A cozy gathering of students got the inside scoop on running a radical independent bookstore at a luncheon sponsored by the Center for Gender Studies on Monday.
Co-founders Linda Bubon and Ann Christopherson opened Women and Children First in Andersonville in 1979 in an effort to provide both books and a community environment for feminist and lesbian readers in Chicago. Despite the wider cultural revolutions taking place at the time, Bubon said that there was little support for the queer community.
“It was a really dark time to be queer,” she said.
In selecting titles, Bubon said that she and Christopherson strive to embrace controversy.
“We try to confront stuff head on and not shy away from things that could be divisive,” she said.
Nevertheless, she added, “I just cannot put Ann Coulter on the shelf, even though she is a woman.”
Bubon and Christopherson spoke about entrepreneurship and their philosophy on pursuing a principled goal. The pair said they wanted to inspire students to find careers that matched their passions.
They also addressed difficulties particular to independent bookstores today. They said bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders increased competition for business from smaller retailers in the ’90s. Smaller retailers also must deal with changes in the book retailing industry in a post-Amazon.com world, they added.
“There are cities in the U.S. that have now not one independent bookstore,” Christopherson said.
The owners said financial difficulties plagued Women and Children First in the past. But the bookstore’s safe, friendly atmosphere and its unique selection of books inspired the community to rally behind the neighborhood institution.
“That just would not have happened if we were a general bookstore,” Bubon said.
The changes in the feminist, lesbian, and queer movements in the last 30 years have broadened the appeal of the bookstore. A younger staff keeps the bookstore abreast of contemporary feminist writings and updates the store’s catalog with newer genres like the graphic novel. An intergeneration feminist book group provides a forum for discussing issues facing feminists of all ages.
The scope of the clientele has expanded over the years as well, they said. Gay and straight fathers often bring their children to story time. The children’s section—which includes mainstream and classic books, an extensive selection of books on growing up with gay parents, and sex education books—has continued to grow. “Young girls have gotten their sex education from coming into the bookstore after school and looking at those books,” Bubon said.
The bookstore hosts several communist-themed events throughout the year. Upcoming lectures include talks with Jhumpa Lahiri, author of Interpreter of Maladies, on April 8, and Isabel Allende, author of House of Spirits, on April 9.