The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability

By Kristen Hogan

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016, 260 pp., $24.95 paperback

Reviewed by Susanna J. Sturgis

No sooner had early second-wave feminists begun to identify the silences in their lives—about violence, harassment, and workplace discrimination; about the absence of women from literature and history and the invisibility of lesbians in daily life, among many other things—then they started reporting their findings and telling their stories, in feminist newspapers and pamphlets, in magazines and books. Though they often had little or no prior publishing experience, they brought publications and presses into existence, learning as they went.

Feminist bookstores came into being in much the same way. The first, Amazon, in Minneapolis, and ICI: A Woman’s Place, in Oakland, were established in 1970.Within a decade there were at least 100 feminist bookstores, most but not all of them in North America. Estimates of the number operating in the late twentieth century range as high as 130.

From the late 1980s through the 1990s, the rise of increasingly aggressive chain bookstores took a terrible toll of the independents. By 2000, according to a May 9, 2014, article by Anjali Enjeti (“The Last 13 Feminist Bookstores in the US and Canada,” Paste magazine blog), most of the feminist bookstores were gone.

In all-too-familiar fashion, feminist bookstores and the women in print movement of which they were an integral part seem to have faded not only from general consciousness (where even in their heyday they were barely visible) but from the consciousness of feminists, liberals, and progressives of all stripes. This is unfortunate, because women in print was above all a successful example of grassroots feminism in practice, one in which “sisters doing it for ourselves” did far more than make women’s words available to a wide audience. The women in print movement called into being a new and often activist readership—a counterpublic, if you will. Works were written and published and kept in circulation because that readership existed. A history and assessment of this movement is long overdue.

Unfortunately, Kristen Hogan’s The Feminist Bookstore Movement is not that book.

In her preface, Hogan writes, “This history, redefining bookwomen’s successes and failures on their own terms, offers an embodied feminist theory for our futures.” But her book doesn’t define, or redefine, “bookwomen’s successes and failures on their own terms.” Hogan’s informants make clear what they thought they were doing, but Hogan doesn’t seem to have been paying attention.

Rita Arditti told her, about the genesis of New Words bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of which she was a cofounder:

I was thinking about the need to have a feminist bookstore, a place for women to buy books about women. Because in those days [the early to mid 1970s], if you would go to a regular bookstore and ask about books for women, one, they would have almost nothing, two, they wouldn’t pay attention, or they would look at you like you were a weird person.

Carol Seajay, founder of Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco and for nearly 25 years editor and publisher of FBN, the Feminist Bookstore News, trade journal to the women in print network:

I think there’s something very special about booksellers because, you know, we’re the shopkeepers. . . . The booksellers are just kind of like the working-class girls. Just like, got some information, they want you to have it.

And artist-activist-author Sharon Bridgforth on her first visit to a feminist bookstore, Sisterhood Bookstore in Los Angeles:

It just, literally, rocked my world, changed my life. . . . I found all those great writers, . . . at that time Alice Walker was really pushing Zora Neale Hurston, I had never heard of either one of them.

The primary purpose of the feminist bookstores was to create spaces where books by and about women could be found. Everything else flowed from that, including but not limited to the “lesbian antiracism and feminist accountability” that give this book its subtitle.

Hogan pays remarkably little attention to the effort it took—and still takes, for the surviving bookstores—to keep the doors open and the shelves stocked. Bookselling is not a lucrative business. Speaking generally, bookstores buy books from publishers at sixty percent of retail. Prices are generally printed on the books, so marking them up is out of the question. Invoices are due, theoretically at least, in thirty days, before most of the books have sold. Out of that forty percent, the store has to pay rent, compensate staffers, and cover all other expenses. Most feminist bookstores were relatively small and undercapitalized, meaning that bills had to be paid mostly out of cash flow.

Hogan does note that each collective, owner and staff configuration, and business partnership struggled with their own negotiation of the tension between business practice and reimagining the bookstore structure with feminist values.

All too often, though, she seems to pit a “feminist business model” against a “grassroots organizing model,” as if the two were mutually exclusive. They weren’t. In effect, that forty percent discount was funding grassroots organizing, a feminist workplace, and all kinds of community service. Bookstores were important nodes on the feminist grapevine because they were open during reliable hours in visible locations. Women called the bookstore or dropped by when they were new in town, or passing through, or coming out. Bookstores were gathering places and informal hotlines even in cities that had other options. For lesbians in particular, they were an alternative to the bars.

For feminist bookstores, in other words, accountability was plural, not singular. Booksellers were accountable to their customers, to each other, to their suppliers (bills from feminist publishers and feminist-friendly distributors often got paid first), and to their communities. Those accountabilities sometimes conflicted and had to be continually negotiated. Expectations often ran higher than resources could accommodate.

