From the 1970s through the 1990s more than 100 feminist bookstores built a transnational network that helped shape some of feminism’s most complex conversations. Dr. Kristen Hogan, education coordinator at the DDCE’s Gender and Sexuality Center, traces the feminist bookstore movement’s rise and eventual fall in her new book The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability (Duke University Press, March 2016).
We caught up with Hogan to learn more about the role these bookstores play in shaping feminist thought, and how they have changed people’s lives and the world.
What did you enjoy most about working at two feminist bookstores?
I’m grateful to Susan Post for hiring me at BookWoman in 1998 and introducing me to feminist bookstores as activist spaces. I worked there for two years before returning to graduate school. When I graduated, I accepted a 14-month position at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, where I was a part of a transformative team of ten staff members and a board building relationships and reading practices for queer antiracist trans-positive feminisms.
When I was interviewing feminist bookwomen for this project, I asked them how working at the bookstores changed them. I echo the answers many shared: lifelong relationships and learning feminist ethics. I call this process of transformation feminist love.
Through the feminist love of the bookstores, I made friends that make my life and this world better. I met my lover of 17 years, and I learned how to read, talk about, and try to live by lesbian antiracism and feminist accountability. I carry those lessons, that feminist love, with me into my everyday life.
What spurred your interest in writing this book?
I met my partner, Milly, at BookWoman while I was working there in 1999. That year, almost 40 feminist bookstores closed. I could tell something was coming to an end, but I didn’t know then about the movement work of feminist bookwomen.
During the early 2000’s, Milly and I bicycled around the hot city, talking about whether feminist bookstores were just women’s businesses or sites of community and activist histories. As I researched the feminist bookstore movement, I found more and more clues to piece together the complex and transnational relationships that feminist bookwomen built together and how they changed how we read women’s literature and each other. Working in and researching the bookstores changed my relationships and what feels possible in my life, so I kept researching and writing!
From a local perspective, what value do feminist bookstores bring to the Austin community?
In Austin, we have feminist bookstores in BookWoman, Resistencia, and Monkeywrench bookstores. Amid the shelves in these movement-based spaces, people have found lovers, friends, writing circles, validation in stories and in each other, and bookpeople who fuel our lives with books and radical framings for how to understand those books differently than we would if we found them on other shelves.
I have joined in raucous celebration of queer racial justice poetics at an open mic at Resistencia; I have squeezed into a circle of people on the floor of Monkeywrench to talk about the violence of gentrification in Austin; and recently at BookWoman I gathered with a sea of people all transformed by Abe Louise Young’s writing and writing workshops as we listened to her read from her new book of poetry.
With a collective breath, in these moments, we are making coalition with each other. We are learning to connect with each other in radical queer feminist love. Part of the lesbian antiracist feminist work of bookwomen has been to see the work of feminists within and across multiple social justice movements.
What role did feminist bookwomen play in shaping feminist thought?
Feminist bookwomen changed how we read feminist literature and each other; I created the term “the feminist shelf” to describe this work. In order to get and keep on the shelves books that mattered, feminist bookwomen supported new authors’ writings (and were authors themselves), advocated with publishers to get feminist writing in print, waged letter-writing campaigns to keep that writing in print, and distributed out-of-print work.
How bookwomen practiced this literary activism mattered deeply. Bookwomen in collective meetings, national and transnational conferences, and on the pages of the Feminist Bookstore News grappled with power sharing and antiracist feminism in their relationships. As they learned new vocabulary to talk ethically with each other, they shared this vocabulary with readers by creating new book sections, book lists and events, and by applying their activist tools in their communities.
In the 1970s the feminist bookstore in Portland, Oregon shut down for a week so that the bookwomen could teach other women about racism and hold the lesbian bar accountable for racist practices. In the 1990s, bookwomen collaborated with Indigenous feminist author Chrystos and Press Gang publishers to create a broadside of Chrystos’ poem Shame On about the violence of white women appropriating Indigenous voices. Bookwomen hung these in their bookstores to educate readers. From 1976-2000, bookwomen shared these and other strategies with each other through the Feminist Bookstore News. This work of the feminist shelf affected conversations in feminism about antiracism, representation and accountability.
Did you come across any surprising findings in your research?
I was surprised to find how many bookwomen were involved in trying to develop antiracist feminist activism and relationships. The bookstores were, in many cities, multiracial spaces and sites of conversation and strategy for lesbian antiracism. I describe lesbian antiracism as a practice of antiracism developed in multiracial conversations that draw on lesbians’ experiences of sexism and heterosexism as interconnected and rooted in racism. All three of these systems must be taken apart in order for any one of them to be dismantled.
When I started this project in the early 2000’s – as now – most feminist bookstores open in North America were run by white lesbians. I interviewed quite a few white women working in or who had worked in feminist bookstores in a few central U.S. cities. It took me longer, as a white researcher, to connect and build trust with women of color who had worked in and transformed the bookstores.
Once I started connecting with more and more feminist bookwomen of color, the stories they shared changed the way I understood the history I thought I knew. I began to see indications of the major work of women of color throughout the feminist bookstore movement.
At A Woman’s Place bookstore in Portland in the 1970s, women reflected on racism in their collective and prioritized supporting the leadership of women of color. Manager Niobe Erebor then pointed out the absence of images of women of color from most posters circulated through the bookstores and began working to create valuable images to share. At the Toronto Women’s Bookstore in the late 1980s. The volunteer collective also prioritized the leadership of women of color; their multiracial board hired activist Sharon Fernandez who published the extensive Women of Colour Bibliography in 1989 and transformed the shape and future of the bookstore.
This history of the bookstores as places where women tried out strategies for racial justice was a surprise hidden by the mid-1990s, when many white feminist bookwomen turned toward book industry activism and away from movement-based conversations. The vital history before that turn offers strategies I need for the relationships that matter to me every day.
How can people help support the few feminist bookstores that are left in this country?
I think that in order to really support feminist bookstores – and many feminist spaces in our cities – we need to know what important movement-based work bookwomen have done. Movement organizations don’t last forever. The success of feminist bookstores is not defined by how long they stay open, but, rather, by the significant legacy they leave us for our future movements. Feminist activists can continue the radical work of feminist bookwomen by learning about and practicing their commitment to lesbian antiracism and feminist accountability.