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Feminist Feast And Famine
Karen Kawaguchi -- 7/24/00
After three decades, feminist bookstores are
going through transitions to stay viable

Women &Children First owners
Linda Bubon (left) and Ann
Feminist bookstores may be fewer in number these days but many continue to serve their communities with energy and enthusiasm. At this year's Book Expo America in Chicago, only seven booksellers attended a one-day Feminist Bookstore Network program. Last year in Los Angeles, 25 booksellers attended a two-day program. PW recently spoke to owners/managers of three longstanding feminist bookstores, members of a New York City bookstore collective that just celebrated its first birthday and the former publisher of Feminist Bookstore News. Among our findings:
  • In less than three years, almost 30 feminist bookstores closed.

  • Closings have leveled off in the last nine months.

  • New stores, like New York City's Bluestockings, are taking a more activist approach with strong political ties.

  • There is hope that this "generational shift" in booksellers will revitalize the niche bookstores.

What Is a Feminist Bookstore?
"It's a self-declared category," explained Ann Christophersen, co-owner of Women and Children First in Chicago. "Universally, it's a store that specializes in books by and for women, including books with a feminist perspective. Feminist bookstores are run by individuals and differ from each other. A feminist bookstore is not the same as an independent store with a strong women's collection or a store owned by feminists."

While the books sold by feminist bookstores may vary in subject matter and perspective, there are common themes, such as women's health, self-help, spirituality, lesbian/gay issues and the women's movement, and most books are written by women. These stores also give a vital sense of community to women by providing access to information and a meeting place.

Women and Children First
Serving Chicago since 1979, first in an 850-square-feet space in Lincoln Park, Women and Children First now occupies a spacious store (3,500 square feet) in the Andersonville section of the city. "We're a destination store for women and children. We're also a neighborhood store," Christophersen told PW. The store carries fiction, p try and genre work written by women. Other categories are women's biographies, politics, feminism, social justice, gay/lesbian, cooking, and children's books; works written by both men and women are stocked. The store also offers a general section called "People Are Talking About," with fiction such as The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Disgrace by J.M. C tzee.

"Our customers are still, as always, staunchly interested in the women's movement. There have been gains, but much remains to be done," said Christophersen about the store's clientele. Women and Children First has also tried to attract new audiences through university sales and by hiring younger women to work in the store.

"The years 1994 to 1998 were difficult for feminist bookstores and all independents," reflected Christophersen. "There was an explosion of chain stores. There were too many bookstores, and the Internet became a factor." She thinks times are a little better now, with many stores having developed outside sales programs and textbook sales to make up losses in store sales. Some stores, such as Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis, Minn. (see below), and A Room of One's Own in Madison, Wis., are moving or have moved to new spaces in hospitable locations.

Christophersen, who helped organize this year's BEA feminist bookstore event as a member of the Feminist Bookstore Network steering committee, believes there were several reasons for the decrease in attendees. "There are fewer feminist bookstores now. We're going through a transitional, reorganization phase. Some stores have closed, and some are changing hands." Christophersen thinks the number of attendees could rise next year, and the network may plan a two-day program.

In Other Words

In Other Words has a single full-time
employees and 35 volunteers.
The focus of In Other Words, Portland, Ore., is women's community education, according to Catherine Sameh, a founder of the not-for-profit store at opened in 1993. "We are a provider of resources, not just books," she explained. The store has two bulletin boards and several notebooks filled with information about women's resources. In addition to weekly author readings, the store has sponsored events such as "The Last Word," a monthly open mike evening for women writers; a nonsexist-parenting lecture series; a women's health series; and "Reading with Writers," with Ursula Le Guin, Karen Karbo and others leading seminars on the art of reading.
While most of the bookstore's inventory has a "feminist leaning," it also includes more general women's fiction. Roughly 95% of the writers stocked are female.

Facing challenges similar to other independents, In Other Words has had to scale back in recent years. Sameh manages the store and is the only full-time employee. A few part-time booksellers and more than 35 volunteers round out the store's staff. "We're financially stable now, and store sales are up slightly," said Sameh. Revenues have been bolstered by textbook sales to Portland State University, as well as sales at conferences and to social service agencies.

"Many stores opened during the '70s," Sameh reflected. "The women's movement was in its heyday and as stores kept growing, they helped get women's writing and thinking into the larger world. Now we can find feminist books and books written by women everywhere. Are we victims of our own success?"

In the 1980s, there were more than 100 feminist bookstores, and now there are fewer than 80, according to Sameh. Citing the recent loss of the 25-year-old Sisterhood Bookstore in Los Angeles, she said, "Borders moved in across the street. The store did a lot to mobilize community support, but it was a struggle."

Still, Sameh predicts that feminist bookstores will survive because "they're good at community building and provide something that other places don't. It's important to be hopeful. Many stores are stable now and continue to serve their communities."

Amazon Bookstore

Barbara Wieser (left) and Theresa Hawthorne
unpack at Amazon's new location.
Opened in 1970, Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis is one of the oldest, continuously operating feminist bookstore in the U.S. Last week, Amazon moved to a new space in a building owned by Chrysalis, a women's center that provides such resources as therapy and chemical dependency groups. Amazon will develop joint programming with Chrysalis and now offers a drop-in day-care center for women who attend programs and shop at the store.
According to Barbara Wieser, an owner of Amazon, the new 2,400-sq.-ft. space is slightly larger and configured more openly than the former store. This allows Amazon to have a cafe and broaden the current 15,000-title inventory to include general interest books and additional therapy and children's books.

