 people to 90. A parenting group that focuses on battling white supremacy has had 120 members since the election, up from 30 in 2016. (In the fall, Charis is moving four miles to Decatur, where it will serve as Agnes Scott College’s bookstore. Anderson expects sales and foot traffic to increase after the move.)
Despite the increase in traffic and sales, Anderson said that Charis booksellers are neither surprised nor overwhelmed. “Everything we’ve been saying for the past 40 years is being listened to,” she noted. “We’re finally not being treated as hysterical, crazy femi-Nazis. Feminism is ‘cool.’ It’s definitely a moment.” Charis customers, Anderson added, want to “plug in, and not just march in the streets.”
Women and Children First in Chicago reported that sales are up 22%, year over year, since the 2016 presidential election, with nonfiction titles about politics doing the best. Hardcover nonfiction is up 40%, and store bestsellers include titles responding to the Trump administration’s agenda, such as Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance and Revolution in Trump’s America, edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding, an anthology of essays that includes one by store co-owner Sarah Hollenbeck; Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough; Eve Ewing’s Electric Arches; Amy and David Goodman’s Democracy Now! Twenty Years Covering the Movements That Changed America; and What Happened.
“Looking at our bestsellers from 2016 versus 2017, I was struck by how few fiction titles show up on the 2017 bestseller lists,” said Jamie Thomas, WCF’s store manager. “Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Machado were among our bestsellers, but compared to the event books and the nonfiction, they were lower on the list than our bestselling fiction would have been in previous years.” The only fiction title among the store’s top 10 bestsellers in 2017 was The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, which was published in 1985 and adapted last year as a Hulu series, sold 300 copies at WCF in 2017. Hollenbeck attributed the spike in sales of The Handmaid’s Tale to the television series and the current administration’s stances on women’s issues, describing the book’s popularity as “a symptom of women’s fear and anger.”
Hollenbeck noted that WCF, founded in 1979, has always strived to reflect its customers’ interests and concerns, and now it is ramping up its visibility in the public sphere. WCF was a cosponsor of the Chicago Women’s March in 2017 and 2018. Also, since the election, it has regularly set up political book displays and scheduled more programming prompted by current events, such as its sold-out, off-site book launch for Nasty Women in October.
More recently, the store hosted a panel discussion about the 2017 Women’s March, coinciding with the march’s anniversary, that packed the store. A February 15 off-site event with Morgan Jerkins, the 25-year-old author of This Will Be My Undoing, a collection of essays on politics and popular culture from an African-American woman’s perspective, “sold out within moments,” Hollenbeck said.
Bluestockings, located on New York City’s Lower East Side since 1991, self-identifies as an “intersectional feminist” bookstore cooperative, according to Corey Farach, a Bluestockings Collective member. It has seen a significant increase in sales and foot traffic—a trend that began in 2015 when it launched an Indiegogo fund-raising campaign. The store has continued to thrive since the election, with, Farach said, an “increased engagement across all metrics,” including sales, traffic, and volunteers. “There’s been a lot of energy in the space,” Farach added, and books that “activists need, would find useful, and would want to buy” are prominently displayed.
Though the store’s top-selling book in 2017 was Milk and Honey, Rupi Kaur’s collection of inspirational poems, Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, which was published after George’s W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, with a third edition released in 2016, is among the store’s top five bestsellers: Bluestockings has sold since the election at least one copy of Hope in the Dark “every other day,” Farach said.
The nation’s oldest feminist bookstore, 45-year-old Antigone Books, in Tucson, Ariz., said that its sales have also gone up since Trump was elected, although the Antigone’s co-owners were less willing to posit a connection between sales and the current political climate than the other stores contacted by PW. The Tucson area’s continuing rapid growth, which resulted in the construction of a new streetcar line near Antigone, also has had a positive impact upon the store’s reach, according to co-owner Trudy Mills.
Like the other feminist bookstores, Antigone’s nonfiction offerings with political themes have outsold its fiction titles over the past year—especially books about racism, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me; books about feminism, like Bad Feminist and Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me; and works promoting social activism, such as Becky Bond’s Rules for Revolutionaries. “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls [a two-book series by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo] have also been among our store’s bestsellers,” Mills noted.
Describing Antigone’s political stance as having been “more moderate” historically than those of the other feminist bookstores PW spoke with for this story, Mills said that Antigone has become overtly political since the 2016 election, in keeping with its mission to provide “a safe space” for customers. Among its newer efforts is promoting local political rallies in the bookstore’s electronic newsletter.
In contrast to the other feminist bookstores that PW contacted, Book Woman in Austin, Tex., reported that, although year-over-year sales were up in late 2016 and in 2017, they were down in the first two months of this year. Owner Susan Post said that last year, the 43-year-old bookstore could not keep political T-shirts and bumper stickers in stock. After the election, sales of books and sidelines spiked, with Post noting that one customer “bought a library of feminist books” for her daughter. The store created a display of political books after the election, which is still up; a copy of the Spanish-language edition of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls on the display table sold while PW was conducting a telephone interview with Post. But, Post noted, things have changed since the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration: when Ellen Feldman appeared at the store in February to promote her book We Who March: Photographs and Reflections on the Women’s March, attendance was light, and only nine copies were sold.
“Trump is very good for feminism,” Post said, speculating as to why sales at her store may have flattened in the past few months. “But the reality is that this [state of affairs] is for the long haul, and people are getting depressed again.”