Forty years ago, the Oakland neighborhood where I live was home to one of the first feminist bookstores in the United States, Information Center Incorporate: A Woman’s Place. The bookstore has long since disappeared. When it is remembered, it is usually for an early affiliation with Judy Grahn’s Women’s Press Collective or the contentious public fight that eventually led to the store’s closure. By the time A Woman’s Place entered receivership and arbitration in 1982, their gross annual receipts had increased from $24,244 reported in 1973 to over $200,000 annually — a growth rate of over 2,000 percent in nine years. The collective that ran the bookstore had changed over the years too, surviving periods of difficulty, departures, and new arrivals, but in the early ’80s the group splintered over conflicts surrounding race, generational difference, and store management. At stake was the very nature of their collective organization.
The long 1970s were ending. The Women’s Press Collective, which once shared space with the bookstore at the original location where Broadway and College meet, had gone out of business a few years earlier. Images from the early years are heady. A group of women lean on machinery, sleeves rolled up, ink and tools in the foreground. Later, after merging with Diana Press in 1977, the Collective’s new offices and bindery would be vandalized, possibly by the FBI or San Jose police, possibly by other feminists angered at the entrepreneurial turn within radical feminism. Alice Echols first described that turn somewhat pejoratively as “cultural feminism” in her often-cited 1989 account Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975, in which she is critical of the movement to build an alternative women’s culture premised on such capitalist innovations as separatist banks and record labels. Of these ventures, feminist bookstores were some of the most successful, until they weren’t.
In The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability, Kristen Hogan recasts the story. She argues that feminist bookstores were much more than businesses. Rather, as BookWoman’s founding charter described itself, they were a “women’s resource center disguised as a bookstore.” Lesbians could be out at their workplace, crowded bulletin boards connected people with health services and political organizing, and some stores offered lending libraries or shared space with self-defense collectives.
A librarian, scholar, and education coordinator at UT Austin’s Gender and Sexuality Center, Hogan grounds her account in extensive interviews and archival research. The resulting history is told chronologically in five chapters that follow the energetic beginnings, expansion, and ultimate decline of feminist bookstores in the United States and Canada.
While Hogan uses several case studies of individual stores, the foundation of her work is The Feminist Bookstores Newsletter, an influential trade publication edited by Carol Seajay. Tracing conversations that unfolded there from the early ’70s to late ’90s, Hogan maps a community that shared booklists, strategized to intervene with publishers, and reported on differing visions of what feminist spaces could or should be.
Whereas many Second Wave accounts are written by 1970s feminist activists or scholars, Hogan occupies a unique position. She co-managed the Toronto Women’s Bookstore in 2007 and worked at Austin’s BookWoman in the late ’90s. The former closed in 2012. While BookWoman is still operational, it is one of only 13 remaining feminist bookstores in the United States and Canada. If Hogan didn’t experience her subject’s beginning, she did have an intimate relation with its end. She describes reading an issue of the Feminist Bookstore News during a shift at BookWoman shortly before it ceased publication in 2000 after a 24-year run. In some ways, The Feminist Bookstore Movement is a classic Second Wave recovery project, casting a loving glance backward as it seeks to uncover a series of lost moments obscured by the financial fate (and fight) of feminist bookstores in the ’90s.
But Hogan’s account also spills beyond generational borders. Most feminist histories of this period narrate some version of fragmentation, burnout, and decline, locating the end of one era and beginning of another in the early ’80s — precisely as feminist bookstores were expanding. In 1983, there were over 100 stores in the United States and Canada with combined annual sales of $400 million. The Second Wave lived on within feminist bookstores, and as a counter institution its record holds the lived experience of intergenerational continuity. Alternately, feminist bookstores might represent the Second Wave’s slower death. Think of the television series Portlandia, in which Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen play Toni and Candace, proprietors of a failing feminist bookstore who hold a carwash to make rent.
