We Need Diverse Books
An interview with women & children first
Sarah Hollenbeck and Lynn Mooney are the co-owners of the feminist bookstore Women & Children First, having purchased the store from its original owners Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen in 2014. The bookstore is located in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, but can be accessed at www.womenandchildrenfirst.com, where you can purchase books, writing supplies, and more.
|| Q: You two are the new co-owners of the bookstore Women & Children First. Can you give us a little history from the eyes of those that have lived with it?
SH: The bookstore was started in 1979 by Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon; they were two graduate students at UIC. They were studying literature, but they were activists in the second-wave feminist movement, and they decided that their contribution to the women’s movement was going to be opening a feminist bookstore. And they did that in response to the current climate of having general bookstores by-and-large representing male authors. From what I understand, when you went into a general bookstore at that time, women authors were exclusively representing romance novels and classics.
LM: And even writers that we think of today as being firmly part of the canon, like Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton, were considered obscure. If books by women were in print at all, and few of them were, most bookstores didn’t choose to carry them because they were considered obscure. Pre-Amazon, if your local bookstore or your local library didn’t have books by women, you probably weren’t exposed to work by women.
A lot of second-wave feminists went into academia; gender studies and women’s history departments were being formed in colleges and universities across the country. But not everybody wanted to go into academia. And so there was the creation of a lot of feminist bookstores at this time, and a lot of feminist presses.
Ann and Linda were a part of a larger movement at the time, and at its height there were more than a hundred feminist bookstores in the United States. Now there are significantly fewer; there are about ten left.
|| Q: Why have they gone away?
LM: A couple of things, I think. It’s been a hard road being an independent bookstore at all in recent years. If you were a bookstore with a particular political mission, or a narrow focus, it’s been harder to survive. Secondly, there was a period in recent years where feminism became a dirty word. Many women were distancing themselves from that label.
The third reason that may have played a role is that a lot of feminist bookstores were started as co-ops. Ours was founded as a traditional business. Because it was very hard for women in the 70’s and 80’s to get funding to start a business, a lot of them were started as co-operatives.
Ann and Linda self-funded it when they started this bookstore. But as Linda often points out, in 1979, in the state of Illinois, a woman needed either a father or a husband to co-sign to even open a checking account. That was the climate here in Illinois. So it makes you realize that it probably wasn’t very easy for a woman who had an idea for opening a business to get initial backing for that. And co-operatives are kind of notoriously difficult to sustain over time.
|| Q: NewCity's "Lit 50 2015: Who Really Books in Chicago" says you purchased the store from its original owners; can we talk a bit about that? Why did you guys think that your ownership could be good for the store, why did you want to buy it, and were you partners in the beginning, or was it something that sort of floated together?
SH: I came on as a bookseller in 2012. Soon into my working here, Ann and Linda, the co-founders, announced that they were ready to retire and put the store up for sale. They had had the store, just the two of them, for 36 years at that point. They did their work, and were ready to take it a bit easier. I took that news in stride. Then slowly, the news was announced, different candidates put in their applications to buy the store. Ann and Linda were reading the applications, and Lynn and I and everyone on staff saw this happen. The reality of it began to sink in: what this change would mean for us and what it would mean for our jobs.
Ann and Linda were very firm that the mission of the store and the name of the store would remain intact, no matter who became the new owners. But there was this feeling of the unknown; we didn’t know the people who were going to come from the outside to take it over. So I kind of had a growing feeling of responsibility to maintain this beautiful space that I love, and keep it true to its roots and true to the mission. I felt like that could happen organically if the new owners came from within rather than from the outside.
When I approached Lynn, she was the manager and had been the manager for two years, and I asked if she was interested in partnering to buy the store together. I knew that she had a huge amount of experience in industry knowledge, whereas I had a different set of skills. I knew I couldn’t do it alone under any circumstances, but I also thought I had a certain set of strengths that could benefit the store in terms of helping update and reach a new generation of younger feminists, through different channels.
Lynn and I had a meeting before the store opened, a secret meeting - the lights weren’t on. And we had to ask ourselves, “is this something that you can do, financially? Is it something that you want with your future?” Because this is a commitment, and this is potentially the rest of our working lives.
LM: I knew that Ann and Linda were gearing up toward a retirement announcement. They actually had, at an earlier point, approached me about possibly buying the store from them. For a combination of reasons I knew I couldn’t do it alone. It also came at the worst possible time, in that my partner, who had worked at the same company for nineteen years, suddenly got laid off. So it was not a good time for me to say “Hey! I wanna do this major life-changing expensive thing.”
