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Bluestockings: All The Good We Leave Behind

What happened to the feminist bookstore?

 

Bluestockings doesn’t look like much at first. It’s a little shop, with a dusty sign, set in a stretch of Allen Street — far enough away from Houston to be quiet, close enough to Delancey to be cool — that’s all delis and sidewalk and traffic noise. The June Jordan quote in the window caught my eye: Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth. How many women have walked in because of a quote? And how different is the world, as a result? This is how you would have done it, once upon a time. How you became feminist, that is.

Feminist bookstore, in 2016, sounds like a joke. It is, in fact, an actual joke, on Portlandia, where Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein play two older ladies, Toni and Candace, the proprietors of the very insistently-named Women and Women First. They are bored, judgmental, and passive-aggressive, and many of the jokes play on the fact that their commitment to helping women and otherwise upending social hierarchies (“that’s a top-selling author. Do we want that in here? No! We want bottom-selling authors!”) is undermined by the fact that they have no clue how a bookstore actually works.

And yet, somehow, it doesn’t seem like the joke is on them. Or the store. Or feminism. It’s silly. (“I was part woman — part woman,” concludes one magnificent poetry reading.) But it’s also a lingering reminder of something you might not recognize unless you’d lived in it, seen it before, been there. Because these were, and are, real places — and they were once central to the feminist project and to the spread of feminist ideas in contemporary American life.

That project often could be very goofy, terminally earnest, thrown-together. It was one where you might just start a bookstore, not just to sell books, but because it was a place people could go in groups. You actually needed these places because one of the only ways to actually do anything, or spread the word about the movement, or get people involved, was to sit down and physically speak to each other.

There were well over a hundred feminist bookstores, across the United States. There was an entire magazine, Feminist Bookstore News, devoted to covering them. They were a vital, necessary part of second-wave feminist organizing; this was where you might have gone, for example, to have a consciousness-raising group. Or you could take classes, learn to care for your reproductive health. Or you could, of course, buy books — but they would be, specifically, books you wouldn’t be able to get, or that might not be spotlighted, elsewhere. These were places where women could access dangerous ideas, and other dangerous women — and where they could take those ideas home, from where they might begin to spread.

These were places where women could access dangerous ideas, and other dangerous women — and where they could take those ideas home, from where they might begin to spread.

At Women and Children First (the real Chicago store whose name the Portlandia sketch riffs on) the owners, Linda Bubon and Ann Christopherson, were very interested in children’s books, and looked for the ones with non-stereotypical, “active” female leads: “That took a while to develop in publishing, where there were, you know, really heroic little girls.” If you recognize the name “Katniss Everdeen,” you know that it did, in fact, develop into one of the more powerful market forces in the world of publishing.

We now know how to talk about the importance of role models for little girls who can be strong, or active, or non-stereotypical; we know how to talk about how media shapes our perceptions and stereotypes. We know it so well we might even find it boring, or mainstream. But it was never inevitable. Someone had to decide it was important enough to put into the mainstream in the first place. So, sometimes feminist activism would mean marching, or demonstrating. Sometimes it would simply mean women deciding to take those books, the weird books, the ones almost nobody was writing, and the ones they probably wouldn’t even make money on, and just put them in the front of the store. In other words: maybe you really didn’t want top-selling authors. Maybe you wanted the bottom-selling authors. And maybe that wasn’t silly at all; maybe that was how you could change the world.

But the world changes in many ways, and not all of them are easy.  Feminist Bookstore News shut down in 2000, after a 24-year run, citing “a time of sea-change going on in the entire culture,” and “a number of complex considerations.” A “website” that sold books (it is not specifically named) had decided to create a gay and lesbian section. You didn’t have to go out any more to get these things — anything you could find at a feminist bookstore with a lesbian focus (Feminist Bookstore News covered both) was now in an online store. It was easier. It was more accessible. If you were in the closet, it was arguably safer — you didn’t have to be physically present, in a public location, to get the book. It just wasn’t, you know, usable: Seajay noted that “some titles on their lesbian lists had no lesbian content, that their gay history list included a fundamentalist rant which maintains we are all going to hell, and, for no other reason than the author’s first name, included Gay Talese’s family history.” Algorithms could not effectively do the work of activists, no matter how hard they tried.

In Minneapolis, a long-standing feminist bookstore went to court and actually, legally lost its own name. The early 2000s, it turned out, were a bad time to be a small, independent bookstore called Amazon. They tried renting their name from Amazon.com for a while — using it, but only at the sufferance of the corporation that took the name from them in the first place — and then they tried changing it. Then they just shut down. It was something a lot of book stores were doing at the time.

In 2003, Bluestockings closed. Or it was supposed to. The collective that owned it disbanded. It was privately run, but then that woman left to go back to school. So, Bluestockings was set to be another piece of the rapidly disintegrating past. What had once been a central means for organizing and propagating feminism was already becoming something that nobody even quite remembered — an odd trivia detail, a sketch on a comedy show. It’s not only that the Internet happened, it’s that cultural backlash did; the utopian female visions of the ’70s were already starting to seem goofy and dated, and interest was waning. So, by the beginning of the 21st century, Bluestockings — a bookstore in one of America’s biggest book towns, a specialty store in a town so huge that you can reliably find thriving specialty stores for any interest you can imagine (and some you can’t) — was no longer viable.

