Inside Indie Bookstores: Women & Children First in Chicago

Jeremiah Chamberlin
From the May/June 2010 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

But obviously something changed in the bookselling industry or you wouldn't have had to hold this fundraising event. You said earlier that when you first moved into this neighborhood you had double-digit growth. What happened?
Well, the rest of that story is that a year and a half later our sales dropped 11 percent. This was 1993. And the next year, they fell another 3 percent. So that was a 14-percent drop in two years, for a store that had never seen a loss. Borders and Barnes & Noble started in the suburbs, but then they gradually came into the city. In 1993, when this hit us, Barnes & Noble and Borders had put in stores three miles to the south of us—right next to each other—and three miles to the north of us, in Evanston. Then, about seven years ago, Borders put the store in Uptown, which is just a mile from us, and they put another store west of us by about two miles. More recently, B&N closed the store three miles south of us, and Borders announced over two years ago that they were trying to rent all the stores around us.

They overextended themselves.
When everybody else was starting to downsize, Borders opened several new stores in Chicago, including this one in Uptown. And, you know, we'd almost gotten past the point where the chain stores were affecting us, because they've had to stop widespread discounting. But the month this Borders opened that close to us, our sales dropped 12 percent over the year before. And then over the course of that year our sales were down 5 percent. But, you know, it's been an underperforming store. They put it in between two underperforming stores in a neighborhood that was more economically depressed than Evanston and Lincoln Park.

Do you think five years from now they'll be gone?
I do. I do.

Can you wait them out?
You know, from what I can observe, Barnes & Noble seems to treat their employees pretty well; they seem to put stores in locations where there's actually a need, and to close stores down when needed and redistribute employees. It seems to me Barnes & Noble plans very carefully. Borders, on the other hand, has changed hands several times since 1990. I just don't see how they are going to survive. When I go in there now all I see is...sidelines. Candy.

I think what's been particularly frustrating for independent stores like ours that have developed a reading series over the years in Chicago—you know, attracting more and bigger-name authors, and more interesting authors, and conducting ten to fifteen programs a month—is when publishers take an author who has a real base in our store, and for whom we have a real audience, and they say, "Oh, but the Michigan Avenue Borders wants this author, and that's a better location."

Why does that happen?
They don't always realize that our location is not downtown, and that it attracts a different kind of clientele. And I've seen situations where we'll have a local author—one who we have a close relationship with, and who's done every launch with us—whose publisher will now say to her, "You know, two thirds of your books are sold in the chain stores, and so you have to do your launch at the chain store." But those authors try to figure out things to do for us to get us some extra business.

The author tour itself seems to be waning. I don't blame publishers for their reluctance to send a writer out on the road—after all, it probably seems hard to justify paying for an author's travel expenses when you see only eight or nine books sold at an event. But people always forget the long-term sales that readings generate.
Right. Because I've read the book, and so has one of my coworkers, and we'll both put it on our Recommends shelf. We're going to keep selling this book long after the event. And we do find, when we look at our year-end figures, that our best-sellers for the year are almost always written by people who have had appearances here. Or, if not here, they've done an off-site event that we've been in charge of. Those books turn out to be our number one sellers for the year.

So what does the future look like for you?
I'm a bookseller, but I'm a feminist bookseller. Would I be a bookseller if I were going to run a general bookstore? I'm not sure. Sometimes I think, "What will I do if the store is no longer viable?" And I think that rather than going into publishing or going to work for a general bookstore, I would rather try to figure out how to have a feminist reading series and run a feminist not-for-profit. Because the real purpose of my life is getting women's voices out, and getting women to tell the truth about their lives, and selling literature that reflects the truths of girls' and women's lives. Sometimes we're abused; we have to talk about that. Sometimes we take the bad road in relationships; we have to talk about that. Sometimes we're discriminated against in the workplace; we have to talk about these things. Violence against women in the United States and worldwide has not stopped. We don't have a feminist army to go rescue women in Afghanistan—would that we did.

The goal of my life has been to get the word out, to understand women's lives. We have to continue to evolve and change if we're to have a full share, and if our daughters are to have a full share of the world.


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.