Once again, A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wis., is a bookstore in transition. Founded by five young women in 1975, A Room relocated in 1997 and again in 2011, to a 6,000-square-foot retail space in Downtown Madison that previously housed Avol’s Books and, before that, Canterbury Bookstore. Forced to move once more this summer because a developer’s plans for the building do not include a bookstore, A Room will go to the city’s East Side, a historically working-class area.
“We’re kind of excited to flesh out that neighborhood,” co-owner Gretchen Treu said. “We can be more of a neighborhood bookstore there, while continuing to be the activist, rabble-rousing, mission-driven bookstore we’ve become.” Downtown Madison, they said, has become “more corporate”; rents are high, parking is scarce, and chains now dominate the area, which is adjacent to the university.
A Room will reopen in a 4,300-square-foot space in late July. “It’s impossible to get a group of people to story times in our current location,” Treu explained, describing the new venue as being near a community center and several schools. The building’s high Walkability Index score will enable A Room to schedule storytimes and child-friendly programming.
Conceived as a feminist bookstore that sold new books, A Room began promoting itself as a general bookstore, and added used books to the mix, after its previous move 10 years ago. “In order for A Room to survive, it had to be more of a generalist indie bookstore,” explained Treu, who worked there for 11 years before buying it in 2018 from cofounder Sandi Torkildson and her business partner, Nancy Geary. Besides Treu, the co-owners are Wes Lukes and novelist Patrick Rothfuss, a silent partner.
After doubling the size of its space in the previous move, the former owners felt the need to expand A Room’s customer base by adding more titles, Treu said. “It was a practical change, but also a philosophical one. When we bought the store, we were very interested in bringing it back to its roots in a much more modern fashion.”
While the word feminist has not been added back to the store’s original name, and A Room continues to stock used military books (due only to the co-owners’ inertia in offloading them), it has, Treu insisted, “done everything we can to be as just as possible while operating under capitalism.” They added that A Room remains committed to “lifting up marginalized people and underrepresented voices” by coordinating such projects as the 2019 #BookstoresAgainstBorders fund-raiser for immigrants incarcerated at the U.S. border. Closer to home, store employees are paid at least $15 an hour, with, for the seven full-time staff members, health insurance and other benefits.
Though A Room continues to stock bestsellers, there is an emphasis on social justice and equality—and thus a large selection of books by BIPOC and LGBTQ authors for adults and children. After the move, the store will become more selective and will reduce its inventory of used books. “We’re thinking of the move as a way to curate our selection and not just fill up the shelves,” Treu noted. “We’re trying to be intentional and responsive, a ‘what the world is like now’ kind of store. We want to be as thoughtful as possible about being more inclusive in addressing where feminism has historically lacked.”
A Room closed to in-store customers in March 2020, and its doors remain shut, as inventory has been reduced, shelving dismantled, and fixtures sold before the move. “Initially, we told the staff to stay home and paid them to do so,” Treu recalled. “For a few months, we did the bare minimum—things you had to do to make orders happen. We weren’t even taking phone calls.”
Now A Room is once again staffed, with employees taking phone orders and processing online orders, which have risen from 10% of store sales to 90%.
One pandemic-related service has proven so popular that A Room intends to continue it indefinitely: subscription boxes. A book in each subscriber’s chosen genre is selected each month by whichever employee is most conversant with that category. “We love choosing books for people after they tell us their reading tastes, and then have them renew their subscriptions six months later,” Treu noted. “It’s a really fun way to keep things personal in the age of social distancing.”
While sales remain down from 2019’s peak, “they have remained steady enough that we haven’t been concerned,” Treu said. “They’ve been steady enough to make this move happen, keep our staff paid, and keep the lights on. We feel very supported by the community, both locally and nationally.”