In my book Baby, You Are my Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall I talked about the importance of the gay women’s bar (and gay men’s bar) as sacred space for pre-Stonewall homosexuals—how the community space of the gay bar was the only public space for pre-Stonewall homosexuals and how it galvanized and concretized a community that had no other way of connecting. It was “home.”
I was so fortunate to do two readings and signings for People Called Women, the feminist bookstore from Toledo, Ohio — and Ohio’s only feminist bookstore — when they brought their “traveling bookstore” which goes to feminist events (they also have their mortar and brick store in Ohio J which I was thrilled to visit) to Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival last week. I was thrilled that we were able to sell out of all the copies of my book that People Called Women brought “to the land” (Michfest). I was thrilled that so many women showed up to our event, told stories about early bar life, cried, shared hugs and created community — and bought books. It felt radical and “old school” feminist. It felt like something I have missed – that connection with a feminist bookstore–for Los Angeles lost our women’s bookstore in 1999 —15 years ago.
For many of us who came of age post-Stonewall in the mid 70s, 80s and late 90s, the gay women’s bookstores—or rather feminist bookstores — were these sacred “home” spaces. They were our “alternate church,” as I so label the pre-Stonewall bars.
I “came out” as a lesbian and as a feminist — in 1979. One of the first places I visited was New Words Bookstore in Cambridge, MA. New Words really did feel like that—“new words,” like parting the curtain onto a brand new world where I had access to language that finally made sense—a new way of communicating—that is what feminism felt like — like being able to talk and be heard and understood for the very first time.
When I moved west to go to graduate school with my then partner the very first stop we made in 1987 was the women’s bookstore — Sisterhood Bookstore — where we perused the bulletin boards for housing listings and events so that we could get connected to our community. Sisterhood Bookstore, in Los Angeles, CA, operated for approximately 26 years from 1972-1999, and then had to close it doors.
In A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, authors Laura Pulido, Laura R. Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng assert that Sisterhood Bookstore extended the spaces available to the burgeoning feminist and women’s liberation communities by extending the spaces of small and friendship driven “women’s centers” and “women’s resource centers” into the more available, democratic space of bookstores. For it is true that anyone can visit a bookstore, find out where it is located, go and hang out and talk to folks and gently ease into a community. Bookstores are not in a secret or hard to find location necessarily. After opening it was said the “L.A. women’s movement had relocated there,” and that the bookstore provided the space not only for buying feminist books and materials but also was an important site for “consciousness raising,” “political activism” and a space where one could form relationships with those of like mind—feminists, and women involved in women’s liberation.
Much like gay bars—except not as hard to find as pre-Stonewall bars—the feminist bookstores of the 70s through the mid 90s were spaces that numbered over 120 in the U.S. and Canada and now number only 13.
The remaining stores have survived despite Amazon and e-books…why? It has been suggested that not only are they places to buy books—but they are community centers—as the gay bars pre-Stonewall were. And for many women they are still considered, in their surviving communities, “the only space,” a phrase I heard over and over again from all of my informants regarding pre-Stonewall gay bars—they were “the only space” that pre-Stonewall folks could gather. Although there were many feminist spaces such as women’s centers, and coffeehouses and hotlines and health centers — the bookstores, as stated of Sisterhood Bookstore earlier, quickly became the locus of the community—they had regular hours, were open regular times, and one could just walk in and find not just literature but community and a calendar of events that one could connect into in any given community in the U.S.
Where did they go? Some were forced out. Why did Sisterhood Bookstore close? Without a doubt it was because Borders opened across the street from them. I’m happy to say that co-owner (and friend) Simone Wallace is quoted as saying she could “dance on their grave” (of Borders Books) after they were forced to close shortly after opening across the street from Sisterhood.
It is a well known fact that these large stores placed themselves on top of indie bookstore locations and competed with them for business, taking away their established clientele—and also luring new business. I remember going to a closing sale at Sisterhood and we didn’t know that it was going to happen — but we were there across the street (I was with my friend Lisa Hartouni, herself a former manager of the indie Midnight Special Bookstore) when the Sisterhood sign came down. It felt like watching a funeral.