1960s and ’70s feminist baggage is heavy, its story often told as white and middle class. Hogan’s is one of several studies since 2000 that unsettle this historiography. Kimberly Springer, like Angela Davis before her, questions the wave analogy as it operates to exclude earlier and simultaneous feminism of women of color. Benita Roth examines the complex structural forces that shaped racially separate 1960s and ’70s feminist organizations, including their emergence at the same time as a more integrated Civil Rights movement was shifting toward cultural separatism and racial self-determination. Later, lesbian feminist separatism would prove divisive for those whose commitments to fighting racial oppression necessarily included working within mixed gender groups.
Anyone writing this moment must approach it with a kind of negative capability. On the one hand, many women of color chose to organize separate feminist organizations. On the other, many also provided significant leadership and participated in the history of what has become known as a mostly white women’s movement, troubled from the beginning by racism within and without. This is Hogan’s project. While some of the earliest feminist bookstores were started by groups that included women of color, most emerged from a whiter branch of women’s and gay liberation. Hogan’s work to recover a more complicated history appears as stories of mostly white collectives having their consciousness raised, more or less successfully, by individual women of color. There are stunning exceptions to this, as when the Black Women’s Rap Group in Portland enlisted the help of a feminist bookstore to confront racism at the one women’s bar in town. For a week, the bookstore shut down for sales and instead provided space for conversation and education.
Hogan attributes the decline and death of feminist bookstores in the late ’90s to a shift away from community accountability toward professionalization as feminist bookstores put their weight behind the legal battle between independents and corporate chains. Given the vision articulated in 1976 when the first issue of the Feminist Bookstores Newsletter listed among its goals the desire to “find ways of dealing with the inherent contradiction between being revolutionaries and being in a capitalist business system,” this appears less a shift and more the inevitable outcome of moderate success within that system. Industry conditions in the ’70s and ’80s allowed for all manner of dealing with an irresolvable contradiction. Writing in the Feminist Bookstores Newsletter, Carol Seajay encouraged stores to place large advance orders for titles even if they had to be returned later because this could prompt publishers to allocate resources for publicity. When titles were remaindered, stores contributed a percentage of those sales to authors who wouldn’t receive royalties otherwise. The history reveals how much contemporary readers owe early feminist bookstores. Their heroic efforts brought many titles back into print, and DIY distribution allowed books to stay in circulation longer. But financial stakes were lower in those early years when many stores ran on a volunteer basis. Like all independents in the ’90s, feminist bookstores faced the increasingly corporate consolidation of publishing, distribution, and bookselling, along with the intensification of their own success as businesses and all that entailed.
In a black-and-white photo on the cover of The Feminist Bookstore Movement, Darlene Pagano, Elizabeth Summers, Keiko Kubo, and Jesse Meredith stand in front of A Woman’s Place Bookstore. They’re close, smiling, looking toward each other instead of the camera. The photo was taken in 1982 before arbitration concluded in their favor and the store was turned over to the group who had become known as “the locked-out four.”
As the cover suggests, their story is central to The Feminist Bookstore Movement, told by Hogan as one of successful racial consciousness-raising. It’s a story worth returning to in greater detail, as the divisions that split A Woman’s Place persist in the present of feminist organizing. I went to the GLBT Historical Society archives in San Francisco hoping to learn more about what made the bookstore’s heterogeneous collective so durable, until it wasn’t. During my research, I stumbled across a flier for another local organization, the Radical Women. Their fall 1980 schedule of events included talks on “Cops, Klan, Nazis — the Rise of the Rightwing,” “Racism in The Women's Movement: How To Fight It,” and “Why the Hell Should I Vote When There's No One To Vote For?” This flier and the story of what happened at A Woman’s Place Bookstore each serve as powerful reminders that political conditions in 2017 emerge from a long historical trajectory and history of resistance.
I spent most of my time at the archives with a single box of business records covering the period leading up to and during arbitration at the bookstore. Legal documents and evidence gathered for the case read like a messy divorce or custody battle. On September 12, 1982, two of the store’s co-founders, Alice Molloy and Carol Wilson, locked the other workers out. Wilson was an active member of the collective at the time. Molloy was not. When Pagano arrived for work that day, she found her keys didn’t work. A note on the door said that Molloy and Wilson were closing the store until further notice and the other workers would receive severance pay. The note began: “This collective is not a collective, it is a collection of women completely at odds with each other to the extent that the meetings are emotional battery; there is hardly any time to actually think about the bookstore; and no one in the collective is getting what she needs.”
