One Way For An Indie Bookstore To Last? Put Women 'First'

Oct 27, 2013
Originally published on October 27, 2013 3:59 pm

As recently as 25 years ago, there were more than 100 self-described feminist bookstores in the U.S. — stores focusing on books written by and for women. Like most independent bookstores, though, their numbers have dropped dramatically over the years.

Chicago's Women and Children First is among the few feminist stores still standing, and one of the largest. The store opened 34 years ago in 1979. Now, after a long, successful run, the store's owners say they're ready to retire — and they're looking for a buyer to continue the store's mission.

Early Supporters Of Women, Books And Community

Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen opened the bookstore partly out of frustration. As graduate students in literature, they often couldn't find books in print of the women authors they wanted to study. "So, you know," Bubon says, "that's when it occurred to us that, hey, there's a hole in the marketplace here that we could fill."

With $15,000 between them and the help of friends, they built their own bookshelves — and spent the money on books. But from the start, they looked beyond those homemade shelves.

"We wanted wide berth for not just feminist-themed material, but also just to support the work of women in books and in community."

They also wanted to provide children's books, especially books about girls. "That took a while to develop in publishing, where there were, you know, really heroic little girls," Christophersen says.

"Or just active," Bubon adds. "Active, not passive — not waiting to be rescued but going about their lives."

Their bookstore has proven popular with children. Once a week a parade of children, many in strollers pushed by parents or nannies, come to Women and Children First.

Jess Bower, a nanny, brings the 2-year-olds she watches every week to the bookstore. She's heard about the owners' plans to sell the store. "I hope it stays independent," she says, "because it's such an important spot to have in the neighborhood. There aren't a lot of other stores nearby, a lot of other bookstores."

And the store has been a hit with adults as well. Big-name authors, as well as lesser-known writers, have made Women and Children First a must-stop on their book tours.

Mystery writer Sara Paretsky, who introduced the tough female detective V.I. Warshawksi in her novel Indemnity Only, first met the store's co-owners in 1982. She says, "A store like Women and Children which will aggressively look for women — for women's voices — is, in a way, more important now because there is so much clamor out there in the blogosphere. It's hard for any one voice to be heard."

Wanted: New Owners, New Energy

Like most independent stores, Women and Children First struggled with competition from big box stores as well as a faltering economy. But, Bubon says, "every challenge that came along we really faced, we didn't turn away from."

The bookstore used different strategies to operate with less money. Christophersen slashed her salary for several years. The store sold textbooks to local colleges and it joined a successful lawsuit against Barnes and Noble and the now-defunct Borders.

Christophersen says it's time now for the two of them to retire and for someone new to take on the job she and Bubon love.

"The economy is really much better now," she says. "We are doing just fine and I think there are opportunities to do better with some younger, more energetic person."

Or some older, energetic person, says Christophersen — someone looking for a new career, perhaps. Or anyone wanting to carry on the mission and the purpose of a feminist bookstore like Women and Children First.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

About 25 years ago, there were more than 100 self-described feminist bookstores in North America focusing on books written by and for women. Like most independent bookstores, their numbers have dropped dramatically over the years. One of the few still standing is in Chicago. Women and Children First is also one of the largest, and the owners say they've had a great run. But now, they're looking for a buyer. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Once a week, a parade of children, many in strollers pushed by parents or nannies, come to Women and Children First where they are greeted by store co-owner Linda Bubon.

LINDA BUBON: Good morning, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Good morning.

CORLEY: For the next half hour, Bubon will read stories, sing songs and recite rhymes with the kids.

BUBON: This is called "When Lions Roar." How do the lions go? Roar.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Roar.

CORLEY: Jess Bower, a nanny, brings the 2-year-olds she watches every week to the bookstore. She's heard about the owners' plans to sell.

JESS BOWER: I hope it stays independent, you know, because it's such an important spot to have in the neighborhood. There isn't a lot of - there aren't a lot of other stores nearby, a lot of other bookstores.

CORLEY: Women and Children First opened 34 years ago in 1979. Linda Bubon's business partner is Ann Christophersen. They were graduate students in literature and often couldn't find books in print of women authors they wanted to study.

ANN CHRISTOPHERSEN: So, you know, that's when it occurred to us that, hey, there's a hole in the marketplace here that we could fill.

CORLEY: Christophersen says with $15,000 between them and the help of friends, they built their own bookshelves and spent money on books.

CHRISTOPHERSEN: We wanted wide berth for, you know, not just feminist-themed material but also just to support the work of women in books and in community.

CORLEY: And to provide children's books, especially books about girls.

CHRISTOPHERSEN: That took a while to develop in publishing where there were, you know, really heroic little girls.

BUBON: Or just active.

CHRISTOPHERSEN: Oh, active, right.

BUBON: Active, not passive. Not waiting to be rescued but, you know, going about their lives.

CORLEY: Over the years, the bookstore and its reputation grew. And big-name authors, as well as unknowns, have made Women and Children a must stop on their book tours.

SARA PARETSKY: I first met them in 1982. That was when my very first book was published.

CORLEY: Popular mystery writer Sara Paretsky introduced the tough female detective V.I. Warshawksi in her novel "Indemnity Only."

PARETSKY: A store like Women and Children which will aggressively look for women - for women's voices, is, in a way, more important now because there is so much clamor out there in the blogosphere. And it's hard for any one voice to be heard.

CORLEY: Like most independent stores, Women and Children First struggled with competition from big-box stores, and, says Bubon, a faltering economy.

BUBON: Every challenge that came along, we really faced, we didn't turn away from.

CORLEY: And the bookstore used different strategies to operate with less money. For instance, Christophersen slashed her salary for several years. The store sold textbooks to local colleges, and it joined a successful lawsuit against Barnes & Noble and the now-defunct Borders. Christophersen says it's time now for them to retire and for someone new to take on the job she and Bubon love.

CHRISTOPHERSEN: The economy is really much better now. We're doing just fine. And I think there are opportunities to do better with some younger, more energetic person.

CORLEY: Or some older, energetic person, says Christophersen, looking for a new career or just wanting to carry on the mission and the purpose of a feminist bookstore like Women and Children First. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.