Women & Children First: A Tradition of Inclusivity and Support
In the article “Feminist Bookstores: Where Women’s Lives Matter,” Gina Mercurio of People Called Women says: “Feminist bookstores are a part of our endangered and crumbling infrastructure. If you can afford to buy books […] offered at feminist bookstores, consider spending that extra couple of dollars […] When you do you honor the legacy of those feminists who came before us, and you safeguard the values and aspirations of those who will come after us” (Mantilla 50).
In a time where all but nine feminist bookstores have closed their doors, Mercurio’s message is more important than ever. The proliferation of many bookstore chains mere miles from decades-old independents, as well as the increasing mainstream appeal of feminism and number of feminist titles carried by chains, has led to massive profit losses for many of these bookstores.
However, all is not lost; feminist bookstores still exist and, in some cases, are doing quite well. Take, for example, Women & Children First, a bookstore located in Chicago, Illinois. First opened in 1979, this bookstore continues today in the Chicago neighborhood of Andersonville, known for its thriving independent businesses.
Co-founders Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen met while pursuing master’s degrees in literature at the University of Illinois. When, during their studies, they found a distinct lack of literature written by and for women, Bubon and Christophersen decided that, rather than pursuing academia further, they would create a feminist- and LGBT-friendly bookstore. They also sought to provide quality children’s literature, particularly about young girls. Thus Women & Children First was born; of their status as a ‘specialty store’ and their feminist focus, Bubon says: “It was what was in our hearts, and in our politics, to do” (Chamberlin).
The bookstore was first housed in an 850 square foot building on Armitage Avenue. Though in the early days Bubon and Christophersen found it difficult to fill their shelves, within five years they had outgrown this space, as the feminist movement gained new ground and a significant number of new works. The bookstore’s first move was a mere two blocks away; by 1990 it had yet again experienced rapid growth as well as rising rental costs, prompting the search for a new home. At this time, members of the Edgewater Community Development Organization approached Bubon and Christophersen about moving into their available space — the Andersonville neighborhood, where the shop would eventually settle, was a part of this organization. Women & Children First soon moved into a renovated grocery store in its now-familiar location on N. Clark St., next to a women’s arts-and-crafts store. The story of their move-in exemplifies the strong sense of community the bookstore would find in Andersonville: because the store was still operating with limited staff, Bubon and Christophersen organized around seventy volunteers to help move books and shelves to their new location. With their help, the bookstore moved and was open for business again in the space of a single weekend; many customers in the following years remembered their part in this for years to come.
The community of Andersonville has historically been an inclusive one. Dating back to the 19th century, when a large population of Swedish immigrants moved into the area, Andersonville has a rich history of independently-owned businesses; starting with various Swedish delis, shoe stores, and blacksmiths, and ending in present day, with its diverse range of restaurants and antique shops. As many Swedish residents moved into the suburbs in the Depression era, the neighborhood made efforts to celebrate its heritage with a rededication ceremony, an annual Swedish festival called Midsommarfest, and the creation of a Swedish American Museum in 1976.
A more in-depth examination of Andersonville as it is today can be found in my previous post.
In more recent years, as the neighborhood has become more ethnically diverse, a growing LGBT+ population has also moved into the area, in part attracted by the presence of Women & Children First. Linda Bubon recounts a moment in the early days of the bookstore that I found particularly moving in regards to the LGBT+ population the bookstore serves: “I remember the first time I saw two women walk out of my store holding hands. I was walking to the store a little later because somebody else had opened that day, and when I saw them I cried. Because it was so rare in 1980 to see two women feel comfortable enough to just grab each other’s hands. And I knew that they felt that way because they’d come out of this atmosphere in which it was okay” (Chamberlin). This moment speaks to the bookstore’s importance as a safe space for a population that has both in the past and in recent years been subject to marginalization and discrimination. The bookstore has served as a safe space for women as well.
In this sense, Women & Children First fulfills a function laid out by Archibald MacLeish in his American Booksellers Association address; MacLeish states that books, as well as booksellers, have a duty to represent the world as it is and to shape time periods. He says it is the duty of booksellers to make sure that books “reach the hands of those who need them and who know they need them but do not know in practice how to satisfy the need” (MacLeish 15). Women & Children First, with its focus on quality feminist and LGBT+ literature, seeks to fulfill this need in populations that have historically been denied a voice.
