When Jessica Ferri launched her online bookstore, Womb House Books, in August 2021, her expectations were modest, if not nonexistent. Having just published her second book, Ferri, an author and book critic for the Los Angeles Times, had extra time on her hands and was unsure how she should use it.
She had always dreamed of owning a bookstore—“since I was a little girl,” she said—but was daunted by the idea of opening a brick-and-mortar operation. And with the pandemic still raging, compounded with Ferri’s recent cross-country relocation from Brooklyn to Berkeley, Calif., the timing felt wrong.
Then she discovered a pair of feminist bookstores—Toronto–based Bellwood Books and London–based the Second Shelf—which modeled precisely the kind of store Ferri could envision herself running: one primarily operated online and specializing in rare books by women.
“That was a big influence,” said Ferri of Bellwood, owned by Julie Malian, and Second Shelf, owned by A.N. Devers. With these blueprints in hand, Ferri made her first foray into bookselling with the “women-driven” Womb House Books.
Womb House focuses on books by and about women, as well as literature that Ferri calls “women-adjacent.” Its stock comes largely from local library book sales. She attributes her success at these sales to living in the “vibrant academic community” of Berkeley. “The sourcing is excellent here,” she said, because donations tend to come from professors, artists, and other “literarily-inclined, highly-cultured people.” She also frequents library sales all over Northern California and occasionally out of state, as well as estate sales. She estimates that she purchases between 200 and 400 books per sale.
Ferri’s buying practice is guided by her own unique but hard-to-pin-down sensibility; to paraphrase that most famous of Supreme Court opinions, Ferri simply knows a Womb House book when she sees it. As of this writing, the shop has made 3,743 sales and has 270 books on sale, including first edition of books by Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Marguerite Duras, Louise Erdrich, Jamaica Kincaid, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, and Ntozake Shange.
Ferri posts three to five new listings on Instagram, Twitter, and Etsy each day at 6pm PST. There’s a pleasing aesthetic consistency across the listings, with each book positioned symmetrically on an ornately patterned rug. She chose to sell through Etsy, she said, for its user-friendliness and because it streamlines the process of listing and shipping.
In August 2021, she began posting her first listings: books by Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston, and Virginia Woolf; biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and Barbara Pym. At first, sales were slow. “I would sell a book every now and then,” she recalls. “I’d sell a couple books of month, and I’d be like, 'This is fun!'” Then, in October 2022, something changed.
“I went from selling a few books a month to a few books a week, and before I knew it, it was a few books every day,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And it just sort of snowballed from there.”
The snowball effect had been catalyzed by a single Instagram post by the author Stephanie Danler, who had heard about Womb House from a friend, ordered several books, and then shared her purchases with her more than 38,000 followers. “After that, I had an uptick in followers and got a ton of orders,” Ferri said.
A week later, Ferri noticed that Emma Roberts, cofounder of the online book club Belletrist, had liked many of Womb House’s posts. Ferri reached out to Roberts and a partnership soon followed: since March 2023, Ferri and Belletrist cofounder Karah Preiss have regularly convened on Instagram Live to spotlight 20th-century women writers—and relevant titles stocked by Womb House—in a series called Womb House x Belletrist. More recently, Natalie’s Book Club, run by Natalie Portman, reached out to Ferri to partner on a giveaway of Toni Morrison’s Beloved for Banned Books Week this past October.
“I see the bookstore as very aligned with my own personal work and writing, and the work that I do as a book critic, because I primarily write about women’s work and the lives of women,” Ferri said. “I see it all as one thing.”
Not everyone understands Ferri’s vision. At the L.A. Times Festival of Books last April, where Womb House had a booth, Ferri was approached by a gentleman who inquired, with skepticism, about the store’s women-centric selection. “So no men?” he asked. Womb House stocks plenty of books by men—currently for sale are works by Ralph Ellison, Milan Kundera, Robert Lowell, and Norman Rush, among many other male authors—but Ferri noted that they don’t sell nearly as well as the books by women.
In addition to books, Womb House sells merchandise, including tote bags and baseball caps sporting the names of women writers, including Eve Babitz, bell hooks, and Shirley Jackson; its “Plath” hat is a perennial bestseller. “I’m not the first person who has done the author hats,” Ferri said, “but I hope that our merch stands apart because it’s in conjunction with the books—I see the hats as a way to promote the books.” She’s eager to expand into apparel.
Womb House is expanding in other ways, too, with Ferri recently trying her hand at event programming. In July, she hosted a conversation with author Joanna Biggs about her book A Life of One’s Own, about women writers, through Instagram Live. And in October, she hosted author and Sylvia Plath scholar Gail Crowther over Zoom to discuss her book Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz to celebrate Plath’s birthday. Because Womb House stocks only used books, Biggs and Crowther’s titles were sold through Bookshop.org. One day, Ferri imagines a brick-and-mortar in Berkeley could house a thriving event series.
For now, Ferri is focused on her online storefront, where she’s cultivated a large, devoted following by carefully curating the books she sells. Readers come to Womb House because they like Ferri’s literary sensibility, and as retailers like Amazon increasingly use algorithmic recommendations, Womb House’s handpicked stock is a reminder of the importance of a personal touch in bookselling.
At the many library sales Ferri attends, she often spots people termed “scanners,” who go through the selection with a barcode-scanning tool that will identify the resell value of any given book. These scanners will scoop up the most valuable books and sell them online. “There’s no curation there,” said Ferri. “It’s not like you can really call them booksellers.”
Ferri recalls these scanners when she thinks about the role algorithms play in bookselling. “The way I feel about algorithms is the way I feel about those people with the scanners,” she says—impersonal, expedient, and uninterested in literature as an art form. Scrolling through Womb House’s Etsy, on the other hand, should feel like glimpsing “the library that you want to have,” thoughtfully assembled by your smartest, most bookish friend.