Though in-store sales had fallen in the former store, Wieser expects sales to improve in the new space, not only because of the link with Chrysalis, but because of improved parking. Amazon Bookstore has also increased sales at the University of Minnesota, at conferences and on its Web site (www.amazonfembks.com). (The move could also have benefited from the store's settling a lawsuit against Amazon.com over the use of the Amazon name.)

After 14 years with Amazon Bookstore, Wieser has developed a perspective on feminist bookstores in general. "It's a hard time for all independents," she told PW. "It's harder for smaller stores to carry on through a decrease in sales. Some people are getting burned out. But some stores are doing well." The chief factors for a successful bookstore she cites are building strong community support, retaining the ability to make changes and a high degree of energy.

Situated in New York City's Lower East Side--a bustling area of traditional and quirky shops, restaurants, housing projects and apartments in former tenement buildings--Bluestockings started in the imagination of founder Kathryn Welsh. She gathered support and became an independent women's bookstore owner one year ago. The store is run as a collective with one paid staff person. The 90 female and transgender volunteers, mostly in their 20s and early 30s, supply various skills ranging from book buying to electrical wiring.

"There hadn't been a women's bookstore in Manhattan in five years," said Amy Laura Cahn, a collective member, explaining the motivation to open a store in these times. "There was a real lack. Once it opened, there was such support and enthusiasm."

According to Bluestockings' mission statement, the store "promotes the empowerment of women through words, art and activism. We work to be an intersection of dialogue and information exchange, providing women-focused books, events, workshops, and a meeting and gathering place."
Bluestockings, on NYC's Lower East Side, has
90 volunteers helping owner Kathryn Welsh.
Occupying 900 square feet (including a cafe), Bluestockings carries 4,000 titles. Its collection includes books on women's health, food, sexuality, disability issues, women's studies, queer and gender studies, ethnic experiences, fiction, p try and humor. The store makes a special effort to include publications from small presses and self-published books. A bountiful events calendar recently included readings by Pramila Jayapal, author of Pilgrimage: One Woman's Return to a Changing India (Seal Press); p t Brenda Shaughnessy, author of Interior with Sudden Joy (FSG); and three former prison inmates who wrote about their experiences.
Bluestockings embodies a distinctively activist character, with strong ties to political, human rights and lesbian/gay groups. Collective members recently participated in the Gay Pride March and the protests against the police killing of Amadou Diallo. "We are defining new territory," added collective member Lara Comstock. "There are very few trans-inclusive stores that encompass women and transgender experiences." One of the store's strongest events was a recent reading by transgender writer Leslie Feinberg.

What d s the store envision for its second year? "We'd like to focus even more on outreach and find alliances with groups with similar missions," said volunteer Emily Moore. "We'd like to diversify our volunteer base to reflect a broader community." Comstock added. "Our goal is to break even financially so that we can continue to offer intangible benefits to the community."

Seajay Sees All
Founder, publisher and editor of Feminist Bookstore News since 1976, Carol Seajay is in the process of hanging up those hats and starting a new career as a Web developer. She is seeking someone with resources and vision to take over the News. "It's still a viable magazine with a loyal and committed readership that buys a lot of books," Seajay told PW. "Readers depend on FBN and use it as an ordering tool and for keeping up on industry news." The more than 400 subscribers are not just feminist bookstores. The bulk of the readers are general bookstores, independent presses, corporate publishers, libraries and industry magazines. Seajay also suspects the magazine has a significant influence on what Borders and Barnes & Noble order for their stores. "Almost 25 years later, we are still the only place all feminist press titles are covered," she said.

As part of her lengthy involvement in feminist bookstores, Seajay also co-owned Old Wives' Tale in San Francisco from 1976 to 1983 (the store closed four years ago).
"Feminist bookstores are in transition," said Seajay. "During the early '90s, the number of feminist bookstores was still growing by five or six stores a year. When the indie bookstore/superchain wars started, we continued to add a store or two a year. In the last 2½ years, we lost about 30 stores. Things have leveled out during the last nine months." The rise and fall in numbers of bookstores in general should also be noted. In 1995, the ABA had 5,500 members with 7,000 stores; currently, its members number 3,100 with 4,000 stores, a drop of about 43%. "Percentage-wise, the numbers for feminist bookstores are stronger than the industry at large," said Seajay.
Over the next two years, Seajay thinks that stores must learn to adapt to the Internet. "One thing that well-positioned niche stores know really well is customers' need to ask a human for advice," she noted. "There will be a 'shake back' to hand-selling--personal selling in stores and via the Internet. Stores must connect information to people. Stores that do that well will have stability." Seajay also wonders if this "generational shift" in the number of booksellers who are changing careers after working in the industry for three decades will revitalize the feminist bookstore crowd with an infusion of new, computer-savvy entrepreneurs with a feminist outlook. "There is still a need and desire for our bookstores," said Seajay. "And fortunately, there are new people coming along who want to take us forward."
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