Inside Indie Bookstores: Women & Children First in Chicago

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

What were some of your best-selling books in 2009?

Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout; Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger; Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti; Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri; The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood; The Sisters Grimm Book 1: Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley; In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan; Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; Hardball by Sara Paretsky; The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart; Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers; Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; Mama Voted For Obama! by Jeremy Zilber; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz; and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

What is the best-selling section in your store?
Paperback fiction.

What do you look for in terms of an author event?
First we consider whether the book fits with our specialty—books by and about women—or ones that offer a feminist perspective on any subject. It is also important to us that we can provide an audience for the author. Finally, though we always want to host women writers with a national reputation, we are strongly invested in supporting local writers and those launching their careers with debut novels, poetry, or nonfiction.

In what ways have your events changed over the years?
In the store's early days, many of our events were feminist issue–based, sometimes with an author or book involved but not necessarily. We were a hub of feminist and lesbian politics and culture, and produced feminist plays and women's music concerts, sponsored women's sports teams, and provided support for almost every women's/lesbian project in our city. Over the past number of years, however, we have focused our energies and events on books and other written material, knowing that that was our unique role in the women's movement.

What challenges do women still face that you hope your store can help address?
Women writers are still vastly under-represented in review vehicles, which means their books are less visible. This can be verified by keeping a gender tally of writers reviewed in the NYTBR or the New Yorker, for example, during any given month. Though women artists working in most mediums have certainly moved forward, they still struggle for opportunity and recognition. Women in general have also, obviously, made many advances since the seventies, but we still have a long way to go. Women's right to control our own bodies is constantly being challenged; we are still paid less for doing the same job as men; we still have few good options for childcare; married women who work—which is the majority of us—still do more than our fair share of taking care of home and children; women are seriously unrepresented in political decision-making. I could go on, but these are some of the reasons we still need organizations—and bookstores—that focus on women.

How does feminism in the twenty-first century differ from when you opened this store?
The main difference is that the second wave of the feminist movement in the seventies was just hitting the streets and was brilliantly, feverishly, and obviously active. New organizations were being created every day to deal with issues like incest, domestic abuse, healthcare, job opportunities, equal pay, the absence of political power, and many others. The work that began then has become institutionalized over the years since. It continues to advance, but people don't always notice it now since it's become deeper, more complex, and, some might say, mainstream. Another significant difference is that many of the growing pains have been outgrown: Feminism has been able to overcome many of the challenges posed by race, class, and national boundaries, becoming truly global. 

What role does technology play in your store?
It has played an important role since we bought a computer and began using POS/IM bookstore software in 1985. We had a Web site for marketing purposes and then took advantage of the American Booksellers Association's Web solution so we could sell books online; we switched from print to e-newsletters several years ago; we use social media, first MySpace and now Facebook and Twitter. And we have the technology—and desire—to sell e-books.

How do you think the rise of digital reading devices will affect your future?
The extent to which e-books affect our future depends on how large that segment of the market grows and whether there are any real opportunities for stores our size to get a share of online sales. There's little to no local advantage online, and when your competitors are large enough to dictate market prices, it is somewhere between extremely difficult and utterly impossible to get even market share to scale.

Where would you like to see Women & Children First in ten years?
I would like to see us still finding ways to serve our community and fulfill our mission of giving voice to women.

How about feminism?
Continuing to make steady progress toward a world in which women are free to live an unobstructed, rich, creative life.

What do you most love about bookselling?
Going through my days surrounded by books and the people involved in writing, publishing, selling, reading, and talking about them. 

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.

Ann Christophersen photo by Kat Fitzgerald.


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.