Inside Indie Bookstores: Women & Children First in Chicago

Jeremiah Chamberlin

It's interesting to hear you describe these authors as being outsiders at one time, because when I was growing up they were people I was reading from the beginning.
Oh, back then you had to go lookin', lookin', lookin', lookin' to find these writers. And they certainly weren't being taught. Alice Walker had written The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and maybe Meridian had come out. But all the stuff that you think of as classic women's literature—Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison—they were not a part of the canon. They were just fledgling writers. It was much different. And, again, there was no gay and lesbian literature. None. I mean, it just didn't exist. We put a little sign on the shelf that said, "If you're looking for lesbian writers, try Virginia Woolf's Orlando, May Sarton, Willa Cather...." You know, writers who historians had discovered had had relations with women. [Laughter.] Nothing public at all. We had a little list. Back then our vision was about this big. [She holds her hands about eight inches apart.] Now, thirty years later, it's incredible to look back and see the diversity of women writers who are published, and the incredible diversity of gay and lesbian literature, and transgender literature, that's being published.

I still think women lag behind in winning the major awards, and they lag behind in getting critical attention. So there's still a need for Women & Children First and stores like it that push the emphasis toward women writers. But, at that time, we had to work to fill up a store that was only a quarter of the size of this one. That first store was only 850 square feet, yet it was still a challenge to find enough serious women's literature to stock the shelves. Because we didn't want to do romances. And it's not that we didn't have a vision of a bookstore that would be filled with works by women and biographies of women and eventually a gay and lesbian section and all that. But I had no idea that there would be this renaissance in women's writing. That it really would happen. That women would get published, and get published in some big numbers, and that I would finally be able to sell books by women who were not just white and American or British. I mean, the internationalizing of women's literature has been very exciting, I think.

What precipitated the move to 
this neighborhood and this bigger store, then?
In those first ten years we had double-digit growth every year. Ten percent up, 11 percent up, 15 percent up. I don't think we even made returns until we'd been in business three years. We were just selling. I had no ordering budget. "Oh, new stuff by women?" I'd say. "Great! We need it." Business was growing.

Was that because nobody else was selling this type of literature?
Yes, and because women's studies was developing as a discipline. Also, I think we were good booksellers. And we had great programming right from the beginning. Not so much big-name authors, but interesting stuff.

So like the first store, you outgrew the second one.
We outgrew it. Our landlord had also sold the building and the new owner was going to triple our rent. So if we needed any more motivation to move, that was it. What was tough, however, was that we'd been ten years in the DePaul neighborhood, which is very central to Chicago. You can get there very easily from the South Side, from the West Side, off the highways...yet we couldn't really afford to stay there, and we couldn't find a new space that would suit us. But then we were recruited to move up here by the Edgewater Community Development Organization. Andersonville is a part of Edgewater, which goes all the way to the lakefront and west to Ravenswood. They literally came to us and said, "The people in our community would love to have a bookstore in that neighborhood. There's a lot of spaces that are being renovated, and we wonder if you're thinking of opening a second store, or if we could encourage you to."

This happened by coincidence, while you were already considering a new location?
Yes! And we said, "Well, you know, we need more space. We'll come up and look." At the same time, there were two women who were opening a women's arts-and-crafts store, and all their friends said, "It doesn't matter where you're located as long as you're next to or on the same block with Women & Children First." So we came up to Edgewater to look, and they showed us this building, which had been a big grocery store. It was being renovated and gutted, so we could get in at the beginning and say, "We want the corner and we want this much space." The arts-and-crafts store opened next door. They stayed open for seven years, and when the partnership broke up, in 1997, we took over their space. In terms of our growth, business kicked up 20 percent the first year we were here. We opened in July 1990, and that first year people came in and brought us plates of cookies and said, "Thank you for coming to our neighborhood." It was just great.

But the move itself is the best story. Remember, this was still a shoestring operation. We had to rely on the community. So we organized seventy volunteers. Four different women rented or had trucks. And those seventy people moved every book and bookshelf out of the old space and into this space in one day. We organized people in groups of three or four, and we said, "Okay, you have the Biography section. You pack up all these books in these boxes, mark them ‘Bio,' pull out that shelving unit, you go with that unit and those boxes to the new space, and there will be somebody here to help set it up." We had other women who went out and bought three trays of sandwiches and fed all the volunteers. We started on Friday night, worked all day Saturday, and by two in the afternoon on Sunday we were open for business. We were only really officially closed for one day. And women still tell me, "I remember helping you move." They'll come in and they'll say, "That's my section; I put this section back together."

Have readings and events been a part of this store from the beginning?
They've been a huge part of the store. Getting to meet all these wonderful writers whom I've read—in person—is also something that's kept me motivated and excited. And, you know, the excitement of discovering a new writer is always great.

We have a lot of local politicians who shop here too. When Jan Schakowsky decided to support Barack Obama in his run for the U.S. Senate, she had a press conference here. She asked if she could use our store to make the announcement that she was throwing her support behind him in the primary. And I remember her saying to me, "If we can just get people to not call him Osama." I mean, that's where we were at that time. Nobody knew who he was.


Women & Children First

I started going to W&CF when the store was located at Halsted and Armitage. I was newly "out" and I was very shy about going to the store or attracting any attention to myself, but I wanted to find books by Lesbian writers, about Lesbian characters. I found so many books there! When I heard that the store was moving to Clark Street, I was overjoyed, since I lived closer to that location! When the store re-located, I made a point of spending a couple Saturdays a month there, looking for new books, reading the ads on the bulletin board and collecting the week's newspapers which targeted the LGBT community. I loved seeing the growth of both the store and the inventory! I introduced friends to the store and they would tell me about their trips there, what they bought or that they saw someone they knew in there. In 2007, I retired and moved to Colorado, and one of the things I miss about Chicago is W&CF! I live in a tiny town with no bookstores. What was I thinking? Good thing I can order online. Linda Bubon might not remember this, but she and I played pool on the same team (Lost & Found) one year. I want to thank Ms. Bubon and Ms. Christophersen for taking the risks they took so many years ago, so that the LGBT and feminist community could be so well-served. That they continue to insist on excellence and being true to themselves, their vision and their wish to serve the community is a gift to us all. Gayle Teller, Mesa, CO

I haven't been to this

I haven't been to this bookstore, but have seen it's presence on the internet and thought it would be a lovely store to see. Sounds a bit like A Room of One's Own in Madison, WI - a wonderful little store I spent a few minutes in when I was on book tour two years ago.

I love this bookstore! Not

I love this bookstore! Not only for the fabulous selection of books, but also for their inspiring reading series. I make a point of visiting every time I come through Chicago.