Transforming Birmingham with Feminist Books

It’s currently estimated that about 20 feminist bookstores are now standing in North America, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Two decades ago, over 100 feminist bookstores were up and running across the U.S. alone—but the corporatization of publishing, the emergence of superstores like Books a Million and Barnes and Noble, and the advent of online sales, have since decimated those numbers.

The business conditions that made feminist bookselling financially risky remain—as does the optimism of today’s feminists, who are working diligently to fill the social and cultural voids left behind by feminist bookstores past. Katie Willis and her partner Meagan Lyle are two of them.

Burdock hosted a discussion of Cindy Milstein’s essay collection, Rebellious Mourning: the Collective Work of Grief (2017, in Avondale.  Katie is kneeling bottom left, and half of Meagan’s face is visible at right as she takes the selfie.

Lodestar Books served the local feminist community in Birmingham, Alabama for almost 20 years—from 1983 to 2002. Willis and Lyle are now honoring its legacy, and crafting their own, with the pop-up Burdock Book Collective.

Willis and Lyle, both in their twenties, had been pondering the need for a feminist bookstore in Birmingham for two or three years when they had the idea of “pop-up” sales at various locations where they could sell books without the overhead of a shop. Inspired by Charis Books & More in Atlanta, now the nation’s oldest surviving feminist bookstore that still calls itself a feminist bookstore, they pulled together a launch party for Birmingham’s Burdock Book Collective in August 2018. They have been producing both planned and impromptu pop-ups ever since. 

Willis and Lyle chose the name Burdock because they love plants and learning about herbal medicine. They added “Collective” to the name in hopes that eventually, they will open a store that is employee-owned and -directed.

“Burdock and other medicinal plants are often viewed as weeds, when in fact they are healing and curative,” Willis explained. ” We see the people we want to serve—queers, trans folks, poor folks, immigrants, disabled folks, sex workers, single mothers, witches, homeless people and other marginalized groups—like we see medicinal plants. Society views marginalized folks as weeds, but really they carry these transformational healing properties and are extremely creative and regenerative and rejuvenating.”

Without a business license or financing to place large orders to publishers or distributors, they began seeking donated books. Willis, a veteran thrift store shopper, had been collecting new and used feminist and LGBTQ books for years; when Burdock announced their first pop-up, they encouraged people to bring books to donate, and some presses donated books as well.

Today, Burdock has more books than the two intersectional feminists can comfortably transport. Willis and Lyle even have to leave some at home when they head out to create a temporary store at a free location.

 Two pop-ups at Lyle and Willis’ apartment building; Lyle and Willis.

What motivated these young women was what has motivated many a feminist bookseller before: “a selfish desire,” Willis described, “to just have a space to go to and be among books that are validating and empowering.” Visiting a Birmingham bookstore had made her realize how lackluster it was compared to her experience at the Decatur, Georgia-based Charis, which had books on the shelf that she would have had to special order elsewhere.

Burdock’s scheduled and impromptu pop-up sales have been pretty well attended, with dozens filing in over the course of a few hours. They had an especially big crowd, of about a hundred, when Jaime Harker came through Birmingham to promote her book The Lesbian South: Southern Feminists, the Women in Print Movement, and the Queer Literary Canon; and at their August 2018 launch party, which featured readings by local poet Ashley Jones (Magic City Gospel) and Birmingham native William C. Anderson (As Black as Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation). 

Still, Willis and Lyle dream of having that physical space. The bookstore that inspired Burdock catered not only to feminists and the LGBTQ community, but also to Quakers and Friends of Karl Jung. NOW met there, and even published an alternative newspaper out of their backroom.

Few queer spaces—Burdock’s co-founders call them “brave spaces”—exist in Birmingham today. Almost all of them are centered on alcohol. Burdock is trying to figure out how to make a space to cultivate community and create that “brave space”—ideally, in a progressive nonprofit office or a progressive business that won’t charge any overhead, in a location that would draw a diverse community, like the one that Lodestar had.

Neither Willis nor Lyle has a business background, but they are working to make that brave space. They now have a business license, and they are contemplating how to get an account with a book distributor like Ingram.

And they are not alone. Harker, who teaches women’s studies at the University of Mississippi, has opened Violet Valley Books in Water Valley, near Oxford, MS, with a mission of making “feminist, queer and multicultural books available to the Water Valley community, the state of Mississippi, and the South.” In Washington, D.C., a new feminist bookstore also opened earlier this year. And as the political climate becomes more like the times that gave rise to second wave feminism, we may see even more trailblazers making space for feminist thought.



Rose Norman is the General Editor of the Southern Lesbian-Feminist Activist Herstory Project and a retired professor of English and women’s studies.