Panelists at the American Booksellers Association’s recent Winter Institute education session “Yes She Can: Programs and Partnerships to Empower Women” discussed programs that elevate the voices of female/female-identifying authors as well as efforts that feature women business owners and women-run businesses.
The panel was moderated by Mary Laura Philpott of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, and featured panelists Casey Coonerty Protti of Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, California; Sarah Hollenbeck of Women & Children First in Chicago, Illinois; and Janet Webster Jones of Source Booksellers in Detroit, Michigan.
Women & Children First
“Again and again, I hear the phrase ‘now more than ever,’” Hollenbeck said, “that ‘now more than ever’ we need to showcase women’s voices and the voices of marginalized people. I want to honor the fact that feminist bookstores and feminist places have been showcasing women’s voices and marginalized voices for decades. We’ve been doing that work since 1979, alongside all of our sister stores.”
Hollenbeck added that in the last year, Women & Children First has held more than 150 events, with only two featuring white cisgender men. “That’s just who we are,” she said. “That’s our identity.”
One of the ways Women & Children First draws in other women-focused organizations is by doing cross-promotional work with the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for Women and the Chicago Abortion Fund, among other organizations, Hollenbeck said. She added that a group of young girls in her community started an effort called Bake Sale for Justice, which raises money outside of Women & Children First for different causes once a month. During an event with Chelsea Clinton last October, the group raised $2,500 for RAINN.
Hollenbeck also noted that after being interviewed by local college students about what it’s like to own a feminist bookstore, she got to talking with them about women-owned businesses in the area. It occurred to the students to have a directory, “kind of like a women’s Yelp,” she said. The students went home and created Bossy Chicago, an online directory highlighting women-owned businesses and goods and services in the Chicago area.
“It’s expanding more and more, and they don’t advertise at all yet because they’re young and learning, but still, without any advertising, I believe they get around 1,000 hits a month,” Hollenbeck said. “It’s really exciting that this came organically out of a conversation with women.”
Bookshop Santa Cruz
Bookshop Santa Cruz wanted to respond to what was going on in the world and to people’s feelings about it by implementing a program that would bring everyone together as a community, said Protti. The yearlong “Women’s Voices” program features one book written by a female-identifying author each month to be the focal point of discussions and programming. One month, The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead) was chosen; in addition to hosting a discussion about the book, Bookshop Santa Cruz asked prominent feminists of all ages to recommend what they would want a feminist from a different generation to read in order to better understand their approach to feminism. The store also organized a display out of quotes given by prominent members of the community.
“We committed ourselves as a store,” Protti said, noting that the store utilized its staff to come up with ideas for topics, programming, displays, and more each month. “We had a tremendous reaction from the community and from people following the store, and it was very easy to communicate it to publishers as well, who then would send us authors related to what we were doing. It was a win-win all around and it was a great focal point for the year.”
Bookshop Santa Cruz also led the establishment of the Alliance for Women Entrepreneurs, an organization devoted to raising the profile of women-led businesses in Downtown Santa Cruz.
“Our July Women’s Voices campaign was women and entrepreneurship,” Protti said, “and we came to this realization that when people think of business owners in Santa Cruz, even though we’re a more progressive university town, they think of old white men. And when you look at our downtown, most of us are women business owners or managers.”
To get the message out, Protti said the Alliance decided to run a campaign similar to Humans of New York that featured headshots of the women in the alliance, captioned with their personal stories of entrepreneurship. These were made into posters, which were put up in each of their businesses. To run the campaign, the Alliance hired a young photographer looking to raise her profile, and also requested additional funding through grants from the City of Santa Cruz and the Downtown Association of Santa Cruz. They also ran a passport campaign that challenged customers to visit each store in the Alliance in order to be entered in a raffle.
“We had just dozens and dozens of people go to the stores, and they would say, ‘Oh, I go to this store all the time and I didn’t realized it was women-owned,’ or ‘This woman is here for me if I’m walking down the street and I feel unsafe and need to go somewhere,’” said Protti. “It created this network and this understanding in our community that was really powerful.”
Source Booksellers, which is celebrating 30 years in business, Jones said, has five major categories on its shelves: history and culture; health and wellbeing; books by and about women; metaphysical, spiritual, new age; and the arts. “They are all primarily non-fiction,” Jones said, “So, we’re a boutique bookstore. We don’t have everything and we try to curate very carefully.”
Jones said that among the “greatest hits” for women-focused titles at Source Booksellers are Michelle Obama’s Becoming (Crown) and Sister Pie: The Recipes and Stories of a Big-Hearted Bakery in Detroit by Lisa Ludwinski (Lorena Jones), about a young woman who started a bakery on Detroit’s east side, which was once a wealthy area but is now in a state of decay. “We followed her around because she asked us to do books for her events,” Jones said. “People always ask her, ‘Are you going to have a place in another suburb?’ and she says, ‘No, we’re not moving.’”
“She is very strong in her feminist direction,” Jones added, “and the Sister Pie book is selling out and selling out. We had an event at a library and we had two cases of the books and thought that would be enough. People were buying them in triplicates and we thought, oh my god, what are we going to do? That’s been a big seller for us.” Mona Hanna-Attisha’s book, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City (One World), is also popular, she said.
Since its founding, Source Booksellers has had three incarnations, explained Jones: first as a vendor at fairs and bazaars, then as part of a collective of women-owned businesses housed in what was once a food co-op, then, after ten years, Source moved to a newly built building across the street.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it,” Jones said about the move. “We didn’t have any money. I didn’t borrow any money or anything to be in business...This is the beginning of our seventh year in that location and we have really grown. We’re really grateful for that.”
The bookstore has had an impact not only in its local community, but in the rest of the country as well, Jones said. After receiving an NEIdeas grant in 2018, media buzz surrounding the store picked up. Jones said that a man from a small town in Ohio visited her store after hearing her speak on the radio. “He and his son showed up on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and he said, ‘I just had to come up here and talk to you and see you because I love what you said on the radio and I heard about your grant,’” she said. “It turns out he’s a guy that works on Appalachian-region issues in Ohio and he’s a deep reader of history. That was one of the nicest things that ever happened to us, and it came as a result of [the grant].”
“More than anything, what I want to do is promote a literary life in Detroit. That’s really my aim,” Jones added. “I mean, I’m not going to be on the scene forever and I don’t need to be because if the bookstore is any worth, it should help to lift the literary life of the city. So that’s what we try to do.”