freedom of expression

A page from Where Have All the Feminist Bookstores Gone?. Courtesy of Elvis B.

In the 1990s there were between 120 to 150 feminist bookstores across North America and after the turn of the century they had all but vanished (Mercurio, 2007; Schwartz, 2012). Feminist bookstores were a fixture and a product of the women’s movement of the 1970s, a space where women writers and readers could comfortably and safely explore feminism, “and as a way for feminist communities to connect in a pre-internet age” (Schwartz, 2012; Uprichard 2018). Lucy Uprichard reminds us that “the affinity between print and feminism stretches back to the earliest days of the movement, but feminist bookstores are very much a product of the second wave” (2018). Why have these bookstores been added to the critically endangered list? And is it possible for them to exist again in today’s sociocultural landscape? Do we still have a need for these feminist spaces with flourishing online communities? I argue that we do in fact need feminist bookstores and libraries as a necessary space for community and discussion; by analyzing their history and by looking at two modern examples, Vancouver’s failed Women’s Library and Montréal’s successful L’Euguélionne, we can better understand the direction these feminist spaces can take in order to prosper.

It’s no coincidence that feminist bookstores were in their prime at the peak of second wave feminism and that their fall came with the rise of the third wave. Sady Doyle breaks down the waves of feminism in her article for Elle, “It’s Not (All) the Second Wave’s Fault.” Doyle categorizes second wave feminism as the activism of the 1960s and 70s “which encompassed the most widely known feminist causes: Workplace parity, abortion and birth control access, and an end to sexual violence” (2018). These second wavers were also seen as bra-burning, man-hating, shrill and militant mothers and grandmothers by their third wave daughters (Doyle, 2018). The third wave began in the 1990s and spanned into the early 2000s, and is “known for sex-positivity, an increased focus on pop culture, and reclaiming ‘girliness’ and femme gender presentation” (Doyle, 2018). Martha Rampton of Pacific University adds that one of the main qualities of the third wave is its need to destabilize pre-established concepts including “‘universal womanhood,’ body, gender, sexuality and heteronormativity” that “its transversal politics means that differences such as those of ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, etc. are celebrated and recognized as dynamic, situational, and provisional” (2015). The third wave is a “rejection of communal, standardized objectives. The third wave does not acknowledge a collective ‘movement’ and does not define itself as a group with common grievances” (Rampton, 2015). Feminist bookstores were a communal space for women to gather, and these stores acted as a place for the community to define itself, through events and the literature and the ideas they hosted. The second wave isn’t without its problems (the rigidity in its ideologies, racism, and belief in a “universal” womanhood) but the third wave feminists rejected their foremothers and abandoned many of the structures they had created, such as the feminist bookstore and library.

There is the idea that the demise of women’s bookstores can “be attributed to the rise of e-readers and online stores” (Schwartz, 2012). Through the early 2000s the idea of the e-book revolution made it feel as though print was on its last legs and would be dead by 2020. Although, BookNet proves year after year e-book sales have plateaued at just under 20% of the market in Canada. Rather than e-readers being the explanation for the demise of feminist bookstores, online retailers would seem to be a more legitimate culprit, plus the shift in ideologies between the waves. Gina Mercurio, owner of People Called Women, the only feminist bookstore in Ohio, laments that online retailers lack a safe space for marginalized women, that doesn’t allow women to connect with other like-minded women in their communities, that “they do not operate on an ethic committed to creating an anti-racist, anti-classist, pro-choice, pro-lesbian, anti-woman-hating culture” (2007). However, there is still a lack of physical space for feminists to gather to openly and comfortably engage with the discourse.

Times have changed and with the Trump Presidency the handful of feminist bookstores in the U.S. have seen a bump in sales in 2017, which is hopeful for the feminist bookstore revival (Kirch, 2018). Atlanta’s Charis Books & More has seen its monthly feminist event group quadruple in size since the 2016 election to attract about 90 people (Kirch, 2018). With the #MeToo movement and a flaming misogynist Cheeto sitting in the Oval Office down south, Canada has also felt the need for more feminist literary spaces. There are two examples of this, one from each coast, and one which was successful and one which failed miserably amidst a barrage of controversy. The Vancouver Women’s Library began with apparently good intentions, Bec Wonders, one of the library’s founders, claimed it as a revitalization of women’s spaces and a place where women can facilitate communication (Lau, 2017). In an interview with the Georgia Straight, Wonders admits that the library is lacking in books by trans women and sex worker authors but that she hopes to build this list, and become a site of engagement and not just a static archive (Lau, 2017).

