As book banning efforts intensify—along with assaults on women’s bodily autonomy and on the AP African American studies curriculum—old-school feminist bookstores and new intersectional feminist stores alike are drawing customers seeking safe spaces for buying books and gathering information.
Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner of Women & Children First in Chicago, echoed other feminist booksellers PW spoke with when she said that the current culture wars have rejuvenated her 44-year-old store. “In recent years, we’ve only stood stronger in our mission and encouraged our community to invest in the ongoing work,” Hollenbeck said. “Our most recent tote bag reads ‘Support Your Local Feminist Bookstore’ in big, bold, all-caps letters. That pretty much captures the tone of our current marketing strategy.”
WCF also has been buoyed by spikes in new customers and sales due to external factors. Most notably, in June 2022, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker visited WCF to mark his repeal of a state law requiring minors to obtain parental consent before having an abortion, just before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. “We continue to have quite a bit of interest in certain titles, like the new edition of The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service and Ejaculate Responsibly: A Whole New Way to Think About Abortion,” Hollenbeck said.
WCF has also upped its scheduling of collaborative programming benefiting feminist organizations, including two Bake Sale for Abortion fundraisers for the Chicago Abortion Fund.
Sales at 49-year-old Charis Books & More in Decatur, Ga. also “have gone up, and up, and up” in the past year, said co-owner Sara Luce Look, who ascribes this success to being “rooted in community that holds us accountable.” Charis has always had robust programming in collaboration with like-minded organizations, such as one Atlanta group focused on reproductive justice and another on domestic violence. “The kinds of books we carry and the programing we do are intertwined,” Look added, noting that the store is going to be a distribution point for Plan B contraception pills.
Most of the indies identifying as feminist stores that have opened in recent years also embrace LGBTQ books and Black literature. One such store, Socialight Society in Lansing, Mich., was founded in 2021 as a pop-up specializing in books by Black women; it moved into a bricks-and-mortar space inside the Lansing Mall a year ago. Owner Nyshell Lawrence said she was inspired to open Socialight Society after visiting a large bookstore in Lansing that had a “pretty disappointing” section of books by BIPOC authors.
“Things are going well” with in-store and online sales, plus sales to local schools, Lawrence said, noting that Socialight stocks 300 titles. Conversations with customers often concern banned books, since “people want to get their hands on them,” she noted.
This past summer, sales at Socialight rose when customers were given the opportunity to donate books to be handed out to protesters for women’s rights rallying outside the Michigan state capitol building. “Just Get on the Pill: The Uneven Burden of Reproductive Politics was probably the most popular book handed out to the protesters,” Lawrence said.
All She Wrote Books, founded in Somerville, Mass., by Christina Pascucci Ciampa in 2019 as a pop-up, moved into a bricks-and-mortar location in July 2020. Ciampa was prompted to open All She Wrote, she explained, due to the “lack of curation” of certain feminist and LGBTQ titles in other bookstores, shelved in such a way that they were “overshadowed by some of publishing’s biggest names.”
Ciampa promotes books by women and LGBTQ writers, as well as those by disabled writers and those portraying disabled characters in positive ways. “When I was younger,” she explained, “I did not see any books with someone in a wheelchair featured in it and being this bold, amazing character, or anybody talking about autism, whether it was fiction or nonfiction. I knew these types of books were out there.”
All She Wrote is “more than just a feminist/queer independent bookstore,” Ciampa said. “When I think of the words intersectional, feminist, and queer, which are in our mission statement, I think of them as guiding lights for those who are not only actively seeking queer/feminist spaces out like ours but for those who want more spaces like ours in the world.”
Inspired by the 1970s feminist publishing movement, Jamie Harker started Violet Valley in 2018 in Water Valley, Miss., a town of 4,000 residents 17 miles from Oxford. Referring to a 2017 state law “that indemnified license to discriminate against LGBTQ people,” Harker said she wanted to create “a safe space, especially for queer youth,” adding, “I know books and I know LGBTQ culture.” So launching an “explicitly queer and feminist bookstore” made sense.
Violet Valley customers are a mix of locals and travelers from Oxford, Memphis, Jackson, and beyond, Harker said. The store had repeated upticks in sales this past year “whenever something happens, either nationally or locally.”
She recalled that when a controversy erupted over critical race theory, a supporter in San Francisco launched a fund through Violet Valley benefiting Mississippi queer youth who want to read banned books but cannot afford to buy them. “This is one of those moments when we have to use our ingenuity to get around homophobic culture,” Harker said.
Another intersectional feminist indie, Burdock Book Collective in Birmingham, Ala., was founded in 2018 by Katie Willis and Meagan Lyle. After visiting Charis, the two were inspired to start their own feminist bookstore. BBC has collaborated on several events with Violet Valley and Charis, including a recent hybrid event featuring Alex Ketchum, the author of Ingredients for Revolution: A History of American Feminist Restaurants, Cafes, and Coffeehouses.
“We wanted to have a community organizing space for people to connect, learn and grow,” Willis and Lyle said of their pop-up. “We wanted our inventory to represent voices and authors from different backgrounds and life experiences, especially writers who have been marginalized in more mainstream bookstores. We saw many indies in our city that did not uplift the voices of women, people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, disabled people, and people from poor communities.”
Though BBC did not see the increase in sales last summer reported by other feminist indies PW spoke with, Lyle and Willis said the store’s sales are slowly climbing. And making money is not a priority, they added—they opened the store because they love books and “think it is important to create space for people to come together around literature.”