Meeting notes from the weeks leading up to the lockout suggest that conflicting needs were at the heart of conflicts that broke the group’s consensus. One of their final arguments surrounded Keiko Kubo’s impending maternity leave. Carol Wilson and Natalie Lando, the two older members of the group, wanted to take on additional work and cover Kubo’s hours while she was on leave. They needed the extra income and argued that fewer people doing the work would be more efficient. Darlene Pagano, Elizabeth Summers, Keiko Kubo, and Jesse Meredith — all younger — disagreed. Everyone was having a hard time making it financially, and many had outside work. They worried about the store being short-staffed during the busy holiday season, and about Wilson and Lando working too many hours and burning out. Instead, they wanted to hire a new full-time collective member, someone of color so that while Kubo was out, Summers wouldn’t be the only one on staff. While Wilson shared concerns for Summers, she said there were other concerns as well, namely hers and Lando’s. She pointed out that older women had a harder time getting additional work. She also thought there wasn’t enough time to hire and even if they could, training someone new during the busy season would be difficult.
It wasn’t the first time the group had split along generational lines. Pagano, Summers, Kubo, and Meredith first confronted Lando and Wilson in January 1981 over power imbalances within the collective. The four drafted a work-related principles of unity statement demanding respect as workers, skill and information sharing, and that no collective member take on the role of parent, boss, or teacher. Later that same year, the group split again, this time along racial lines. Kubo and Summers raised issues including racist customer behavior and attendance at the second national Women in Print conference in Washington, DC. Hogan reports that the conversation first surrounded who should have the privilege of attending the conference. Kubo pointed out that this privilege would amount to a great deal of emotional labor should she or Summers attend, and suggested that white collective members only wanted them there to avoid appearing as less than diverse at the conference. Over the course of the fall, Pagano and Meredith would describe how they became allies to Kubo and Summers. They encouraged Lando and Wilson to join them, and their suggestions from a letter written in December 1981 are startlingly similar to any number of contemporary calls for white literary allyship. Pagano and Meredith told the two older white women they should read and display more writing by people of color in the store, read about the Civil Rights movement, and do antiracist work with other white women.
Wilson and Lando responded defensively, perhaps not surprising given their long history in gay liberation social milieus deeply influenced by the Civil Rights movement and Black Power. Telling this story as a moment of successful racial consciousness-raising for the two younger white women requires ignoring any number of things, including Hogan’s own narration of the store’s beginnings as a “strategically multiracial organization” that already prioritized books by women of color. The bookstore emerged in loose partnership with the Women’s Press Collective, which focused on publishing writing by the working class, lesbians, and women of color. Both organizations grew directly out of collective lesbian households that often doubled as organizational sites, hosting meetings ranging from welfare rights and prison organizing to the Lesbian Mothers Union started by black lesbian organizer Pat Norman. When Judy Grahn and her then lover Wendy Cadden started Women’s Press Collective, they were living together in a house owned by the stable trio of Wilson, Lando, and Alice Molloy. Lovers in various configurations over the years, the trio had raised Lando’s son together. The house was in Molloy’s name, as was the bookstore, a central fact in what would become a legal battleground over the store.
In 1981, the group that started the bookstore was outnumbered. They also had the most experience and clearly carried a sense of ownership over what first began as a roving book distribution business run out of the trunk of Carol Wilson’s car. A statement by the locked-out four linked racial tension directly with this imbalance of power. Some of the worst moments, such as when Wilson and Lando insisted the two younger white women were being manipulated by their white guilt, seem inextricable from the two older women’s struggle to regain some kind of majority. Nearly every aspect of the store was locked in generational disputes. The older women were staunchly separatist, and resisted the younger four’s desire to host some events which would be open to anyone interested, including men, or only for more particular groups (disabled women, women of color, parents). Pagano, Summers, Kubo, and Meredith wrote that Wilson and Lando hoarded power like bosses, with ruinous effect on financial decision-making. The group regularly failed to reach consensus on basic operational processes. Covering vacations and work shifts was an ongoing source of irritation. Wilson’s notes from a 1981 meeting register this frustration: “Jesse had another fit about lack of substitute policy.” After the lockout when the store was ordered to reopen, a receiver’s report showed dangerously high inventory. Apparently the group couldn’t agree on how to cull books for return to publishers, nor on who should do the work. High inventory limited cash flow, a significant problem given their high expenses, the largest being salaries for six paid collective members.
