In the face of book bans and attacks on women’s and LGBTQ rights, vibrant activist communities are coalescing around feminist bookstores.
Last November, about 25 people, mostly strangers, gathered at a “salon talk” at Eleanor’s Norfolk, an intersectional feminist bookstore that opened in Virginia in 2021. The topic was feminist pornography. Contrary to popular ideas about these sorts of discussions, participants spoke frankly in a supportive environment about a subject as intimate as their first encounter with pornography.
This is just one example of the ways in which feminist bookstores like Eleanor’s have been experiencing a renaissance over the last five years. At a moment when the rights of women, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC people are under assault and book bans are reaching a fever pitch, vibrant activist communities are once again coalescing in and around feminist bookstores.
In her research on the feminist bookstore movement, Kristin Hogan tracked the growth and subsequent decline of feminist bookstores in the U.S. and Canada. She begins with the opening of A Woman’s Place in Oakland and Amazon Bookstore (no, not that Amazon) in Minneapolis in 1970 and examines the expansion of feminist bookstores through the 1980s and mid ’90s, when there were over 130.
But beginning in the late ’90s, these stores faced aggressive competition from chain bookstores and online behemoths, as well as a broader sense of complacency about the status of women’s rights. By 2014, the number of stores dwindled to an all-time low of 13.
Since 2017, however, many more bookstores self-identifying as feminist have opened. Not including pop-ups and independent bookstores that more broadly identify as “radical,” the current number is likely over 30—more than double the number in business when Trump took office.
“Books in the U.S. are under profound attack,” according to PEN America. “They are disappearing from library shelves, being challenged in droves, being decreed off limits by school boards, legislators and prison authorities.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that an uptick in conservative attacks on marginalized groups and ideas like critical race theory are happening at the same time as a renewed interest in feminist bookstores. Eleanor’s Norfolk opened 16 months ago in southeastern Virginia where, in the last few months, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin proposed to reverse hard-won accommodations for transgender students in public schools and more recently proposed to allocate funding towards establishing a ban on abortions after 15 weeks. In Virginia Beach, a city adjacent to Norfolk, two Republicans recently filed petitions to declare multiple LGBTQIA+-themed books “obscene.” And these changes are emblematic of what’s happening across the country.
In the wake of the tragic murders last year at Club Q in Colorado Springs, life feels even more precarious than usual for many queer people. “Queer spaces matter, and they exist precariously, always at risk of violence and bankruptcy,” announced Violet Valley, a queer feminist bookstore in Mississippi, on its website.
But in a landscape shaped by censorship, silence and violence, intersectional feminist bookstores are providing spaces that feel at least relatively safe.
Erin Dougherty took a big risk by opening Eleanor’s Norfolk. Norfolk, Va., is a mid-sized military city which hosts the largest naval base in the world. And Dougherty had never worked in a bookstore and is the sole owner.
She decided to name the store after her grandmother and niece, a choice that reflected her belief in the “intergenerational strength” of women organizing for a feminist future. And sometime between drafting a business statement and signing a lease for the physical space in 2021, she sat down and scratched out a manifesto. She committed herself to providing—not just access to a curated and inclusive collection of intersectional feminist texts—but an inviting, beautiful space to gather readers, thinkers, speakers and activists, a space to create a new learning community.
In addition to hosting a “period pantry,” zine-making workshop and regular book clubs, Eleanor’s recently started organizing “salon talks,” such as the one on feminist pornography. Topics have ranged from gender and enslavement, and racism in the suffrage movement, to LGBTQ+ representation in media. Like most feminist bookstores over the last five decades, Eleanor’s has quickly become a community meeting space for people across generations, races, genders and sexualities to engage with each other in surprisingly intimate ways.
While most book clubs meet at private homes or workplaces, the people at Eleanor’s gather tightly around a small couch and fold-out chairs hastily pulled from a nearby storage closet. For introverts who love the solitude of curling up in a quiet corner with their favorite book, these events provide a contrast, prioritizing face-to-face exchanges that encourage readers to speak their thoughts out loud in a public space. There is no screen name to hide behind here. At Eleanor’s, no one uses the term “consciousness-raising,” but the parallels are clear.
“Without a feminist bookstore and community spaces, folks comb through books at Barnes and Noble or click through titles on Amazon or watch Netflix at home, alone,” said Meagan Lyle, co-founder of the Burdock Book Collective, a feminist bookstore in Birmingham, Ala. that identifies as “pro Black, pro immigrant, pro trans, pro sex work.”
Lyle, who grew up in New England, acknowledged the challenges of running a feminist bookstore in the deep South: “it is not always easy to live here. There are countless barriers keeping people apart and preventing creative collaboration and genuine relationships, collective healing and safe refuge.”
Despite these obstacles, feminist bookstore owners understand that space has always been important to feminist activism and social justice movements more broadly. In Finding the Movement, A. Finn Enke argued that the women who opened feminist bookstores and cafes in the ’70s were primarily motivated by a “desire to foster community through provision of a new community space.” Enke wrote that stores like Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis and Pride and Prejudice in Chicago became “centers of sociality” that “constituted feminism as a spatial practice.” Amazon Bookstore even offered pregnancy testing, abortion counseling and helped connect women to “Jane,” an underground abortion service that provided an estimated 11,000 abortions in the early 1970s. The FBI clearly believed in the radical potential of feminist spaces, considering it surveilled the Amazon Bookstore through its infamous counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO).
Today, Charis Books and More of Atlanta remains one of the longest running feminist bookstores in the nation to explicitly identify as feminist, though its earliest roots lay in Christian liberation theology. Charis currently sponsors approximately 150 programs a year and maintains a list of feminist bookstores in the U.S. and the world. Co-owner Sara Luce Look, who has worked at Charis since 1994 and now co-owns the store with Angela Gabriel, plans to expand the list, which currently includes 25 stores in the U.S. and another 22 abroad as of this writing. Look said she’s received about 10 to 15 emails over the last year from new feminist bookstore owners asking to be added to Charis’ list. And these stores are not just located in the northeast or in major metropolitan areas. Violet Valley, which opened in 2017, is located in Water Valley, Miss., a town with a population just under 4,000 people.
Five of the original stores that opened in the ’70s remain in 2023: Charis (Atlanta), A Room of One’s Own (Madison, Wis.), BookWoman (Austin, Texas), Women and Children First (Chicago) and Antigone Books (Tuscon, Ariz.). Many of these bookstores are owned by queer white women who historically dominated the industry, but many of the newer stores are owned by young Black women. Asha Grant, uses her store The Salt Eaters in Inglewood, Calif., to amplify the voices of Black women, femmes and nonbinary people.
Even though most of the original feminist stores have since closed, Look said “things are so, so much better” than they were a few years ago. “In 2017, sales started going up,” Look said, pointing to how the political turmoil of the last five years has expanded the visibility and urgency of feminism in the U.S.
Many feminist bookstore owners struggle to navigate the tension between creating a non-hierarchical space that interrogates capitalism, among many other systems of oppression. “It’s a constant struggle,” Look said. She describes herself as a “reluctant capitalist” who ultimately values “books not as commodities but as culture.”
Like Charis, which focuses on “popular education,” Erin Dougherty hopes to expand Eleanor’s salon talks into a full-fledged “Free School” that focuses on community education. She also plans to transform the store into a shared cooperative in the next year. Despite having to compete with online companies like Amazon.com and the rise of e-books and audiobooks, feminist bookstores like Charis and Eleanor’s are serving vital roles, especially in the South. Feminist bookstores are, in fact, not “dying”; they are alive and well, ready and waiting to provide their communities with emotional and intellectual shelter.
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