At a time when so many have rallied in support of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, Charis Books & More in Decatur, Ga., which describes itself as “one of the most deeply and historically interracial, intergenerational, multigendered, radically inclusive feminist bookstores in the country,” is filling a niche in today’s bookselling landscape. The infrastructure Charis has built up over nearly five decades helped to cement its status as an essential community resource during a year marked by civil unrest.
Sanj Kharbanda, director of sales and marketing at Beacon Press, noted in his nominating letter that from the start, Charis has been “more than a store. With their nonprofit [programming arm], Charis Circle, the store works for social justice and encourages diverse and marginalized voices.”
Ellen Adler, publisher of the New Press, points out that while Georgia was at the center of the national political conversation last year, “Charis has for many decades been at the center of political conversation in Georgia.” Throughout the pandemic, the New Press has partnered frequently with Charis on virtual events for its political titles.
Founded in Atlanta in 1974 by Linda Bryant, Charis (Greek for grace or “a gift freely given”) is the oldest feminist bookstore in the Southeast. In their statement in response to the nomination, owners Sara Luce Look and Angela Gabriel said the store has thrived in a racially diverse metro area with a significant LGBTQ population “due mostly to our community’s ongoing commitment to use feminism as a tool for growth, which necessarily includes mistakes, failures, heartbreaks, and new starts.”
In 2019, Charis moved from its longtime site in Atlanta’s Little Five Points area to the much more suburban Decatur to partner with Agnes Scott College. It is now located in a Victorian house with a 1,900-sq.-ft. retail area and a 100-person event space. The private women’s college’s commitment to female and nonbinary leadership dovetails with Charis’s own mission of “fostering sustainable feminist communities” in the pursuit of social justice. The partnership makes Charis one of the few indie bookstores, and the only feminist bookseller, to become an official college store for branded apparel, gifts, and other nonbook items, with E-Follett the source for student textbooks. Through the relationship, the store’s owners noted, “we get to share our mission with an ever-renewing population of engaged learners, and we get to learn from young people about what is most important in their lives today.”
Charis closed to in-person browsing last March in response to Covid-19 and hasn’t reopened yet. Like many other bookstores, it was inundated last summer with requests for books about race. In contrast to many indies, it already had a well-established website set up for e-commerce and a robust shipping system, along with lists of reading recommendations. Customers are even directed toward training spaces designed to translate reading into action.
Because Charis has always functioned as a place to gather and “just hang out with friends and have a cup of tea or a meeting on our front porch,” the owners said in their statement, “we were very scared that if you stripped away the community space of Charis, there would be less of an incentive to support us.”
Charis’s four full-time and three part-time employees need not have worried. Though 2019 was the “best year we ever had because of the move and our grand reopening celebration,” Gabriel says, sales dipped only “a little” last year, finishing at the same level as 2018.
With the move behind it, Charis continues to plan for the future. A bequest from late avant-garde composer and feminist activist Sorrel Hayes of 24 acres of land, with a lake, four buildings, a recording studio, and a woodworking studio, about an hour west of downtown Atlanta, allowed Charis to form a 501(c)2 last year to create an artist retreat, Charis Commons. It is beginning to plan for the next iteration of its mission, which will include Charis Commons, and hopes to share its vision soon.