What had once been a central means for organizing and propagating feminism was already becoming something that nobody even quite remembered — an odd trivia detail, a sketch on a comedy show.

And then it was purchased, a week before closing, by a different woman. It’s now owned and run by a different collective — like all staff, they’re volunteers. Bluestockings still offers everything these places were always supposed to: the educational programs, the space for activist groups to meet, the readings, the small-press books. It’s still there.

It’s busy, on a weekend afternoon. I’m creepily wandering around the store, trying to get a sense of the vibe, overhearing conversations. A group in one corner is talking about abortion-clinic escorts; how to get them, how to respect and prevent the possibility of emotional trauma for some of the women going to get abortions. Someone throws the Hyde Amendment into the mix. It takes me forever to figure out what they’re actually talking about, because, to my surprise and growing delight, the abortion-rights group is mostly young guys. Young guys I am visibly eavesdropping on, in the middle of a sensitive conversation, which is not great. So I figure out the layout: there’s still a section for feminist fiction. I can spot the books on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, rape culture. But there’s a wall for socialist theory, too; there’s an Israel/Palestine shelf. This is, in part, how Bluestockings revitalized itself: it’s still a feminist bookstore, but it’s got a much larger idea of what feminism means. And, in fact, it doesn’t exactly bill itself as a feminist bookstore any more.

“We do identify as one of the last remaining feminist bookstores in North America. We do call ourselves a ‘radical’ bookstore though because we do take a more intersectional approach in how we curate and interact with the community,” says collective member Maria Herron.

The newer definition is almost certainly the better one: “There are still people, customers and authors alike, that think of us more of a current events bookshop than an explicitly feminist one,” Herron says, but “[intersectionality] suggests that to have a conversation about feminism and gender also involves conversations about race, class, the state and current events, and vice versa. People come into the space interacting with various combinations of these facets.”

People probably come into the space expecting a lot, but for the moment, it just feels nice to be here. I wind up staring at what I’m almost certain is some kind of environmentally sensitive menstrual apparatus — ah, utopia! A place where a woman can just unreservedly stare at a cutting-edge, progressive menstrual apparatus! My phone buzzes: “SHIT LIKE THIS IS WHY PEOPLE THINK YOU’RE A FAGGOT,” says my latest @-reply on Twitter. The letters are big and white and pasted over a picture of Spider-Man, for some reason. I’m confused by this message for many reasons — misgendering, what the “shit” is, Spider-Man’s sudden homophobia — but after a little scrolling through my phone, I realize I have more like them. A lot more. Some are worse. “Kill yourself” comes into play. A little more clicking for context, and I realize what happened: I’ve been picked up by GamerGate.

This is the other thing the Internet has done to feminism. You can now have anti-feminist strangers scream at you in the middle of a feminist bookstore. They don’t even have to be in the room to do it.

This is the site of an old, powerful idea: that you just took women, and put them in the room with the right ideas, and something good would happen. Something powerful.

It’s not all bad, of course: feminist organizing has, to a fantastic degree, moved online. The movement that seemed nearly on its last legs as the 20th century died down and the 21st picked up experienced a huge and unlikely resurgence through social media and personal blogging. And that, too, was oddly utopian. I don’t know what year it was when Tumblr, a teen-dominated web platform, became known as a hive mind of radical gender and anti-racist theory, but (at least for me) the alarming realization that some fourteen-year-olds were probably smarter about Judith Butler than I was quickly gave way to the amazing realization that there were millions of fourteen-year-olds smarter about Judith Butler than I was. That this, feminism, was the cool thing to do now. That we were coming back in style.

We came back. But so did the backlash. GamerGate is one of the more famous, and virulent, examples of this; you can hardly type its name (as I did) without getting an onslaught of ugliness. But the fact of the matter is, it’s just a particularly weird, ugly portion of something that takes place in online “organizing” spaces more or less constantly. The downside of organizing on the Internet is organizing publicly. We are no longer in a time and place where, to do feminist work, you had to get people together in the same room. Some of us (and I am guilty of this, I admit) may not even think rooms are necessary. But we also lose that room’s safety. We lose the sense of community, of space, which means being confined and at least a little private.

We lose the privileges and the point of those old, feminist bookstores: it was a place women could go in groups, yes. But it was also a place where women could go to be alone. Or where they could go to be left alone. We have a lot, in 2016. But we still don’t have that, the ability to be reliably left alone when you need it. And we may never have it again.

So this is it. This is the site of an old, powerful idea: that you just took women, and put them in the room with the right ideas, and something good would happen. Something powerful. It did, in fact, and it continues to do so. We probably don’t even have names, or dates, for all the ideas that these stores put in women’s heads — all the relationships that otherwise wouldn’t have happened, the fights that suddenly seemed worth fighting, the bedtime stories that made a little girl feel better about herself in some way that somehow stuck around and made her happier or more determined as an adult.

You can dismiss these places, as old or out of date or goofy. You can walk right on by them. But you shouldn’t. There is something they still do — something they got right that we might be missing. They still serve a vital function. And they are still with us. It’s just that there used to be hundreds throughout the United States, and now there are only thirteen.