Survival of a Feminist Bookstore Through Community and a Literary Public
Imagine being a young feminist in the late 1970s, fresh out of graduate school with a degree in literature from the University of Illinois. You have discussed starting a business with a peer from your program and decide that the most logical endeavor for your joint skill-set is the creation of a bookstore. At this time in Chicago there exist upward of sixty independent bookstores, and chain stores have yet to move into the area (Chamberlin). You and your new business partner decide that there are plenty of readers to go around and open your small, specialty bookstore. The two of you are also active in the second wave of feminism – when you are not supporting the movement in your freshly founded bookstore, you are out on the streets campaigning for causes like the Equal Rights Amendment.
This story describes the genesis of the now well-known feminist bookstore Women & Children First, today located in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago. Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen, the founders of this store, were far from the only young feminist entrepreneurs of the era. At the height of their popularity, there were over 100 feminist bookstores in the United States (Frangello), and 175 in North America (McGrath). Now the number of feminist bookstores in the U. S. seems to hover somewhere in the low teens (Hogan). How then has Women & Children First survived in a climate so inhospitable to the feminist bookstore? For that answer, we need to look back into the store’s history and the history of the feminist bookstore in general.
Bubon and Christophersen opened the first incarnation of their bookstore on November 10, 1979, not in Andersonville, but on Armitage Avenue in the DePaul neighborhood of Chicago. Their goal in opening the store was to “promote the work of women writers and to create a place in which all women would find books reflecting their lives and interests” (W&CF History and Purpose). In line with Raymond Williams’ ideas in Marxism and Literature, Women & Children First recognized that institutions were “irregularly applying ‘literary warrant’” to texts, mostly those by men (Hogan 604). Bubon and Christophersen pooled money and even built the bookshelves for the store themselves (Harper). The original 850-square-foot store served the pair for almost five years, at which point they moved to a new location a few blocks away (Chamberlin). They stayed in this area for another five years, until, in July of 1990, a new landlord and higher rent forced them to look for a new site. Women & Children First relocated to a building in Andersonville that had once been a grocery store (Chamberlin). The bookstore has remained at this location for the last twenty-five years.
Former location of Women & Children First at 1967 N. Halsted Street.
Andersonville now has a reputation as a diverse neighborhood with a thriving LGBTQ culture. Looking at the area now, it can be difficult to determine whether this culture evolved around the bookstore or the bookstore moved into the culture. On closer examination, it appears to be the former. Andersonville is a historic neighborhood that gained a large Swedish population after the Great Chicago Fire (Figueroa). In more recent years, (since Women & Children First came to town), the area has become much more diverse (Chamberlin); the community and the bookstore have grown together.
Bubon reports that between 1979 and 1992, the store’s sales increased steadily, but began to waver in the mid-nineties. To make up for this decline, the store began to sell textbooks at local universities and put more emphasis on conference sales (Amer). It is unsurprising that this drop in sales coincided with the appearance of multiple chain retailers in the area. One reason for the so-called “death” of the feminist bookstore is that chain stores began to carry titles that were once only available through small feminist stores. As a result, “the spaces that nurtured the movement and produced those ideas are vanishing” (McGrath).
In her article “Women’s Studies in Feminist Bookstores: ‘All the women’s studies women would come in,’” Kristen Hogan writes that feminist bookstores “claimed public space for the feminist movement” (595). These stores provided resources for scholars looking for information that they could not find in general bookstores or college libraries, as well as activists and community members looking for a safe space to work through sensitive issues. Feminist bookstores made obscure books by women more widely available by stocking Xeroxed copies and small publications and rallying for out-of-print books to come back into print. They created a “feminist literary public sphere,” space for literature as a political activity (Hogan 597). Explaining this phenomena in an interview Karla Mantilla, Gina Mercurio of the feminist bookstore People Called Women says:
The dot coms and big box stores don’t offer a safe space for women (especially marginalized women) to read their poetry aloud for the first time in public…don’t have resources to connect women with lawyers or lesbian-friendly therapists…don’t spread the word about local feminist cultural events…And they DO NOT operate on an ethic committed to creating and anti-racist, anti-classist, pro-choice, pro-lesbian, anti-woman-hating culture. (50)
Creating this physical space for the feminist movement allowed for the formation of relationships and the spread of feminist ideals. However, as these ideals became more mainstream and resources became available in chain stores and on the internet, less people saw the need for the feminist bookstore. While Women & Children First is one of the few feminist bookstores still in existence, it too has struggled with economic troubles and floundering support for this type of bookstore. In 2007 the store came close to closing, but Christophersen believes that the Andersonville community is what kept the store alive (Frangello).
