by Kat Georges
How does a bookstore keep going for 42 years despite all the challenges of recent times: Online competition, the pandemic, changing tastes, and more. For Women & Children First, one of the premier feminist bookstores in the world, the answer lies in the supportive community they’ve built since opening in 1979. Three Rooms Press co-director Kat Georges recently asked co-owners Sarah Hollenbeck and Lynn Mooney about the past, present, and anticipated future of this legendary community hub.
KG: Women & Children First in Chicago is one of the largest feminist bookstores in the country. What makes it so successful after all these years?
W&CF: A forty-two-year-old self-identified feminist business is indeed hard to find! We’re still here and going strong because of our community. Their steadfast loyalty has been especially humbling over the last two years of repeated closures due to the pandemic. Why do they invest in us? That’s a question we ask ourselves a lot. I believe that our longevity owes a lot to us striving to center our mission at every crossroads. When feminism was not a broadly accepted term, we could have diluted our message and become a general bookstore. But, we didn’t. When feminism began “trending,” we could have very easily and profitably bought into the way feminism was/is being co-opted and marketed to replicate the same old patriarchal systems. But, we didn’t. Instead, we continuously strive to embody our mission in our curation, our internal decision-making, and our partnerships. Of course, we make plenty of mistakes along the way, but we try to own those mistakes–learn, grow, and move forward. I think our community appreciates being a part of that process.
KG: Since 2014, when you two took over the store, so much has happened in terms of expanding the definition of feminism. What changes have you two brought to Women & Children First?
W&CF: In 2019, we collaboratively re-wrote our mission statement, and the final line reads: In order for feminism to remain relevant, it must be forever evolving. That evolution so far has manifested in many ways, such as uplifting the trans community more visibly and improving our booksellers’ quality of life by increasing our base pay and providing access to health insurance and retirement saving. Very recently, we’ve begun getting involved in mutual aid efforts in our neighborhood and having larger conversations about police and prison abolition and what power an independent bookstore has to effect systemic transformation on repressive structures.
KG: The pandemic: What did you do to survive? What steps are you taking to get back to “normal”?
One of our staffers recently told us that we needed to excise the word “normal” from our vocabulary! With our doors currently re-closed due to Covid, I think she’s absolutely right. When we originally closed for in-store browsing in March 2020, our online store was technically functional, but we’d be lucky if we got ten orders in a day. Overnight, we had to adapt to meet a hundred orders a day! Our systems now look nothing like they did two years ago.
W&CF: On an interpersonal level, we’ve grown more collaborative and better about checking in on one another as human beings with fatigued bodies and anxious brains. This love and care extended into how we communicated beyond the store as well; out of necessity, our social media presence and our e-newsletter became more personal and transparent, letting our customers know that we were still here even when we are apart, and even letting them know when we are burnt out and need a break to recharge. Instead of clawing our way back to a normal that never truly served everyone–especially the most vulnerable among us–we’ve taken this time to consider how better to serve our mission and begin to tackle some much-needed vision planning moving forward.
KG: What’s been the most exciting thing to happen for W&CF recently?
W&CF: During a pandemic, exciting is not the goal! We aspire to be calm and uneventful!
That being said, some awesome things have emerged in the last two years! For example, we unveiled a Romance section as well as another section called “Organizing & Abolition.” Both have been enthusiastically embraced!
We were also thrilled to be featured on a couple episodes of the HBO show Work in Progress.
KG: W&CF has a deep collection of LGBTQIA+ literature. How has this area of literature expanded in recent years? Do you see any trends in LGBTQIA+ genre fiction (i.e. mystery, romance, YA) over the past few years?
W&CF: The most exciting trend is not only that these sections are growing but so is their audience! We were delighted when we ran a report recently that confirmed that our Young Adult Queer section outsold our traditional Young Adut section by leaps and bounds. Similarly, the most popular titles in our Romance and Science Fiction & Fantasy sections are the ones featuring queer characters and storylines. We also love that there are more titles celebrating queer joy instead of exclusively documenting (and often exploiting) queer trauma and pain.
KG: How would you describe the Women & Children First community? With the devisive nature of the political arena these days, how has the community shifted?
W&CF: I think our community now is more game to be challenged and to imagine something beyond the status quo. The pandemic has made it clear how deeply we need structural change and how that can only happen if we rethink the way things have always been and rattle traditional power structures. This kind of work, such as challenging racist or transphobic behavior in our society and community, can be uncomfortable, and we appreciate how our customer base seems open and ready to have these important conversations and get a little uncomfortable with us.
KG: Any changes planned for the near future?
W&CF: We’re finally launching a subscription service, which is something we’ve wanted to do for years! Our booksellers are working together to make sure that our themed subscription boxes reflect our unique mission and aesthetic. We plan to send out our first batch this spring, and we think you’re going to love them!
KG: You’re hosting a literary dinner: You can invite 2 women authors, 2 women (who don’t necessarily have to be authors), and 2 non-female allies. Who do you invite?
W&CF: To be honest, these are the types of questions that make us break out in hives! It’s like choosing your favorite book–impossible! This answer would have to be a mix of great talkers and legendary foodies! Some names that come to mind: Zora Neale Hurston, Julia Child, Lynda Barry, Toni Morrison, Jeanette Winterson, bell hooks, James Baldwin, Studs Terkel… this is too hard! Mercy!
KG: What’s the best thing about being an indie bookstore owner? Biggest challenge?
W&CF: The best thing is the books. The biggest challenge is the lack of time to read them.
KG: What can people do to get involved and support Women & Children First?
W&CF: Beyond placing orders with us through womenandchildrenfirst.com, our Sales & Outreach Liaison Karlee has done incredible work to strengthen and expand our partnership with Chicago Books to Women in Prison! This all-volunteer 501(c)(3) organization sends paperback books free of charge to women and trans people in prisons nationwide. The best part is that they send the books that the incarcerated people actually want and need–the books that they request! Supporting this project by buying something from their wish list is one of the best ways to support us and our mission. Link to donate: https://www.womenandchildrenfirst.com/wishlist/2
Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark St. Chicago, IL 60640, 773.769.9299, womenandchildrenfirst.com