audience at Bluestockings bookstore

(WOMENSENEWS)–Walking into one of the few remaining women’s bookstores can feel more like walking into the impulse-buy area of a supermarket checkout lane.

Forced to include items that will help prop sales, the stores–from In Other Words, in Portland, Ore., to Women and Children First in Chicago–have begun stocking jewelry, journals, incense, greeting cards or even copies of the bestselling "The Da Vinci Code."

In 1997, 175 feminist bookstores dotted the country, but today only about 35 are still in business. Among these a few stalwarts have emerged. There is Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis, which has been going at it for 35 years, began by selling lots of lesbian-centered works and anything by Gloria Steinem, said store employee Kathy Sharp.

A Room of One’s Own, a 30-year-old store in Madison, Wis., is the second oldest and was one of the pioneers in popularizing titles such as Rita Mae Brown’s "Rubyfruit Jungle," now a feminist classic.

Most of the remaining women’s bookstores can be found in small cities of the Midwest, South or coastal states. "There are virtually none left in big cities," says Linda Bubon, owner of Women and Children First, whose store, in a progressive part of Northside Chicago, is one of the big-city exceptions. Another is Bluestockings in New York City, which opened in 1999 and re-opened under new ownership, as a radical activist center, 2 years ago.

Although her 25-year-old store is still making it, Bubon says the last couple of years have been all uphill. While not wanting to detail the extent of the store’s financial struggle, Bubon says Women and Children First has had to contend in the past eight years with the openings of seven Borders or Barnes and Noble stores within three miles of her front door. Moreover, she faces the expansion into book sales by, Borders, and Target. Her non-profit business, she says, cannot provide the discounts of her corporate counterparts.

Losing Community Centers

As bookstores disappear, so do the intellectual community centers they once provided for browsing and attending talks and readings.

"There is a struggle for public space, period," says Bubon. "It is desperately needed in a democracy."

 Amazon bookstore Caption: Amazon bookstore in Minneapolis circa 1980

In looking back at her years running the shop, Bubon says the first two years after the store’s 1979 opening were particularly memorable. There was the time when she and her co-workers closed up shop to rally for the Equal Rights Amendment. There was also that time when people wrapped around Armitage Avenue and then packed into her tiny shop to hear Rita Mae Brown give a reading.

Today, she says, loyal friends and customers keep the store going. After buying a book, some say "keep the change."

While the larger stores may provide many of the same or similar forums and readings–as well as crucial amenities such as Internet access and coffee shops–some say it’s not the same as meeting in what feels like women’s special turf.

"There is something irreplaceable about the face-to-face aspect of a bookstore where there is support for a woman who wants to write a novel, can’t get pregnant or was raped and seeking help and guidance," says Sue Burns, owner of In Other Words.

Amid the sense of loss, some see the silver lining.

"You could think, ‘what a horrible thing, we don’t have these bookstores anymore,’" says Carol Seajay, founder of the now defunct "Feminist Bookstore News," an on-line forum about women’s bookstores. "But the need that inspired the bookstores has changed. Feminism’s becoming integrated with other social movements. You had to convince people before that sexual harassment was an essential concern. You don’t need to do single-issue consciousness-raising anymore. It’s not a bad thing if the needs have been met. They have changed mainstream publishers, distribution and people’s reading habits. In that sense, it’s a huge success."

Meanwhile, as small brick-and-mortar bookstores have fallen in number, the arena for discussion and publishing has broadened onto the Internet, a medium that is likely reaching far more women than ever before. To respond to this change Seajay in 2003 launched the "Books to Watch Out For" Web site, to provide subscribers with "all the buzz about new gay, lesbian and feminist books."

Changing Stock

Compared to years ago, the stock in what remains of the women’s bookstore community reflects the changing times.

At her shop, Betsey Housten, staff collective member at New York’s Bluestockings, sees strong interest now in books exploring gender and sexuality, as a branch of feminism fuses with punk, queer and other subcultures. There’s Inga Muscio’s 1998 book "Cunt," which rallies women to love their bodies and reclaim the anatomical slurs that are used against them. There’s the queer comic book "Hothead Paisan," about a disgruntled, homicidal lesbian. There’s transgender literature such as the 1993 book "Stone Butch Blues," by Leslie Feinberg. And there’s this year’s sex-worker resource magazine "Spread."

In the more mainstream areas of publishing a strong volume of books is being aimed at female readers, but some sellers say that much of this output is by large publishers who show little taste for radical, intellectual and political books by women.

"Chick Lit is the first thing that comes to mind," says Sashe Mishur, a long-time employee of A Room of One’s Own, referring to the popular romance and sex genre aimed at young, professional women. "It’s a simple-minded form of women’s writing. Sure if it’s well done it can be entertaining. We all need a rest now and then. But it’s harder than ever for women to be published because of the decline of smaller presses. If the book’s not going to be a blockbuster, no one’s going to press it."

By contrast, Mishur says that shops such as A Room of One’s Own preserve a diversity of books on their shelves, even if a title only sells one or two a year.

Mishur says one of the new works the shop will stock that she’s most excited about is this year’s "Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil: My Life and Times in a Racist, Imperialist Society," by Muscio. In this book, the Portland, Ore., author of "Cunt," now in her late 30s, takes aim at institutionalized white privilege as well as her own personal privilege as a white woman. "It’s a hard book to read, but an important one," Mishur says and contends that critiques like Muscio’s probably would not get in to mainstream circulation without the preliminary support of independent stores.

Julie Ford, who writes about Canadian publishing, is also troubled by books that go out of print because of the dominance of large publishers. While smaller publishers are often more likely to take a chance on an author’s first book, she says a big publisher will pick up that book if it succeeds. But if the title doesn’t sell out, the big publisher may quickly decide to let it go out of print. (A small publisher, by contrast, needs to sell only 20 or 30 percent of what the big publisher would and is more likely to keep the title in print.)

The result of this title-takeover trend, Ford writes in a recent article, is "fewer titles, fewer voices."

Rachel Corbett is a Women’s eNews intern and freelance writer based in New York City.

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