So Ann and Linda let me know that they had hoped I’d be interested in being the new owner, but it wasn’t possible. When they did finally make the announcement, it was hard because I was the manager, but maybe new owners coming in might have wanted to hire their own manager or manage it themselves. So I was feeling very vulnerable, and I was delighted when Sarah approached me. Luckily for me, my partner did actually find a job, so the anxiety around money reduced a little bit.
We were very lucky that Ann and Linda - because they were so clear that they wanted their legacy, this store, to continue on as a feminist bookstore - weren’t necessarily looking for the deepest pockets. They needed to sell the store in order to retire, but they weren’t only looking at that part of it. They wanted a commitment to keep the store on.
|| Q: In a letter that the previous owners wrote after they relinquished ownership of the store, they said that “these are challenging times for brick-and-mortar stores, as well as for print books.” Can we talk about this?
LM: When Ann and Linda wrote that letter, e-books were a little newer. We have more data now about e-book sales and readership, and things are actually plateauing. There are some genres that e-publishing never made much of a toehold in at all, including children’s picture books. I think we’re now in a period, and we hope it is a long period, where e-books and print books will continue to exist side-by-side. Perhaps for another generation or two or three.
User habits have started to become really relevant. Those early embracers of technology who are often white males between the ages of 16 and 30, and they’re still the largest user group of e-books. Often, the early embracers of new technology are the most invested. What we find now is that even the most enthusiastic e-book readers and buyers continue to buy at least some print books. The proportion varies tremendously from person to person, and it’s not clear to us entirely whether that’s just gift buying, or maybe art and picture books; some of the patterns aren’t entirely clear. But I think it is very interesting and very reassuring for us, that even those most invested e-book readers and users are still buying at least some print books.
We have a lot of friends and customers who are teachers and professors, and I think it’s a real quandary for them because, when they’re reading an e-book, their screen habits kick in pretty strongly. And so here’s a lot of data showing that people don’t retain what they read on screen nearly so well. So it’s a bit of a quandary, and yet because of the cost of textbooks, so many students are relying completely on the electronic versions. There is some interesting stuff still unfolding out there.
As for the brick and mortar part, I think the answer to that is obvious, and it isn’t. The big competitor now is Amazon. But the problem isn’t just Amazon. We’re so fortunate to be in the neighborhood we’re in; there’s a tremendous ethic of focusing on locally-owned businesses and really supporting those businesses. There’s foot traffic, people, couples, families, out at kind of all hours of the day. So we’re very fortunate, but even in a neighborhood like this, we have to be worried about rent. Neighborhoods like this become very expensive. There are a lot of things out there, all of which have to be juggled and managed.
The business plan we created when we started tried to address that in a couple different ways. We know you could buy these books we have here, on Amazon. And to pay our rent, which is kind of high, we have to sell a lot to keep our doors open. We realize that the experience someone has in this store is what is going to keep us here. It’s not just that book and being able to buy it here, because people do have other choices. So part of that equation is the one-on-one experience with the staff, with us. It’s an experience that, largely in our culture, hasn’t gone away, but those instances are rarer and rarer. And we crave them more and more because they happen so seldom now. That kind of connection is substantive, but personal.
The other thing we knew had to become a point of difference even more than ever was events: author readings and all kinds of other events. That’s the thing that Amazon hasn’t done yet -- they haven’t brought your favorite author to read a couple blocks from your house, so that you can hear them, talk to them, ask the questions, have them sign your book. That experience they can’t replicate. So we focus on that.
SH: That’s what I do here, and that’s my primary job: events coordination, along with marketing and publicity. We knew when we started here that events were what was going to set us apart, but we’re also trying to develop more innovative events, trying to market them more creatively, trying to really convey the neighborhood and the larger community.
|| Q: Why do you think that giving children literature is important?
LM: Books were important to me as a kid. They could make your world so big. Some very lucky children get the opportunity to travel and do all kinds of exciting things, but for a long time when you’re small, you’re living so much through your imagination. I didn’t own a horse, had never ridden on a horse, but I read every horse book. And I did eventually become a horse owner as an adult. Reading is a way to broaden your world.
