Women & Children First: A Center of Acceptance and Diversity
Known for its thriving community of independent businesses, the Chicago neighborhood of Andersonville attracts a wide variety of people. Home to roughly 15,000 inhabitants, there are nearly twice as many people per square mile in this neighborhood than there are in the greater Chicago area.
Tim Cresswell identifies place as, among other things, “spaces which people have made meaningful” (7). Through the creation of a neighborhood that seems in many ways at odds with the world around it, with its independent businesses instead of chains, its openness to other cultures, and its significant LGBT+ population, the residents of Andersonville have most definitely created a space that is uniquely meaningful to them. So what does Andersonville look like?
Andersonville residents are typically about 3-4 years older than the average Chicago resident, and they earn an average income of approximately $10,000 more than Chicago residents as a whole. (More statistics on this neighborhood can be found here). This increased amount of income helps to support the neighborhood’s many retail and restaurant options, and the interesting locations clustered in this small space attract many people from other states (30.7% of Andersonville residents have moved there from somewhere else in the U.S). Stretching just 0.634 square miles, Andersonville is a tight-knit community.
Situated in the southern end of the neighborhood, at 5233 N. Clark Street, is feminist bookstore Women & Children First. The bookstore’s website describes Andersonville as a place “known for its diversity, queer-friendliness, women-owned businesses and community spirit.” As someone who values all of those things, I find hope in the success of Women & Children First and Andersonville in general; it not only shows that independent bookstores are nowhere near extinction, but that bookstores focused on topics that some may call narrow can find a wide audience. Women & Children First is one of the largest feminist bookstores in the U.S., and carries many books for women, children, and members of the LGBT+ community, which there are a significant number of in Andersonville.
The bookstore itself sits on a busy street, hemmed in by dozens of other local businesses, restaurants, furniture stores, and even a dance studio. Its awning advertises everything from feminist books to music and posters; books are displayed across the long line of windows underneath it. Its colorful exterior fits right in with the others — the various members of the Andersonville community all make their mark on N. Clark Street.
Though historically a Swedish neighborhood (as showcased with its Swedish American Museum, Swedish Bakery, and the restaurant Svea, located just across the street from the bookstore), in more recent years Andersonville has seen an expansion of stores, restaurants, and inhabitants from a wide range of backgrounds. While most residents are white, the amount of people of other ethnicities has increased with the addition of new businesses and restaurants that focus on different cultures.
N. Clark Street is a good example of this. The street is home to coffee shops such as La Colombe and The Coffee Studio for the younger crowds, as well as Reza’s, a Mediterranean and Persian restaurant, the Southern-style Big Jones, the Polygon Cafe, a Thai kitchen and sushi bar, and Diamante Azul, a Mexican restaurant. Bars such as Hopleaf cater to an older crowd.
The retail end offers, along with Women & Children First, comic-book store AlleyCat Comics (found by walking through an actual alley), clothing boutique Milk Handmade, eco-friendly shop GreenSky, antique shops like Brimfield, and the Andersonville Galleria, a collection of community-run stores.
On nearby streets, other hang-out places of note include the Las Manos Gallery and the pH Comedy Theater. All of these locations can be found on the map below, with the bookstores highlighted in red, the restaurants in brown, the retail stores in blue, and other locations in green.
In a community as small as Andersonville, places (particularly businesses) gain importance to residents through their interactions with the area as a whole. According to Laura J. Miller in Reluctant Capitalists, many independent booksellers such as Women & Children First gain part of their appeal through personal connections with their community. Miller says that one such method of providing “community service” is by “offering a much-needed public space” (122). In the case of Women & Children First, this often means events such as book launches and author readings, as well as events for a more general audience like kids’ activities and LGBT+ parties and open mic nights. The bookstore’s event calendar can be found here.
For me, part of the appeal of Andersonville’s ‘small town’ vibe is this sense of unity, of interaction; though this neighborhood is located in a big city, the people who live in it work together to create an environment of interdependence and acceptance. Women and Children First is a vital part of that environment.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Print.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.