In more recent years, the bookstore has become known for its many events — author readings (both established and beginner, well-known and local), a weekly storytime for local children on Wednesday mornings (typically run by co-founder Bubon), and group discussion events for feminist and LGBT+ issues. There are typically one to three events per week, and the total cost of these events is approximately $50,000 per year. In 2004, during a fundraiser gala for the bookstore’s 25th anniversary, Bubon and Christophersen announced the Women’s Voices Fund, a nonprofit which covers these events through donations. With this fund, the bookstore no longer has to limit itself to events that will be profitable, and can host events that are relevant and fulfilling for the community. The importance of these events has only increased over time, as the bookstore enters a new era.
In 2012, Bubon and Christophersen announced their desire to retire and hand Women & Children First over to new owners. They wished to keep the bookstore independently owned and in the hands of those who understood its focus on the feminist movement; they did not want to see the bookstore become something it was not. After searching for potential buyers for nearly two years, the co-founders finally selected two new owners in July 2014 — Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck, both employees of the bookstore at the time. Mooney, the store manager, worked in the publishing industry for 20 years, with companies such as McGraw-Hill and HarperCollins. Hollenbeck earned her MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University and has had essays published in many literary journals and blogs. Though Christophersen has retired, Bubon still works part-time at the store; she typically runs the Wednesday morning story hour.
Hollenbeck and Mooney officially took over the bookstore in August 2014. Their first order of business was a fresh coat of paint — they had a successful Indiegogo fundraising campaign for renovations. These included a new space for community events and an expansion of the programs offered by the bookstore (such as support groups, TEDx Talks, kids’ classes, and private parties). The campaign raised $36,405 for the cause and the renovations were completed in February 2015.
In her book Reluctant Capitalists, Laura J. Miller says that independents, because they come from and take part in their surrounding communities, believe that “they can know community needs much better than any distantly administered chain” (82). Women & Children First is one such example of an independent bookstore understanding and administering to the needs of its community; this bookstore has been an integral part of the Andersonville neighborhood and has directly impacted its residents in a meaningful way. Though in the past bookstore chains have threatened its existence, Women & Children First withstands the test of time, and hopefully will continue to do so for many more years.
For more information, see the video below:
Andersonville Website, “History of Andersonville.” <http://www.andersonville.org/the-neighborhood/history/>
Announcing New Owners of Women & Children First <http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs100/1101357241095/archive/1117940469545.html>
Chamberlin, Jeremiah. Poets & Writers, “Inside Indie Bookstores: Women & Children First in Chicago.” <http://www.pw.org/content/inside_indie_bookstores_women_amp_children_first_in_chicago?cmnt_all=1>
Chicago Sun-Times, “Ownership changes at Chicago’s Women & Children First bookstore.” <http://chicago.suntimes.com/news/7/71/788479/ownership-changes-at-chicagos-women-children-first-bookstore>
Corley, Cheryl. NPR, “One Way For An Indie Bookstore To Last? Put Women ‘First’.” <http://www.npr.org/2013/10/27/239710557/one-way-for-an-indie-bookstore-to-last-put-women-first>
Indiegogo, Women & Children & YOU First. <https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/women-children-you-first#/>
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>
McGrath, Kathryn. Feminist Collections, “Pushed to the margins: the slow death and possible rebirth of the feminist bookstore.” <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=ITOF&u=susqu_main&id=GALE%7CA124644046&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&userGroup=susqu_main&authCount=1>
Women & Children First Website. <http://www.womenandchildrenfirst.com/>
Andersonville at night. <http://www.budgettravel.com/feature/latest-turnaround-andersonville-chicago,7214/>
Chicago Independent Bookstore Day. <http://www.bookweb.org/news/windy-city-celebrates-chicago-independent-bookstore-day>
Women & Children First opens. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/07/women–children-first-chicago-for-sale_n_4059622.html>
Women & Children First moves to Andersonville. <http://www.npr.org/2013/10/27/239710557/one-way-for-an-indie-bookstore-to-last-put-women-first>
Women & Children First announces Women’s Voices Fund. <http://www.womenandchildrenfirst.com/storytime>
Women & Children First announces retirement, sale. <http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-10-07/features/ct-tribu-remarkable-bookstores-20111007_1_linda-bubon-women-children-first-bookstore>
Women & Children First announces change of ownership. <http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Women-Children-bookstore-sold/48336.html>
Women & Children First begins renovations. <http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Women-Children-First-celebrates-renovation/50620.html>
MacLeish, Archibald. “A Free Man’s Books: An Address.” New York, The Peter Pauper Press, n.d. Print.
Mantilla, Karla. “Feminist Bookstores: Where Women’s Lives Matter.” off our backs 1 Oct. 2007: 48-50. Print.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.