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Hometown Feminists Find a New Home

Every New York feminist knows that in the past few years there’s been just one place to meet like-minded women and men: Bluestockings on the Lower East Side. At the end of February, however, the independent women’s bookstore shut its doors, rendering New York City a metropolis without a dedicated women’s bookstore and leaving the feminist community here without a gathering space to call its own.

Now under new ownership, Bluestockings reopens in late March as a bookstore, café, and community space dedicated to political activism. While the bookstore has been saved from oblivion, it has also shed its singular focus on women’s issues— the new incarnation welcomes men and women equally in the broad mission of activism against oppression. With the old Bluestockings joining the legacy of struggling women’s bookstores in New York, its demise begs the question of how a feminist space in this city— or anywhere— can survive.

Women’s bookstores in the U.S. have undergone a massive retrenching— only between one-third to one-half of the bookstores in business 10 years ago are reportedly still open. New York City, considered the East Coast mecca of books, has been home to a number of longstanding independent niche bookstores. However, women’s bookstores have not fared well in the last few decades. Woman Books and Djuna Books, and more recently Judith’s Room, have all closed.

In the 1970s, women’s bookstores became prominent just as interest in women’s writing, the flourishing of print media for women, and the social movements of the time created an audience of eager readers. The feminist and the gay and lesbian rights movements of that era gave birth to books like Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, recognized as one of the first lesbian novels. Published by Daughters Press, a small publisher supported by sales at niche bookstores, the novel became a mainstream classic. Not only did these bookstores provide an outlet for books like Rubyfruit Jungle, but they also served as a locus for progressive communities.

Despite this rich history, New York was a city without a women’s bookstore when Kathryn Welsh arrived in 1998. After graduating from Tulane, Welsh moved to the city to work on police brutality problems, queer activism, and what she calls "anti-Giuliani issues." With a silent business partner, $15,000 in inheritance, and a cadre of volunteers, the then 23-year-old Welsh formed Bluestockings in 1999 as a bookstore, community space, and events venue, all of which focused on feminism, social justice, and issues of race and class.

Welsh says the 1970s mostly saw the emergence of writing from lesbians who were white and middle- or upper-class, while very little surfaced from women of color, immigrants, and working class women. She sought to promote literary voices from small presses that she felt had yet to be heard. "I wanted to support the writers that were speaking from the fringe, to bring them to the forefront and say, ‘These are the underrepresented groups within women.’"

"What [Bluestockings] did was magnetize a community that was disparate," says Jennifer Baumgardner, co-author of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and a New York City resident. "There are tons of feminists in New York and we’re all over the place, and this is one sort of meeting place that was uncontroversial," Baumgardner notes.

An old story

The plight of the independent bookstore is an oft-told tale. The American Booksellers Association (ABA), an industry group for independent booksellers, has seen its membership shrink from 5000 to 2000 in the last decade as a result of increased competition from national chains. Among independent bookstores, which make up about 15% of the overall bookselling market, specialty stores have been hard hit, and women’s bookstores have suffered even more than gay and lesbian bookstores, according to Publisher’s Weekly.

It’s not just Barnes & Noble and that have pulled customers away. In both publishing and politics, women have made serious inroads into the mainstream. Without the political immediacy of the 1970s, when women and men fought against issues like sexual discrimination and struggled for reproductive rights, feminist bookstores are now in danger of becoming just a place to buy your books.

"As women are rising up, as gays and lesbians are becoming more comfortable with their place in society, we don’t necessarily feel the need to be in specifically feminist or specifically gay and lesbian spaces," says Kim Brinster, manager of Oscar Wilde Books, a gay and lesbian bookstore down the block from Stonewall in the West Village. Jane Troxell, former owner of Lammas Women’s Bookstore in Washington, D.C., notes that feminist bookstores began their decline a decade ago, about the same time that women became less likely to identify themselves as feminists.

Along with the pressures that all niche bookstores face, women’s bookstores must overcome additional obstacles. Unlike other niche stores like African American bookstores, which are generally located in the communities they serve, women’s bookstores have no access to a concentration of customers. Women’s bookstores also don’t tend to carry the videos or erotica that have served as the bread and butter of gay and lesbian bookstores. Some storeowners suggest that gay men as a group make more money than gay women and so are more likely to spend in bookstores. Brinster reports that men make up two-thirds of the customers at Oscar Wilde.