And of course it is not just women’s bookstores that are closing — bookstores are closing and the very existence of materials such as “books” on paper, rather than e-books, becomes a frequent dinner conversational topic. Will books become dinosaurs—mighty but eventually disappearing—missed, but not mourned?
What has allowed some stores to stay open is a myriad of factors—if they were not forced out. What has helped some stores is the a priori mandate of the feminist bookstore –community involvement in more than buying books—but in actual community building around buying books and community functionality. It is an activist agenda that includes events and community gatherings. For example, Bluestockings Bookstore in New York City has a calendar of events for nearly every night of the week, and advertises itself not just as a bookstore but as “an activist center.”
Another example of this is that People Called Women is unveiling this week (August 20th) their lending library called Steinem’s Sisters (Archives). Why would a bookstore operate and celebrate a lending library—when they have to sell books, not lend them, in order to survive? Perhaps for feminist bookstores surviving has as much to do with keeping a community involved and mobilized, as it has with turning a profit.
I would love to do a book tour that was just visiting the 13 remaining feminist stores—and if we can swing it — we might just try and do that. For anyone wanting to also visit and patronize these sacred feminist community spaces while these 13 (a magical number) still exist—here they are:
- Antigone Books* (Tucson, AZ)
Established in 1973, Antigone Books is the oldest feminist bookstore in the country.
- Bloodroot (Bridgeport, CT)
Selma Miriam and Noel Furie co-own Bloodroot, a vegetarian restaurant and bookstore.
- Bluestockings (New York, NY)
Kathryn Welsh founded Bluestockings, a collectively owned and volunteer-run bookstore and cafe, in 1999.
- BookWoman* (Austin, TX)
BookWoman opened in December 1974 and will celebrate its 40th anniversary at the end of this year. Current owner Susan Post, who started out as a volunteer, has been with the bookstore since its inception.
- Charis Books and More* (Atlanta, GA)
Sara Luce Look and Angela Gabriel co-own Charis Books and More, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in November.
- Common Language* (Ann Arbor, MI)
Opened in 1991. Common Language’s biggest sellers include lesbian fiction, gay studies, trans studies, women’s studies and children’s books, particularly those children’s books that spread a message of diversity.
- In Other Words (Portland, OR)
In Other Words was founded in 1993 by Johanna Brenner, Kathryn Tetrick and Catherine Sameh. (It’s also where the feminist bookstore sketches are filmed for the TV show Portlandia.)
- Northern Woman’s Bookstore (Thunder Bay, ON)
Margaret Phillips is the owner of Northern Woman’s Bookstore, the only feminist bookstore in Canada.
- People Called Women* (Toledo, OH)
Owned by Gina Mercurio (above), People Called Women opened in 1993. The bookstore specializes in multicultural children’s books, non-fiction, memoirs, lesbian fiction and romance in addition to mainstream books.
- A Room of One’s Own Books & Gifts* (Madison, WI)
Owned by Sandy Torkildson, A Room of One’s Own offers new and used books in conjunction with Avol’s Bookstore.
- Wild Iris Books* (Gainesville, FL)
Wild Iris Books, which opened its doors in 1992, is co-owned by Cheryl Krauth and Lylly Rodriguez.
- Women and Children First* (Chicago, IL)
Established in 1979, Women and Children First was listed for sale by owners Linda Bubon and Ann Christopherson last October. (They are currently in negotiations with a buyer and anticipate a seamless transition.)
- Womencrafts (Provincetown, MA)
Womencrafts, which opened its doors on the tip of Cape Cod in 1976, is owned by Kathryn Livelli.
*Denotes stores that also sell books through their websites.
What do feminist bookstores mean to you, dear readers of Feminism and Religion? I’d love to hear your stores and comments.
Marie Cartier is a teacher, poet, writer, healer, artist, and scholar. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of New Hampshire; an MA in English/Poetry from Colorado State University; an MFA in Theatre Arts (Playwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Film and TV (Screenwriting) from UCLA; and an MFA in Visual Art (Painting/Sculpture) from Claremont Graduate University. She is also a first degree black belt in karate, Shorin-Ryu Shi-Do-Kan Kobayashi style. Ms. Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University.