On February 3rd, 2017, opening night of the library, protesters arrived at the event, calling for the removal of 21 titles that were “written by non-trans women and non-sex workers that dehumanize, speak over, and advocate harm,” and for the library to include a more diverse collection that better represents all women’s experiences (Carter, 2017). As we are in the fourth wave of feminism, a more progressive intersectional feminism, we need feminist spaces that recognize the identity, rights and needs of trans women and while Bec Wonders admits that she disagrees with the ideas in these controversial texts she still believes that the texts are relevant and wants to encourage critical readership at the library (Carter, 2017). However, Brenna Bezanson, communications coordinator for the Vancouver sex-worker advocacy organization Pace, makes the point that while it is acceptable to have controversial literature in a library that represents a philosophy, you need to contextualize these books because they can be dangerous to already marginalized people (Carter, 2017).

The most vehement response denouncing the Vancouver Women’s Library comes from Casey Stepaniuk, also known as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, a prominent queer Canadian book blogger. Stepaniuk calls out one of the library’s organizers as a well known TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) and SWERF (sex worker exclusionary radical feminist), connecting these ideologies to a faction of the second wave who believe “trans women are not women and who do not support the rights of sex workers” (2017). Stepaniuk also calls out the controversial books and authors who’s work she states is “transmisogynist and full of anti-sex work dogma,” and that by including these titles in the library that they are promoting hate speech, that these harmful ideas outweigh their use for research (2017). What the Vancouver Women’s Library failed to do was properly label and contextualize these books, and failed to have a conversation about why these books were once important and why many of the ideas within them are now rejected within the feminist community. While the library did seemingly attempt to make amends and correct their mistakes they never outright apologized and eventually succumbed to financial debt and closed its doors as of August 1st, 2018. This could also be in part to a lack of community around the shunned establishment, as it never felt safe for all women, but this is speculation.

On the other side of the country in Montréal is a different story of success at L’Euguélionne, one of the first feminist bookstores to open in the last 15 years in North America (Keating, 2018). This non-profit is run by “a collective of six people with backgrounds in literature literature and women’s studies” and carries over 5,000 new and used French and English books and zines on consignment (Carter, 2017; Keating, 2018). L’Euguélionne addresses controversial texts by opening a dialogue instead of separating these books out, and as one of the co-founders Stéphanie Dufresne says “if there’s a book whose authors claim is feminist, and for some reason we don’t agree with that form [of feminism], we still think it’s interesting to have it here so that some debate or discussion can happen around those ideas” (Carter, 2017). For example, when L’Euguélionne received a donation of 1970s lesbian magazines with transphobic writing they decided to keep them and added page markers identifying the content and the reason for having it on display (Carter, 2017). This magazine has historical value, and while this transphobic writing isn’t accepted today, this magazine was still important to lesbian culture at the time (Carter, 2017).

L’Euguélionne has done a better job of creating a community, where they host events and workshops on a range of topics from what it means to be queer, non-binary and gender fluid to eating disorders (Keating, 2018). In the case of eating disorders, where a sensitive event could have gone sideways, L’Euguélionne handled it with grace as they invited authors who had written on their experiences with the disease to talk at a roundtable and avoided victim narratives by openly talking about first-hand experiences (Keating, 2018). “For sensitive and potentially divisive topics, [such as these], the collective elects a ‘mood watcher’ who monitors the atmosphere and intervenes to name dynamics she observes” (Keating, 2018). In today’s current political climate people are searching for communities of support, and bookstores like L’Euguélionne create a safe space for discussion, Stéphanie Dufresne also believes that with the newly reinvigorated interest in feminism there is also an interest for curated feminist spaces. This is a new take on an old idea, a revival of a past feminist fixture that has been updated to fit the more inclusive version of feminism we have today.