Political entities by nature, feminist bookstores frequently have cooperative-based organizational models that quickly become unwieldy in the face of fierce competition. "Great social models and great cooperative models worked better in the earlier time of feminist bookstores than in [current] changing political and economic circumstances," says Ann Christopherson, president of the ABA and co-owner of the Chicago-based Women and Children First, one of the nation’s largest bookstores for women. Indeed, Bluestockings owner Welsh points to this organizational model as a weakness for her business. When she founded the store, she gave each member of the collective a vote, regardless of contributions to the bookstore. Under this system, all members needed to agree with each decision. "We were collective in decision making but we weren’t collective in real work accountability," Welsh says. "If we had been a paid collective, it would have been different. But the fact that people had to work other jobs and then take on the responsibility of running a bookstore— it burned a lot of people out. By summer [2002] we’d lost the majority of people who’d been there for years."

Faced with a business that was falling apart, Welsh disbanded the collective last summer and took over responsibility for the bookstore. This included securing a loan to cover $30,000 in vendor debt that had accumulated because of post-September 11 sales lags. By January, Welsh was exhausted and sought to sell the store. At the end of last month Brooke Lehman and Hitomi Matarese stepped in to purchase the bookstore just days before it would shut down for good. Lehman, a founding member of Direct Action Network, spent a good part of the last decade working on anti-globalization issues, while Matarese has worked on issues of alternative healthcare for women and serves as an assistant to home-birth midwives. The two say the new Bluestockings, like its predecessor, will be volunteer-run, though decision-making rights will depend on the level of volunteers’ participation.

By comparison, Oscar Wilde Books was on the verge of closing at about the same time as Bluestockings, but was rescued by new financing in January. Its mission of serving gays and lesbians remains untouched.

A New Model

Given how the political and economic forces surrounding women’s bookstores have changed in the last three decades, it’s strangely fitting that the future of the feminist bookstore may lie in its past. New Words, one of the grandmothers of women’s bookstores, and birthplace of Our Bodies Our Selves, has been quietly undergoing a metamorphosis from a store to a cultural center.

Like other women’s bookstores, New Words began seeing fewer customers about five years ago. "It wasn’t enough to ask people to be loyal to the vision we had," says co-founder Gilda Bruckman. "The issue of saying that we really need the support of our community— that was the sense among women’s bookstores and I think it’s the wrong model. We needed to ask, ‘What is it that the community needs and wants from us that we’re not providing?’" New Words’ answer was to shut down its troubled bookstore division but to continue its popular programming, which includes literacy training, writing workshops, and political readings.

Jennifer Baumgardner’s co-author, Amy Richards, who moved to the Lower East Side about a year ago, points to the symbolic and emotional significance of Bluestockings as a cultural center for women as greater than its commercial value as a book retailer. "There was this great comfort in having Bluestockings be able to provide [meeting space] for organizations," she says. "You didn’t have to be somebody necessarily— you had to present a good idea and execute the idea."

Bluestockings will remain a resource for the feminist community, though it will be just one of the ideologies informing the new venture, its owners say. "We’re both feminists, but we want to create a space for people of all genders to participate in," says Lehman. Matarese adds that a challenge for Bluestockings will be to continue providing a forum for women’s voices even as it expands its political goals and targets a broader community. The new Bluestockings will sell books, but will likely be supported primarily by grants and events.
For Bruckman, the issue of whether the New Words bookstore in Cambridge will be revived is almost irrelevant. What’s important, she says, is that her organization continues to provide a dedicated forum for women writers. "Dorothy Allison, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker all got their start at women’s bookstores— people whose voices are part of mainstream culture now were first heard in that context," she says. "If that space were to vanish, it would be impossible for those voices in the next generation to be heard."

Feminist bookstores may not need to survive, but feminism and women’s literature do, as storeowners note. "Younger women have grown up in an environment where abortion was legal and where it was okay to be gay and lesbian. But that’s not permanent or universal," says Bruckman.


Michelle Tsai

Michelle Tsai is a writer based in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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