Sarah and I are both active in movements having to do with diversity in books, and in those circles we talk about books as mirrors and windows. And books are important in both respects. They’re windows because they make the world big. They help you see things and be exposed to things, and that includes people, people from other places, people who dress differently and eat differently and have different beliefs. If you don’t know they’re out there, you can never be familiar unless you’re exposed to them. And the mirror idea is just as important. Sometimes it’s a long time until a person feels fully accepted, for whatever reason, and the more they see people like themselves reflected positively in books, it can be life-changing. Both things are important even in a city like Chicago. We think about the need for exposing children and having diversity, so that kids in very homogeneous small towns in rural areas get this bigger picture. But it’s not just them. It really is kids everywhere.
SH: There’s a quote we have on the wall, from James Baldwin, that says: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” That starts really young. I think there are a lot of books for children, where they do feel all alone and then they open this book and see themselves reflected in the pages. They realize, “I’m part of this humanity, and the world is okay, and I’m gonna be okay, I have a support network, there’s people like me out in the world.”
There’s a picture book called Henry Wants More. It’s so exciting because you open up the pages and there’s a black mom and a white dad, and all the kids are different colors. This is exactly what we need in the world right now -- more books with two moms and two dads and different colors. It’s what we need to fight bullying, it’s what we need to make the world a better place.
|| Q: What about your histories? What did you guys go to school for? What brought you down the path that lead you to working at this bookstore? Are either of you writers?
LM: I came to bookselling through book publishing. My first job in publishing was a summer internship in college at William Morrow, in New York. Right after my college graduation, I got a job as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins. I loved working in publishing in many respects. I eventually got my dream job as an acquiring editor, but I basically found out that it was mostly to do with money and negotiating contracts. I realized that I missed the time where I was in those lower level positions, where I actually got to work with manuscripts and talk to the authors about their ideas and what they were trying to accomplish. So I didn’t last long as an acquisitions editor. I’m glad I fulfilled that dream, glad I checked that box off, but in the end it wasn’t the right job for me.
I also worked as a freelance editor for many years. At the time when I started working here, I had been freelancing six years. It started to get a little repetitive and solitary. I loved working at home in my jammies, with my cup of tea and my dogs, but I was feeling very isolated. I had been a customer here, and they were advertising that they needed somebody part time, and I applied.
|| Q: What about you, Sarah?
SH: I went to a hippie college out east, where you had to design your own major. So I studied journalism and theater in undergrad, and as my senior project, I ended up writing a literary journal that focused entirely on all the actors that played minor characters in all the plays I went to my senior year of college. That launched my interest in writing.
I came to Chicago because I got an internship at the Chicago Tribune, at Chicago Magazine. I was an editorial assistant for a year and a half. Mostly what I did was fact-check articles about million-dollar homes on the north shore and get people coffee. While I was doing that, I realized I wanted to go to grad school. So I studied Creative Nonfiction Writing at Northwestern with a bunch of amazing local authors. And I had a bunch of odd jobs during that time, including working at a bookstore. I worked at Borders, and then I worked at Barnes and Noble, and then eventually I got hired here, which is the crème de la crème.
LM: Sarah’s also a performer. I’m a little shocked she hasn’t mentioned this at all yet.
SH: I’m part of the live lit community in Chicago. I help produce a show with my husband, called Story Club Southside. My best friend David Norris started the Story Club franchise, which is now international. It’s only been in the last two years that I’ve started performing my personal essays in live events, and that’s been my motivation to keep writing, because it’s been really hard to write while being a co-owner with Lynn. There aren’t enough hours in the day. But I book myself in a show almost every month so that I have to write something.
|| Q: What exactly is a “feminist bookstore”? Do you guys have specific criteria for books that you sell here? What makes a book ‘worthy’ to be sold in a store like this?
LM: I think the definition of feminist bookstores has always been highly individual, and has changed over time. In this bookstore for instance, in the children’s section, there were always books by both men and women. But at the beginning, the adult books were pretty much only written by women or about women. And then at some point a couple years into it, Ann and Linda had a shelf: “A few books by men we also like.” It was one shelf in the whole store.
And then it became more. Because we do acknowledge that men can be feminist, too, so it makes sense that they might write books, right? At this point you will find books by men and women consistently throughout the store.
People in bookselling use the word “curate.” We do curate the collection here, so that you’re not going to find books by political conservatives here. We’re not about censoring; if someone wants to read that book, we’ll order it for them. But no one’s going to find it on our shelves. That’s a special ask.
Our store’s always had a robust politics section, in addition to having queer nonfiction, gay and lesbian fiction, race studies, women’s studies, women’s history. Our politics section actually is bigger than it was when we bought the store. It skews completely progressive. We’ve got some stuff on anarchism, we’ve got plenty of stuff on socialism, a lot of political theory.