This was Molloy’s point as well. A flurry of statements by both groups following the lockout included an open letter to the bookstore community where she wrote, “I have always told new collective members that the power inherent in ownership would not be invoked except in drastic circumstances. I saw the current economic and spiritual threat as such a circumstance.” To the locked-out four, this represented a kind of expropriation of what belonged to the collective.
They also wanted their jobs back. Prior to 1976, the store was run on a volunteer basis, but when Molloy locked the four out in 1982, they weren’t only collective members. They were employees. Kubo’s situation was especially perilous, close to giving birth and unsure if her health insurance coverage would continue (she paid the premium herself to insure it would be). Arbitration and receivership focused almost exclusively on this question — was Molloy the owner? Or was the store, even with Molloy’s name on all the paperwork, a collective that belonged to itself, despite never incorporating as one? Group conversations about doing so had, like all else, failed to reach consensus. Wilson said that she couldn’t see the group incorporating until the “two caucuses feel safe enough to dissolve themselves.” Later the locked-out four would point out the older two had “formed a caucus long before we formed our support group.”
Language used by the group to describe their various formations — caucus, support group — suggest political or even therapeutic goals and yet the conflict surrounded, in the end, a business with gross sales over $250,000 operating without a budget or financial analysis. All six relied on the store for their livelihood. Nowhere was the irresolvable contradiction between revolutionary goals and capitalism more clear. The arbitration decision contained this contradiction neatly, concluding that A Woman’s Place was “a political business formed for the benefit of the women’s community, the essence of which is decision-making by unanimous agreement,” and that irremediable differences between the two groups made it impossible for them to work in partnership. The older women were ordered to cease their association with the business, the younger four to act as interim managers for a maximum of two years after which they were required to rotate out of the collective.
If the younger women won their jobs back, they lost the community. Many were angered the case had been taken to court. Others found it progressive that the arbitration panel was comprised of three feminist activists. Molloy, Wilson, and Lando would open a new location soon after, Mama Bears, which operated on Telegraph Avenue as a bookstore, gallery, event space, and cafe until 2003. Their first major event in 1983, “a day of celebration of North American Indian women,” included Paula Gunn Allen, who regularly hosted “gynosophic gatherings” on Sunday mornings and taught classes on spirituality; Judy Grahn led poetry workshops and read almost every month along with Pat Parker and others from the Women’s Press Collective days. Mama Bears rejected collective management structures. In a 1989 interview, Molloy claimed the “capitalist mode” helped the women’s community and said: “we’re entrepreneurs, not bureaucrats. And we probably make less profit than the ‘non-profit’ stores do.” If this was a dig at A Woman’s Place, which incorporated as a not-for-profit immediately after arbitration ended, it wasn’t true. The beleaguered store closed in 1989. Carol Seajay reported that “post-arbitration collectives were plagued with high staff turnover, inexperience, financial problems, and a sorely divided customer base […] two years ago sales dwindled to the point where salaries could not longer be paid and a volunteer collective was formed.” The locked-out four would have rotated out by then. There’s hardly any mention of the store in the feminist press following arbitration. Pagano went on to work at Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley and later Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco. It’s unclear what Kubo, Summers, and Meredith did after leaving.
There seems to have been little contradiction for Mama Bears between a capitalist mode and lesbian antiracism. Their regular newsletter reads much like the Feminist Bookstores Newsletter, including diverse book and section lists. While most photos in the event schedule picture white faces, there are also many women of color and articles on black lesbian literature. With a new focus on recovery and providing a space for socializing outside of bars, events at Mama Bears were alcohol free. Events also remained women only until their closure in 2003, but this, too, seems not to have stopped the store from exhibiting all the hallmarks of Hogan’s lesbian antiracism. In the ’90s, the urgency of debates around separatism had faded, in part because the movements behind those debates had also faded, variously destroyed by the FBI and CIA, repression and Reagonomics. Where feminist bookstores had once been connected to wider movements, they were now connected mostly to each other, feminist publishers, distributors, and other business ventures. The latter were thriving. Advertisements in the Mama Bears newsletter for women-owned businesses included those for lawyers, plumbers, electricians, therapists, veterinarians, house cleaners, realtors, dog trainers, fitness centers, acupuncturists, and tax preparation.
