Inside Indie Bookstores: Women & Children First in Chicago

Jeremiah Chamberlin

So the store has been important for the community in many ways.
A political gathering place, and a literary gathering place, and a place where we have unpublished teen writers read sometimes. We've developed four different book groups, plus a Buffy discussion group. And if you came on a Wednesday morning, you'd see twenty to thirty preschoolers here with their moms for story time, which I do. I love it. I just love it. It's absolutely the best thing of the week. I have a background in theater and oral interpretation, so it's just so much fun for me.

Has that grown over the years as the neighborhood has developed?
Grown, grown, grown. For many years I would have nine or ten kids at story time, maybe fifteen. Then, about four or five years ago, it was like the neighborhood exploded, and I started getting twenty to thirty kids every week. In the summer, I can have fifty in here. That's why everything is on rollers. For story time, the kids sit on the stage and I sit here. For regular readings, it's the opposite—authors read from the stage and we have chairs set up down here. We can get a hundred, sometimes even a hundred and fifty people in here.

A year and a half ago, we started Sappho's Salon. Once a month, on a Saturday night, we have an evening of lesbian entertainment. Sometimes it's open mike; sometimes it's acoustic music. Kathie, who does our publicity, generally runs it, and her girlfriend, Nikki, who is a part-time DJ, brings her DJ equipment. Then we set up little tables and candles, and try to make it feel like a salon. We've even had strippers. [Laughter.] But right from the beginning we conceived of having a weekly program night. Author readings weren't happening much, so we decided we'd have discussions on hot books that people were reading. We knew a lot of teachers from this Newberry Library group who were writing, and who were in the process of writing feminist criticism, so we invited them to come and do a presentation on an idea.

Then we conceived of having a topic for each month. For example, "Women in the Trades." So every Tuesday night in March a woman who was working in a male-dominated trade would come and talk about how she got her job, or how women can get into engineering, or what kind of discrimination she's experiencing on the job and what her recourses were. I think one of our very biggest programs in those early years was on the subject of sadomasochism in the lesbian community. And we had eighty or ninety women who would come and sit on our shag rug—we didn't have chairs and stuff like that then—and listen to people who had differing viewpoints discuss the issue. It seems almost silly now, but it was a big issue at the time, and people were really torn about whether this was an acceptable practice or not. Also, whether we should carry books on the subject. There was one pamphlet available at the time: What Color Is Your Handkerchief? Because you would put a handkerchief of a certain color in your back pocket to indicate what your sexual proclivity was.

It's amazing how subtle the coding had to be. It was so discreet.
I remember the first time I saw two women walk out of my store holding hands. I was walking to the store a little later because somebody else had opened that day, and when I saw them [pause] I cried. Because it was so rare in 1980 to see two women feel comfortable enough to just grab each other's hands. And I knew that they felt that way because they'd come out of this atmosphere in which it was okay.

At our thirtieth anniversary party [last] October, the Chicago Area Women's History Conference recorded people's memories of Women & Children First. They had a side room at the venue where we were having the party, and people took time to go in and talk about, you know, the first time they came to the bookstore, or when they saw Gloria Steinem here, or how they met their girlfriend here, or that when their daughter told them she was gay and they didn't know what to do about it they came here and got a book. People shared all these memories. And that's going to be part of our archive too.

This celebration was also a benefit for the Women's Voices Fund, which you started five years ago. Can you talk about its mission?
Several years ago, Ann and I were looking at the budget and, frankly, there wasn't enough money coming in for the expenses going out. Meanwhile, we were planning the benefit for our twenty-fifth anniversary—this party that we hoped would raise some extra money—and other people in the not-for-profit world who were advising us said, "People will pay for your programs. They will make a donation to keep your programming going." So Ann sat down and calculated what it cost to print and mail out a newsletter, to put on these programs, to advertise the programs, and then to staff them. What we discovered was that is was about forty thousand dollars a year we were spending on programming. And we thought, "If there's a way to remove that expense from the budget and use people's donations to fund that, that would be a smart thing." So that's what we did. Now anytime we have an advertisement or a printing bill or expenses related to providing refreshments at programs, that cost comes out of the Women's Voices Fund.

So the store's not a nonprofit, but it has a nonprofit arm.
It's not a 501c3 on its own. We are a part of the pool fund of the Crossroads Fund in Chicago. So you can send Crossroads a check, have it be tax deductible, and have it earmarked for the Women's Voices Fund.

Few people realize how expensive readings and events can be.
Occasionally there are readings that are profitable. Occasionally. But very, very often, even with a nice turnout of twenty to fifty people, you still may only sell three or four books. Maybe five or six. But it's not paying for the program. And from the beginning we didn't want to look at everything we did in terms of whether it was going to make money: "If we have this author we gotta sell ten books or we're not gonna pay for the Tribune ad, or the freight." No. Having the fund means we pass the hat at the program, and maybe we take in twenty or thirty dollars. But sometimes people put in twenties, you know? And we raised thirty thousand dollars at this benefit.


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.