The Birth of a Feminist Bookstore

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While the number of Feminist bookstores is on the decline, bookstores like Women and Children First manage to persevere. First opened in Lincoln Park in 1979, W&CF experienced moderate success for the following eleven years. During this time, women were fighting for equal rights in the workplace so the idea of a space where women could meet their literary needs appealed greatly to female customers. As a result, it started to attract a lot of business and needed to expand, relocating two blocks away on Halstead and Armitage in 1984. Then in 1990 they relocated once more, due to the increasing rent of market space, to their final and current location in Andersonville, a neighborhood within Chicago, Illinois.

Today, Women and Children First is known for its selection of fiction and nonfiction for women, LGBTQ literature, and children’s books. It has become such a well-embraced store in the community that it is included on the history page of the Andersonville website, “A large lesbian and gay population developed, spurred by the opening of such businesses as Women & Children First, a bookstore focusing on feminist authors and topics. New gift shops and ethnic eateries opened and gave Clark Street a new commercial vitality and diversity.” The neighborhood of Andersonville recognizes the positive effect Women and Children First has had on Clark Street. So how does a feminist bookstore become such a champion of the community?

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The idea to open Women and Children First came about when store-founders, Linda Bubon and Ann Christopherson, were working on their master’s degrees together at the University of Illinois. They considered the independent bookstores they had visited themselves in the city. The only one nearby was a chain and had little appeal to them. They realized that books needed for a feminist discussion were not easily accessible. It was a market they were interested in capturing, but ultimately nurturing.

“Back then our vision was about this big. [She holds her hands about eight inches apart.] Now, thirty years later, it’s incredible to look back and see the diversity of women writers who are published, and the incredible diversity of gay and lesbian literature, and transgender literature, that’s being published.” – Interview with Linda Bubon, Poets & Writers

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Back in 1979, Bubon and Christopherson set out to create a place that put women and children first. When deciding how this bookstore would exist and function, they had to consider many things. Laura Miller articulates some of the things booksellers consider when opening an independent bookstore like W&CF,

“for decisions about stocking the store shelves are not simply a product of space considerations, and responses to customer inquiries are not solely a matter of staff knowledge. These activities are also influenced by how the bookseller conceives of her proper relationship to her customers. More specifically, a bookseller’s judgments about what books to carry and sell are shaped by the extent to which she sees herself as rightfully taking an active role in guiding the reading of her customers.” (55)

Bubon and Christopherson couldn’t have been reading Laura Miller’s Reluctant Capitalists, as it wasn’t published until 2006, but they understood that to open a successful feminist bookstore, they had to cultivate something more than a place that simply sold a specific type of book. They wanted to take an active role in guiding their customers.

They believed in a lot of ideas that Miller discusses in her book, like how “The bookstore was supposed to be an institution that worked to educate and uplift the population, and thus the bookseller had an explicitly moral role to play in American society.” (58) And so Bubon and Christopherson guided the reading of their customers for over thirty years. Not by directly or aggressively pushing specific books or readings on people, but by providing books that reflected the diverse, growing culture of Andersonville. “The mission of this store is to celebrate the work of women writers,” Linda Bubon said, “and to meet the needs of women as they can be met through books.”

As the world around them grew and changed, so did W&CF. After settling into their current location in Andersonville, they brought an important cultural element with them. A brief history on the tour handout for Andersonville has this underneath the section for W&CF, “The bookstore’s arrival in the neighborhood helped usher in a new era of vitality for the Andersonville commercial district. Women and Children First’s presence signaled that Andersonville was a welcoming and safe place for women and gays & lesbians. In the 1990s, those communities began moving to Andersonville in large numbers.” One thing Andersonville has prided themselves for is their diverse and open-minded community.

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Despite going through tough times in the early 90s, W&CF managed to survive and adapt along with its community. Initially a predominantly Swedish culture (Andersonville History), Andersonville has grown into one the most progressive communities in Illinois. They have extensive programs like a recycling program and then a composting program to complement it. W&CF hosts many LGBQT events to support the community. Clark Street is filled with independent local businesses that reflect this mentality of community activism, W&CF fit right into the neighborhood in 1990 and still does today. The neighborhood today, is almost impossibly heartwarming and picturesque.

Sadly, as I mentioned at the very beginning, feminist bookstores are dwindling. Women and Children First is one of only 9 remaining stores. W&CF has struggled at times throughout their history as a result. I mentioned briefly that the store wasn’t doing very well after relocating in the early 90s, but did eventually recover. However, later in 2007, a time when feminism was again on the downswing, W&CF nearly closed. The owners had to cut staff and take a pay cut just to stay afloat. Things looked very bleak for the store for a time, but once again they recovered.

After recovering, long time owners Bubon and Christopherson decided it was time to sell, but only to the right people. They wanted to make sure that they sold their store to women who understood why they started the bookstore in the first place. Women and Children First had to be a place that would always be able to provide for women and children the literary comfort they couldn’t find anywhere else, at least not with the same sense of respect for women, children and the local community.

In 2014, Bubon and Christopherson figured out who the perfect individuals were to take their place, Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck. Mooney and Hollenbeck have been long time employees at W&CF. The original owners could now retire without worry. As they put on their website “the store may be changing hands, but it will not be changing heart.”

We can see that even when changing hands, the principles that make W&CF unique and resilient remain with the store. Of course, the success of W&CF isn’t just in the way Bubon and Christopherson ran W&CF, it is safe to credit the neighborhood from which W&CF received input, learned to adapt to and meet the needs of. A feminist store might not have lasted in a neighborhood that wasn’t as interested in civil rights and social movements as Andersonville was in the 1990s. Yet it stands there today, thanks to the concurrent forces of a close community and an active feminist bookstore.

Web Sources

Andersonville Website’s History Page
http://www.andersonville.org/the-neighborhood/history/

Poets & Writers
http://www.pw.org/content/inside_indie_bookstores_women_amp_children_first_in_chicago?cmnt_all=1

Women and Children First
http://www.womenandchildrenfirst.com/wcf-history-and-purpose

Andersonville Website Virtual Tour Handout
http://www.andersonville.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/historicavilletourhandout.pdf

Chicago Tribune
http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/chi-women-and-children-first-bookstore-has-new-owners-20140717-column.html

Image Sources

http://www.trbimg.com/img-5252fea1/turbine/chi-women-and-children-first-20131007-001/580/580×326

http://previewchicago.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/andersonville.jpg

https://wayfaringflaneur.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/dscn4622.jpg

Text Sources

Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2006. Print. (55-58)