Hogan mentions several times the importance of being accountable to the “movement” without clarifying what movement she’s talking about. Feminism wasn’t monolithic then, and it isn’t now.

The Feminist Bookstore Movement falters most seriously at the conceptual level, as evidenced by its title. The feminist bookstore network was part of the women in print movement. Hogan does discuss the landmark women in print gatherings of 1976 and 1981, but without fully recognizing their importance. By considering feminist bookstores independent of feminist publishers and other "women in print," Hogan misses one of their most important functions: serving as retail outlets and promoters of feminist-press books. Her own firsthand bookselling experience may be partly responsible for this omission.

Hogan, currently the education program coordinator at the Gender and Sexuality Center at the University of Texas at Austin, was co-manager and book buyer at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore (TWB) for fourteen months beginning in 2006, after most North American feminist bookstores had closed. Feminist publishers were no longer the force they had been.

Of necessity Hogan had to rely on interviews and other sources to document the feminist bookstores’ first three decades. The twenty booksellers she interviewed came from a total of only six bookstores, and eight of the twenty were from TWB.

In her early chapters, Hogan notes how bookseller advocacy helped persuade commercial publishers to keep some feminist books in print, but largely ignores the growth of feminist publishing throughout the 1970s. The bookstores provided secure retail outlets for the publishers, places where books would be stocked and actively promoted, where readings and book launches could be held, around which book tours could be organized. They also demonstrated to commercial publishers that there was a market and a distribution network for feminist books, though to no one’s surprise the commercial publishers seemed to believe that books by straight white women were the most salable. Crucial works by feminists of color, among them Audre Lorde, June Jordan, bell hooks, and Gloria Anzaldúa, were published and kept in print by such feminist and feminist-friendly presses as Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Persephone, Crossing, Firebrand, Aunt Lute, the Feminist Press, Seal, South End, and Beacon.

As Hogan notes, briefly but importantly, feminist-press anthologies were crucial consciousness-raising and organizing tools that expanded and deepened feminist theory and feminist activism. In addition to the landmark anthologies This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983), and All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (1982), feminist bookshelves featured, among many other titles, Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (1982) and The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology (1986); With the Power of Each Breath: A Disabled Women’s Anthology (1985); Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression (1983); Voices in the Night: Women Speaking About Incest (1982); Naming the Violence: Speaking Out About Lesbian Battering (1986); Women and Aging: An Anthology by Women (1986); and Fight Back! Feminist Resistance to Male Violence (1981).

 To see such books gathered in one place, along with kids’ books, biographies, books on women’s history and women’s health, theory books, books on lesbian sexuality, and all kinds of fiction, was a mind-expanding experience one couldn’t have in a chain bookstore. Books published by feminist presses were irregularly stocked by the chains, if they were carried at all.

Thanks in part to the scant attention she pays to the day-to-day economics of bookselling and to the synergistic connection between feminist bookstores and feminist publishers, Hogan doesn’t seem to understand why feminist booksellers joined other independents in fighting the collusion between the chain bookstores and the big publishers, which gave the chains unpublished discounts and other advantages. (Both the collusion and the fight against it were well under way before the 1990s, by the way.) “Facing drastic market changes in publishing and bookselling,” she writes,

white bookwomen turned to influence the book industry and left less space for accountability around racial justice in feminist bookstores. The gains in bookstore advocacy were substantial, the losses in antiracist feminism devastating

This statement is puzzling. How did the attempt to influence the book industry undermine “accountability around racial justice”? We don’t learn how the booksellers involved understood what they were doing because here as elsewhere Hogan relies almost entirely on FBN reports and on public statements made at an American Booksellers Association (ABA) convention.

The history and assessment of the feminist bookstores and the women in print movement has yet to be written. In the grand feminist-press tradition, it might be an anthology of multiple voices. Whatever form it takes, it should be written. It’s an inspiring part of recent feminist history, and one whose lessons could be adapted for the digital age. If the movement had left a last will and testament, Carol Seajay would have been named its executor, literary and otherwise. I nominate her to write or edit it.

 

Susanna J. Sturgis was the book buyer at Lammas, Washington, DC’s feminist bookstore, from 1981 to 1985. She wrote the fantasy and science fiction column for Feminist Bookstore News from 1984 to 1996 and is still proud to have been FBN’s first regular columnist. These days she supports herself as a freelance editor while working on her second novel and maintaining a blog, Write Through It: On Writing, Editing, and How to Keep Going, at http://writethroughitblog.com.

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