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Feminist bookstores in Canada

by May Lui | July 23, 2007

history

Most women’s bookstores began in the 1970s as volunteer or collectively run enterprises. Women – mostly white, mostly middle-class – wanted space for the feminism that was changing their lives, and more and more women like them were getting their books published. The movement became linked by women’s bookstores across Canada and the United States.

At its peak, there were over 150 women’s bookstores in North America.

From the mid-1980s on, the face of the women’s movement changed. Women’s bookstores responded. Women of colour, lesbians, low-income women, immigrant women, disabled women and other groups of marginalized women began to demand space in the feminist movement – and in women’s bookstores.

Sometimes they succeeded.

There isn’t a great deal of recorded history from those times, because, like all political movements pre-Internet, women were out doing the work; struggling and, well, changing the world. Who has time to bang out history on a wheezy electric Smith Corona typewriter while trying to keep a business going, and keeping in touch and active with other feminists?

Kristen A. Hogan has written an excellent a review of the history of feminist bookstores called “Defining Our Own Context: the past and future of feminist bookstores.” She is one of the co-managers at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. She is from Texas, and her article is positioned from an American perspective:

Starting in the 1970's, feminist bookstores opened in North America in conjunction with the burgeoning Women in Print movement that included women's presses, women's publishers, and women's bookstores – all promoting and sharing the words of women writers.

Nancy Lee Marquis, one of the founders of Austin’s feminist bookstore: “We visited Oakland and other women's centers and saw that a store could help overcome isolation and create a new culture.”

The landscape of feminist publishing and book-selling has certainly changed. We have witnessed the closing of nearly three quarters of the North American feminist bookstores, and those of us who are lucky enough to live near a feminist bookstore are now witnessing the profound changes many of those spaces are making in order to sustain and encourage communities of women.

These days, feminist bookstores remain valuable not only for their book and sideline stock (much of which may never be duplicated by the big chains), but also for their innovative shapes and activism through which women continue to define our own context.

This history has its roots in counter-culture – women’s bookstores were well-known for selling self-published works, something that the zine print movement would recognize, and that blogging and podcasting reproduces as well: free or very inexpensive dissemination of non-mainstream ideas, finding community and continuing the revolution against the powers that be, whether they be patriarchy, capitalism, racism, poverty, globalization or all at once.

present

Ten years ago, there were a dozen women’s bookstores across Canada. Now there are four.

An amazing organization called the Feminist Bookstore Network used to bring everyone together. It was based in the U.S. and produced a catalogue every year, with each bookstore's logo and information, and a resource in the back of all the feminist bookstores across Canada and the U.S. The only thing left of the FBN is website last updated in September of 2004. Still, it remains important and, for now, it's the last of the history of feminist bookstores in North America.

There were 11 bookstores mentioned that year. The list does not include:

  • Orlando Books (Edmonton),
  • L’Androgyne (Montreal) or,
  • Lavender Rose Booksellers (Winnipeg).

They all closed before 2004. Bookstores that have closed since then are:

  • A Woman’s Place (Calgary),
  • Women’s Bookstop (Hamilton),
  • Womensline Books (London, Ontario),
  • Elm Tree Books and Things (Sudbury) and,
  • Spiritworks (Saskatoon).

I found out they’re closed because I called them. Hearing number disconnected, ringing through to nowhere, reassigned to individuals, it was a depressing exercise.

So this leaves four women’s bookstores in Canada:

  • Toronto Women’s Bookstore (Toronto),
  • Mother Tongue books-femmes de parole (Ottawa),
  • The Northern Women’s Bookstore (Thunder Bay) and,
  • Women in Print (Vancouver).

Venus Envy (Halifax and Ottawa), and Good For Her (Toronto) are still open and doing very well. However, they may not be considered women’s bookstores, given their specialties in sex toys and sexuality. A similar statement could be made about Little Sister’s (Vancouver) and Wonderworks (Toronto), who specialize in gay/lesbian books and spirituality respectively, while still stocking many classic feminist books.

So Canadian women’s bookstores have gone from over a dozen down to four in less than ten years. Staying viable and surviving has never been more challenging – or more important. In these times of globalization and the concentration of power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations, independent bookstores and publishers have very significant roles to play in how we get information, and what information is out there for us to get.

Over the years, different bookstores have tried many different ways to bring more money into the business. Successes have included:

  • university and college course book sales,
  • selling books at conferences and academic lectures, and
  • institutional sales to schools and libraries.

Women’s bookstores have two main challenges that sometimes seem at odds.

One. The urgent need of the business to stay alive and thriving.

Two. The needs of the community:

  • offering free events,
  • author readings with local and emerging writers,
  • being a women's and progressive community centre with an up-to-date job board,
  • announcements about rallies, protests, apartments to rent and share,
  • flyers for upcoming events, and
  • tickets for sale for community fundraisers and music.

With the influx of the large online bookseller-that’s-not-just-a-bookseller, as well as the Canadian-made Chapters-Indigo incursion, feminist and other specialty and progressive bookstores have seen much of their historical customer base erode, never to return. Customers now demand books at 30% to 50% off, not understanding that the chains sell such titles as “loss leaders” – books that are meant to get you into the store, where you will hopefully purchase more books and other stuff at non-discounted prices.

Where it can be, he answer always is, support your local independent feminist bookstore!

further reading
  • Feminist Revolution in Literacy: Women’s Bookstores in the United States, by JUNE ONOSAKA, Routledge | 2006

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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