A Communal Space for Women and Children
Located in Chicago, Illinois, Women and Children First Bookstore has been an integral part of its community since it first opened in 1979. Throughout the years, this bookstore has made the most of its 3,500 square foot space on N. Clark St; though packed with books and other merchandise, Women and Children First has always found room to host numerous local community events, such as author readings and workshops, among its many shelves. Supported by its Women’s Voices Fund, the bookstore is dedicated to enriching the community it has thrived in through its many events and programs. This dedication to the community of Andersonville, and the greater Chicago area, can be seen in the bookstore’s interior as well, which, after its recent renovation, skillfully balances a welcoming, communal atmosphere with a significant stock of titles on many different topics.
Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck, the new owners of the bookstore as of August 2014, announced upcoming renovations soon after they took over store operations. The renovations were completed in February 2015. One of the goals of these renovations was to allocate more space and time to the many community events that the bookstore hosts. These events include author readings, workshops, TEDx Talks, and meetings for local activist groups. The renovations were themselves a community effort, organized through Indiegogo and backed by many local citizens and businesses. Below is a video from this campaign outlining the goals of the renovations and the bookstore’s call for support from their patrons:
Now that the renovations have been completed, the first thing that greets a curious customer upon walking into Women and Children First is a table book display; the first of many. Beyond this point, you have a choice to make — to the left is the gifts section, full of postcards and other odds and ends, and to the right are the books. As we move past the gifts section, we come to the center of the store — the sales’ counter. Surrounded by displays, the sales’ counter is the center of activity. Behind the counter is a large chalkboard, where employees write in the events for the month; a touch of the personal to advertise the many programs the bookstore supports. While many customers may gravitate towards the left, and towards the easier means of navigation through the bookstore and the colorful displays in front of the sales counters, if one knows what one has come for, the tall bookshelves to the right offer more options.
Beginning with the New & Noteworthy section at the very front, these larger shelves house many different genres. From bestsellers to literary fiction to nonfiction, the alcoves created by these bookshelves allow customers to browse through the books without interrupting the flow of traffic throughout the rest of the store. This, along with the tables and chairs scattered throughout these sections, encourage customers to sit down and stay a while; there is one particular area for guest seating in the New & Noteworthy section, where the bestsellers are kept. Since many customers come to bookstores seeking particular bestsellers, and this section is located at the very front of the store, this is an ideal place to set aside seating. Scattering tables and chairs throughout the bookstore brings a more home-y feeling; rather than appearing simply as a business, as a place to pick up products and move on, this bookstore is a place to linger, to browse.
In the next alcove is the fiction section. The signs indicating genres throughout the store are hand-written by employees, and throughout the shelves in the fiction section are small cards detailing store recommendations. These personal touches emphasize what kind of bookstore this is; an independent bookstore, a product of the surrounding community, a place where the employees know enough about books to give informed recommendations and they aren’t in the business for money. In her book Reluctant Capitalists, Laura J. Miller states that, unlike with independents, customers assume that employees at chain stores are “not very well versed in book matters” (202). In a bookstore like Women and Children First, however, the employees know and care for what they’re doing.
As you walk further along this end of the store, you come to the last alcove, which houses the LGBTQ+ and Women’s Studies sections. As a feminist bookstore, Women and Children First has a particular interest in displaying these sorts of titles prominently; though this section is located relatively far back in the store, there is a large amount of floor space dedicated to books on them. According to Laura J. Miller, often “consumption […] can be viewed as a means to demonstrate commitments to particular values” (225). In a world where feminist and LGBTQ+ topics are not necessarily seen as commonplace, a dedication to selling quality literature about them is a rare find; Women and Children First places a high importance on these titles, and many customers do as well.
Turning the corner to follow the back wall of the bookstore, we come to one of the largest sections — the children’s books. Formerly the center of all community events in the bookstore, this section has been rearranged to appear more comfortable and welcoming. According to this article, the events scheduled in this space tended to block off this area of the store, which is quite popular, and some larger events even had to be relocated to other places in the neighborhood. The stage once used for events has been removed, and in its place are tables, chairs, and a rug for young kids to sit on during the bookstore’s weekly story time readings with former bookstore owner Linda Bubon. Many of the local kids come to these readings, an important aspect of the bookstore’s connection to the Andersonville community.
Past the children’s section, at the north end of the bookstore, is the newly renovated community and event space. Surrounded by bookshelves, this event space is separated from the rest of bookstore; this separation allows traffic through the rest of the store to move easily during events, as well as allowing for a more intimate setting. The set-up of this space depends on the event. For some events, such as author readings, there are rows of chairs gathered around a microphone, a fairly traditional setting. But for other events, such as workshops, the bookstore has a large table. Each visitor sits at the table, side-by-side with everyone else, a welcoming atmosphere for the events that allows for more casual conversation. These events solidify the bookstore’s connection to its community, a connection that has allowed the bookstore to thrive through the many years since it first opened. The events calendar for Women and Children First can be found here.
Women and Children First has been an important part of its community for over thirty years. Even with its recent change in ownership, the bookstore’s message of open-mindedness and diversity has not changed. New owners Mooney and Hollenbeck, with their recent interior changes, have emphasized the bookstore’s connection to community events and programs, as well as to quality literature. Women and Children First truly makes the most of its space.
Indiegogo, Women & Children & YOU First. <https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/women-children-you-first#/>
Kirby, Megan. Chicago Tribune, “Women & Children First to celebrate renovation March 21.” <http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-women-and-children-first-bookstore-renovation-20150311-story.html>
Kirch, Claire. Publisher’s Weekly, “Anniversary launches fund: women & children first celebrates 25 years with fund to support bookstore programs.” <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=susqu_main&id=GALE%7CA126198272&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&userGroup=susqu_main&authCount=1>
Women & Children First Website. <http://www.womenandchildrenfirst.com/>
Before and after of the bookstore. <https://www.facebook.com/8326741337/photos/pb.8326741337.-2207520000.1458547073./10152560025351338/?type=3&theater>
Children’s section pre-remodel. <https://www.groupon.com/articles/a-neighborhood-treasure-for-kids-storytime-at-women-children-first-bookstore>
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.