SH: The mission of this store is to represent a diverse array of voices, but more specifically, voices that you don’t hear in mainstream media. Often, voices that are people of color, people of disabilities, queer authors -- those are the voices that we really feel need to be heard, and we are the space to showcase those voices.
LM: And we always have been. In a way, the job is easier now. When we talk about kid’s books reflecting a variety of races and biracial identity and kids and characters on the neurological spectrum, we’re lucky a lot of those books are now being published by major publishers. They didn’t used to be available at all. No one had thought to write books with protagonists like those until very recently. In the beginning, they were published only by small presses, often mission-driven presses. We’re very fortunate that a lot of those voices now are being published by mainstream publishers.
Again, the work’s not done. There are still some awkward attempts. We tend to be pretty vocal calling them out on that. One thing that’s a hallmark of the “we need diverse books” movement has to do with authenticity. It’s an interesting issue because as people who are proponents of free speech, we do believe a writer can imagine what it’s like to be of the other sex. So it’s not black and white. But any time I see a children’s book where say, the child is African-American, and I happen to look and see that the author is white, I feel conflicted. I know as an act of imagination, there’s nothing wrong with that. I also know, as part of a greater effort for children of color to be depicted more in publishing, it’s absolutely laudable. I think because I come from the publishing side, I think in terms of the editorial staff: probably in New York, probably highly white and middle class, and maybe they just went back to their old circle of contacts and said, “Hey, we need some books about black kids.” They went to the artists and writers they knew already and had worked with, and so that’s the person who got the contract to do that book. There are equally talented artists and writers out there, of color, who could write about authentic experience in a personal way, who aren’t getting those book contracts as much as they should be. I think that’s part of the work that really needs to be done.
|| Q: Let’s talk about social issues when it comes to literature, and specifically, as readers, your advice to writers who want to bring issues to the attention of the mainstream. Is there anything that you’ve read that you want more of, that you feel could really make an impact if it was done the right way?
SH: Everyone on staff this year has made resolutions to read more authors of color, queer authors, nonbinary authors, transgender authors. I think there is a push among readers to make these literary resolutions, so I would encourage writers who have a different story to tell, who are marginalized in some way, to tell their story. There is an audience out there now, I feel, more than ever, who want to expand their concept of the world, and especially their understanding of their own privilege.
LM: We talk here every year about the Bellwether Prize, which was a prize that Barbara Kingsolver started for a first book that advocates social change. And the first eight winners were all women authors. One of the books I read that was a winner of the Bellwether was Good Kings Bad Kings, which I thought was an important paradigm-shifting kind of book. It’s about some teenagers who have disabilities, being schooled in a residential environment. I just feel like the author, Susan Nussbaum, does such a good job of putting the reader in the place of these kids, who are removed from their families. It’s painful and difficult, and yet they do succeed in taking hold of their futures and their environment, and making change. I think it’s a really important book.
SH: That book is a great tool for young writers to read, for checking their own privilege. I think that that is what all authors need to think about, the ways in which they are and are not privileged. Don’t make any assumptions; if you’re going to write someone else’s story, talk to the people who live that story. And Susan lived that story, it’s her story.
|| Q: Imagine a scenario where I am a person who doesn’t read - I just don’t like it. It’s too time-consuming. What is your argument for reading? Why do people need literature in their lives?
LM: I don’t usually presume to know what’s best for another person. I would, in my mind, say, “Maybe they listen to podcasts, or maybe audiobooks, and maybe they have this really deep relationship with music…” On some level I’d say there may be people out there who are perfectly happy and fulfilled without reading. I don’t think I know any of them. I don’t know if I’d like them much if I met them. Reading is a window into other people, and understanding, and experience.
SH: I feel like, right now, within an election year, there’s an urge to dismiss people who don’t have the same voice as you, who don’t have the same experience as you. I think that reading is a tool to combat that. It’s one of the most powerful ways that you can learn about different voices, different cultures, people who are more or less privileged than ourselves, and not shut them out, and listen to them.
LM: It's a tool to understand the complete validity of other life experiences and ways of thinking. They say that if you meet somebody and talk to someone and spend time with them, it’s harder then to say they’re not worthy, or fully human. Books can provide that, because we don’t all have the luxury of traveling all over the world, immersing ourselves in every culture.
I think, too, a lot of readers are very intellectually curious. I’ve always been the kind of person who overthinks things. I’ve questioned everything. And reading’s an outlet, and an impetus to question more.