At a time when a number of feminist bookstores have closed and Chicago's Women and Children First is struggling to stay alive, the Center for New Words (CNW), which grew out of New Words Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., is finding that the best way to serve its community is by not selling books.

Seven years after New Words received a Ford Foundation grant to explore alternative bookstore models and five years after it became a nonprofit community center, New Words is still going strong—but without books. This spring CNW gave up selling books at all but a few of its author programs and instead has begun partnering with area independents.

“There's no economy of scale selling books at events,” explained CNW co-director Gilda Bruckman. “Working with other bookstores allows us to support local independents, to get books into the hands of our community in a deliberate way—and to remove the cost of ordering, receiving and returning books.”

And many of New Words' proposed author readings add depth to other stores' programming. “It's to our benefit to work with CNW,” said Brian Foley, whose title is “events sherpa” at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass. “They have a lot of feminist authors that are below the radar.” The first week in June, for example, Booksmith held its own literary-oriented readings with Michael Ondaatje, Claire Messud and Claire Cook, and then brought in an entirely different audience for an event cosponsored by CNW that featured Audacia Ray, author of Naked on the Internet (Seal Press).

With four staffers, CNW, which operates out of the Cambridge YMCA, maintains an active programming schedule, which includes an annual conference on Women and the Media; a monthly Feminism & Dessert series; a weekly writing program for homeless women at a nearby shelter; and a new writing program with residents at the Y. There are also open mikes and the occasional one-off program, like a recent one on gay marriage cosponsored by the ACLU and Beacon Press, publisher of Patricia Gozemba and Karen Kahn's Courting Equality.

Although Bruckman said that every year she and her partners refine what is the best way to serve the community, they no longer want to return to a traditional bookstore model. “Initially,” she said, “the sense we had that we would reopen the store was a fantasy and a hope. The economics continued to move in a direction that seemed less and less feasible. When we first opened in 1974, we did so with less than $15,000. We couldn't do that anymore on that scale. And nothing that has transpired in the publishing or financial world has made us think it was a mistake to close.”

Now, like other nonprofits, CNW relies on contributions. It is working to raise $25,000 by June 30 in order to meet the terms of a challenge grant for an additional $50,000 from an anonymous donor. To make donating easier, CNW has set up a Website:

Susan Wasson: Retailer, Agent
Although at age 63 Susan Wasson is semiretired, she still maintains the mystery book section at Albuquerque's Bookworks, orders its mass market titles, and writes reviews for the store's Web site and newsletter. But what makes her unique in the eyes of both large and small publishers is her unofficial role of agent. In the past decade, three novels acquired by New York houses were initially released by small presses and brought to the attention of the larger companies by Wasson. The most recent deal occurred this past spring, when Penguin acquired Crybaby Ranch by Wyoming author Tina Welling.

Welling's debut novel was published in 2006 with a 750-copy print run by Ghost Road Press in Denver. After Wasson read Crybaby Ranch last year, she passed it on to Penguin sales rep Eric Boss, who, in turn, passed it on to executive editor Ellen Edwards at Putnam's NAL imprint, which eventually led to a two-book deal.

“I love it when a bookseller's enthusiasm leads to our discovery of a terrific new writer,” Edwards said. Crybaby Ranch will be released in trade paper in January as part of the NAL Accent line of women's fiction.

Prompted by Wasson, the Bantam Dell Publishing Group has acquired two novels, each initially released by a small feminist press. In 1997, BD acquired Into the Forest by Jean Hegland, which had a 3,000-copy printing when it was first published in 1996 by Calyx Books. BD acquired the title in a two-book deal that netted the author $700,000. Five years later, BD bought The Elegant Gathering of White Snows by Kris Radish, first published with a 3,000-copy run by Denver's Spinsters Ink. BD, which reports 200,000 copies in print, published TheSunday List of Dreams, Radish's fourth novel, with a 100,000-copy run in January. “One of the most remarkable things about Susan,” said Bantam Dell publisher Irwyn Applebaum, “is that she's a book lover and parlays this into a knowledge of what will sell a book. It's not enough to like a book, we've got to be able to sell it. Not everyone in this business can make that leap. She's one of a kind.”—Claire Kirch