Feminism is always evolving and changing, even now we’re in the fourth wave that focuses on digital literacy and has an emphasis on intersectionality (Doyle, 2018). Sady Doyle makes the point that feminism is an intellectual tradition, and while other intellectual histories get to “be ugly and contentious, as full of ideas to reject as they are full of inspiration, but they are also taught in schools, sold in bookstores, and shown on PBS in a way that encourages young people to view the past as a resource,” feminism does not have the luxury. Bec Wonders makes a similar point in her interview with Quill & Quire, commenting on how we still are still learning about Freud, Aristotle, and Foucault but these men and their old ideas are never criticized with the same language and vigour as contemporary feminists critique their foremothers (Carter, 2017). Women who wrote about rape and male violence 50 years ago are now deemed outdated and irrelevant, where instead we should be engaging in critical readership and look for what is valuable in these texts and unpack what’s troubling (Carter, 2017). In the case of Casey Stepaniuk’s rejection of the Vancouver Women’s Library, there is a sense of asking women “to devour their predecessors in order to feel empowered and unique,” and by doing so feminist culture and narratives are rendered invisible when we should actually be critically engaging with them (Doyle, 2018). This is one of the many reasons feminist bookstores and libraries are needed––for this critical engagement with texts from across movements. We can look to the past at how gender segregation was once crucial for earlier feminist movements, but look to the future with a contemporary approach that considers “oppressions that are more far-reaching than gender alone” (Uprichard, 2018). Feminist print culture is thriving, and the original spirit of the second wave feminists still exists through this. We are able to create a diverse, flourishing network of intersectional feminist voices and we need physical spaces for these voices to congregate like feminist bookstores. Maybe one day Vancouver can have a bookstore like L’Euguélionne, a feminist can hope.

 

 

Works Cited

Booknet Canada. “The State of Digital Publishing in Canada 2017.” BNC Research, May 2018. Accessed December 03, 2018. https://www.booknetcanada.ca/state-of-digital-publishing

Carter, Sue. “Women’s libraries and bookstores deal with historic but problematic second-wave feminism.” Quill & Quire, April 17, 2017. Accessed December 03, 2018. https://quillandquire.com/omni/womens-libraries-and-bookstores-deal-with-historic-but-problematic-second-wave-feminism/

 

Doyle, Sady. “It’s Not (All) the Second Wave’s Fault.” Elle, January 22, 2018.  Accessed December 03, 2018. https://www.elle.com/culture/a15841808/second-wave-feminism-sexual-harassment-generational-divide/

 

Keating, Cecilia. “The Reinvention of the feminist bookstore.” LiisBeth: Field Notes for Feminists in Business, February 28, 2018. Accessed December 03, 2018. https://www.liisbeth.com/2018/02/28/reinvention-feminist-bookstore/

 

Kirch, Claire. “Trump Presidency Reinvigorates Feminist Bookstores.” Publishers Weekly, March 09, 2018. Accessed December 03, 2018.

https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/76289-trump-presidency-reinvigorates-feminist-bookstores.html

 

Lau, Lucy. “Feminist-minded Vancouver Women’s Library aims to engage self-identifying ladies through literature.” The Georgia Straight, February 01, 2017. Accessed December 03, 2018. https://www.straight.com/arts/863156/feminist-minded-vancouver-womens-library-aims-engage-self-identifying-ladies-through

 

Mercurio, Gina. “Feminist Bookstores: Where Women’s Lives Matter.” Interviewed by Karla Mantilla. Off Our Backs 37, no. 2/3 (2007): 48-50. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/stable/20838818.

 

Rampton, Martha, “Four Waves of Feminism.” Pacific University Oregon, October 25, 2015. Accessed December 03, 2018. https://www.pacificu.edu/about/media/four-waves-feminism

 

Schwartz, Andi. “The demise of women’s bookstores.” Xtra, July 18, 2012. Accessed December 03, 2018.  https://www.dailyxtra.com/the-demise-of-womens-bookstores-32072
Stepaniuk, Casey. “This Is a Call-Out Post for the Transmisogynist and Anti-Sex Work Vancouver Women’s Library.” Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, March 08, 2017. Accessed December 03, 2018. https://caseythecanadianlesbrarian.com/2017/03/08/this-is-a-call-out-post-for-the-transmisogynist-and-anti-sex-work-vancouver-womens-library/

 

Uprichard, Lucy. “How Feminist Bookstores Changed History.” Broadly, September 25, 2018. Accessed December 03, 2018.

https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/mbw7j3/feminist-bookstores-women-activism-history