Why We Still Need Women’s Bookstores

There’s something comfortable and familiar about chain bookstores, like Borders and Barnes & Noble: The vanilla latte always tastes the same, the photography books are always near the fashion books, and there are always comfy chairs. I’ve probably spent thousands of dollars at chain bookstores and I spent many a weekend during my high school years at their poetry nights.

But the bookstore most dear to my heart is a tiny little place called Bloodroot, half vegetarian restaurant and half feminist bookstore. My brother-in-law took me to Bloodroot when I was a teenager and it became a part of my identity. I came of age in the late ’90s and early aughties, when Britney Spears slithered around onstage and suburban kids wore Playboy bunny T-shirts to school, which, don’t get me wrong, is all enjoyable, yet nauseating after a while.

Luckily, the bookstore at Bloodroot proved to be a godsend for the feminists and freaks and gay kids who were trapped in the suburbs until graduation. We could have something we didn’t have anywhere else: a community.That’s why it absolutely devastates me that the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, one of less than half a dozen feminist bookstores in Canada, is in dire financial straights. Despite the fact it supplies nearly all the women’s studies textbooks for a nearby university, it is having difficulty staying afloat. The 36-year-old shop, which operates as a non-profit organization, needs roughly $120,000 to operate for the next year or else it may close.

But according to women’s rights activists who spoke to the Canadian Press, it isn’t a declining interest in women’s rights issues that’s to blame. A Canadian chain store called Chapters apparently dominates much of the market, which, surely combined with Amazon.com, means smaller bookstores aren’t the destinations they used to be. Small bookstores—and feminist bookstores are all small bookstores—just can’t afford to sell their books at deep discounts.

It’s not just the Toronto Women’s Bookstore that’s in trouble. Recently, the store tweeted that in 1994, there were 125 women’s bookstores worldwide, while now there are only 21. Considering the rise of internet retail, that’s not surprising. But for women like me—or men, or queers, or whoever is looking to read books about gender and sexuality studies—that loss of community is startling. All the blogs and online communities in the world can’t compare with the value of a physical space that hosts feminist and LGBT speakers, shows documentaries you’ll never see at the local theater, or just plain exposes people to new ideas. One shelf at Barnes & Noble just isn’t cutting it, either.

If women’s bookstores are at all something you care about, I urge you to check out this list of feminist book stores on LitWomen.org. It was last updated in September 2004, so it’s not up to date at all, but it’s worth a look to see which bookstores could be in your area. I’d highly recommend poking around Bloodroot’s website here—they have earned a Zagat Award of Distinction and post many of their recipes online.

The irony of this whole feminist bookstore saga is that the Toronto Women’s Bookstore survived a firebombing in 1992, which was intended for the abortion clinic located downstairs. How sad is it that a bookstore that survived a bombing might fade out slowly and die? [Canadian Press]

(P.S. Yes, I have seen the “Feminist Bookstore” skits by Thundeant, a comedy duo composed of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and “SNL”‘s Fred Armisen. And yes, I think they’re funny.)