Over the course of the store’s history, Women & Children First has emphasized the importance of events and community outreach. In the article “Pushed to the margins: the slow death and possible rebirth of the feminist bookstore,” Kathryn McGrath writes that “Women & Children First has successfully competed with Barnes & Noble over star speakers, getting authors like Margaret Atwood, Isabelle Allende, and Al and Tipper Gore.” Women and Children First not only emphasizes big-name speakers and authors (they recently hosted a conversation between Gloria Steinem and Roxane Gay), but also supports local authors. In 2005, the store started the Women’s Voices Fund to help support their programming when they could no longer afford to pay for it with their operating budget (Women’s Voices Fund). They have a strong marketing and publicity presence, promoting events and sending out an e-newsletter every month that goes to 6,500 people (Presenting Women & Children First Bookstore).
There is a support system in the Andersonville area for the “’local’ economy” (Frangello). When Women & Children First moved into the neighborhood, it was one of the stores that built this emphasis on local business, and now it benefits from that. Almost all of the stores along Clark Street, where the bookstore is located, are independent and locally-owned. When Women & Children First announced to the community that it was struggling, the community came out to help. The bookstore is also “deeply involved in every aspect of the neighborhood” (Presenting Women & Children First Bookstore). One of the founders sat on the chamber of commerce for a number of years. When area libraries announced that they would be closed on Mondays due to financial reasons, Bubon quickly organized a story time read-in in front of a branch of the library. The library is currently open on Mondays (Presenting Women & Children First Bookstore).
Ultimately, Women & Children First has survived due to its deep involvement in the Andersonville community. In addition to being a feminist bookstore, it is a neighborhood bookstore. Kristen Hogan identifies a split that occurred between academic feminism and community activism as women’s studies became more institutionalized in the 1980s and 1990s (606). This split may have caused the dissolution of the communities surrounding certain feminist bookstores, but Women & Children First has kept a sense of community intact, and through community it has continued its existence.
*Please note that, when an event has a date of the first of January, it indicates the year, and when the date is the first of any other month, it indicates the month and year.
Harper, Jorjet. Putting Women & Children First. Chicago Gay History.
Google Maps: 1967 Halsted Street
Amer, Robin. What’s killing feminist book stores? WEBZ91.5 Web.
Borrelli, Christopher. “More than a Bookstore.” Chicago Tribune. 10 Nov. 2009. ProQuest. Web.
Chamberlin, Jeremiah. “Inside Indie Bookstores: Women & Children First in Chicago.” Poets&Writers. 1 May 2010. Web.
Figueroa, Sonia. “Andersonville: A Chicago Neighborhood.” See Sonia. N.p., n.d. Web.
Frangello, Gina. “Chicago’s Women & Children First Inspires Three Decades of Writers and Readers.” Huffpost Chicago. 29 Nov. 2009. Web.
Harper, Jorjet. Putting Women & Children First. Chicago Gay History.
Hogan, Kristen. “Women’s Studies in Feminist Bookstores: ‘All the Women’s Studies women would come in.’” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 33.3 (2008) Web.
Mantilla, Karla. “Feminist Bookstores: Where Women’s Lives Matter.” off our backs 37.2/3
McGrath, Kathryn. “Pushed to the margins: the slow death and possible rebirth of the feminist bookstore.” Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women’s Studies Resources 25.3 (2004) Web.
W&CF History and Purpose. Women and Children First.
Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1567-1575. Print.