Some readers may find it perplexing to arrive at the last chapter of The Feminist Bookstore Movement, after countless stories of racial consciousness-raising, and encounter Dawn Lundy Martin, then editorial assistant for the Feminist Bookstores Newsletter, and Matt Richardson of Kitchen Table Press describing the 1990s feminist bookstore and publishing community as mostly white, mostly older. If feminist bookstores were sites of lesbian antiracist accountability, why did they remain so white? If they represent generational continuity, why weren’t there more young people? I suspect Hogan’s answer might focus on the ways that individual participants in these organizations were changed in the process, and why this matters, even if structural change is slow. Still, what do we do with the fact that calls for white feminist literary allyship have been going out for 30 years or longer, despite Hogan’s overwhelming evidence that feminist publishers, bookstores, and readers supported literature written by women of color?
Many questions about the conflict at A Woman’s Place remain open, and speak to these contradictions. Was Elizabeth Summers a diversity hire as she suggests in her 1980 application for employment? If so, how did A Woman’s Place go from being “a strategically multiracial organization” to one that needed to hire a black woman nine years later? If Lando and Wilson were committed to a women-only space, why did they agree to hire Summers in the first place when her application made clear she wasn’t a separatist, that as a black woman she couldn’t afford to be? Why was Alice Molloy, a self-described anarchist feminist, so convinced that she and only she could take ultimate responsibility for A Woman’s Place? Why was it not structured as a worker-owned cooperative from the beginning, at a time when co-cops were on the rise?
Hogan’s work demonstrates that for as long as there has been racism in mostly white feminist communities, so too the fight against it. In other cities, similar conflicts produced lasting change. Hogan’s embeddedness within those communities sometimes limits her project. In the epilogue, she discusses her short stint as co-manager of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore before it closed. Elsewhere she describes the store’s transformation following a boycott in the late ’80s by the Toronto Black Women’s Collective after one of their members experienced racism as part of the bookstore collective. Significant changes followed, so much so that the Wikipedia entry says the store was run and staffed primarily by women of color. How this came to be remains unclear. In an interview, Sharon Fernandez, the one woman of color on staff at the store during the boycott, urges Hogan not to “play up this kind of struggle.” Hogan reassures readers she’s not “digging for dirt” and while there are hints at what happened (someone references painful events around hiring, Fernandez says she “stood up to” the Black Women’s Collective) not much else is told about the specific difficulties of a moment that must have been enormously difficult. What the problems were, how the group moved through them, what broke, who left, who stayed — some dirt is necessary for these stories to operate as Hogan intended, a framework for understanding present connections with a radical feminist past.
In the dirt of arbitration files and meeting notes, underlining and crossing out, race touches class touches opposing politics touches age touches idiosyncratic personalities touches sexuality touches labor. Every conflict over cultural visibility and representation tunnels to those for resources and material survival. At A Woman’s Place, this played out vividly in relation to income, health insurance, job security. Racial tensions were inseparable from working conditions or overlapped with generational fights for the power to set those conditions. These are cautionary tales for any feminism that would still locate the solution to gender and racial oppression within the realm of work, leaning in, ethical capitalism, or equal representation of women in legislative and political systems. They remind us, too, that these are the locations where oppression gets reproduced: the workplace, the legal system, the government. Even when run by women. Until these locations are utterly transformed — for everyone who must sell their labor to survive — they will continue to be sites of struggle, especially for women; for all whose gender does not conform; for black, brown, and poor people; and thus there remains much to learn from how these struggles have unfolded in the past.
Stephanie Young is a poet whose books include Ursula or University, Picture Palace, and Telling the Future Off. She edited the anthology Bay Poetics and is a member of the Krupskaya small press publishing collective.