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What’s killing feminist book stores?

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What’s killing feminist book stores?

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel at a 2008 signing at Women and Children First.

Flickr/Annie Kate

A few weeks ago a reporter friend of mine who grew up in Portland, OR shared an article on Facebook that appeared in the June 22nd edition of the Willamette Week, one of Portland’s weekly alternative newspapers.

The article she shared profiled In Other Words, a shop it described as the West Coast’s “last feminist bookstore,” and came with my friend’s astonishing pull-quote: “There are nine feminist bookstores left in America.”

In Other Words is sliding toward financial collapse. The Women’s Community Education Project, which runs the bookstore, ran $18,743 in the red last year. This month, the store laid off its only two employees. Annual sales are down 73 percent from where they were four years ago.

The number of feminist bookstores nationwide has dropped to nine. In Other Words’ board members acknowledge the store may be headed for closure—and the next-closest bookstore dedicated solely to women’s issues is in Austin, Texas.

In explaining the store’s decline the article referenced a series of snarky, deadpan comedy sketches created by IFC’s Portlandia, filmed at In Other Words.

Shae Healy, the article’s author, writes that “parody is often a barbed compliment…and the truth in the satire may be helping kill the 18-year-old bookstore.”

Healy cites a number of factors that have contributed to In Other Word’s money-troubles, including market forces and the changing relevance of feminism to a new generation of women. But something about the claim that “truth in satire” was a cause of the store’s decline stuck with me. Could there really be only one feminist book store left on the West Coast -- nothing in San Francisco? Or Seattle? -- and only nine left in the whole country? And was this really why?

The name of Portlandia’s fictional bookstore, Women and Women First, seemed too much of a coincidence for anyone who’s been to Chicago’s own feminist bookstore, Women and Children First. The explicitly feminist institution in Andersonville recently celebrated its 31st birthday; Fred Armisen, Portlandia’s co-creator, lived in Chicago for several years in the late ‘80s and ‘90s.

Reading Healy’s story in the Willamette Week made me want to talk to Linda Bubon, who co-owns Women and Children First with business partner Ann Christophersen. What did Bubon think was killing feminist bookstores? And how is her business faring, for that matter? We spoke on the phone in late June.

WBEZ: Have you seen the comedy sketches [about feminist bookstores] that aired on the TV show Portlandia?

Bubon: (Laughing) Yes, I saw one of them. I think the whole sketch is so funny. It’s so totally the opposite of how we operate here. It’s so customer-first here. The idea that you’d lock a customer in and go to lunch or something like that is such a wonderful parody and far-fetched. I don’t think it bears any relationship other than it is really funny.

WBEZ: The thing I found interesting about the Willamette Week article was that it took this tack of, well this is a parody, but it raises the question: Are the things they’re being satirized for actually causing bookstores to go out of business?

Bubon: No, it’s much bigger market forces. I mean, in the ‘80s we had about 60 independent book stores throughout the suburbs and Chicago proper. And were they all great bookstores? No. They certainly weren’t all great bookstores. But so many really great book stores have closed. I go to every American Booksellers Association conference, and you just see the struggles people have had. Some stores have closed because they were bad stores. But way more stores have closed because of market forces, chain store competition and more recently, online competition.

WBEZ: I found it shocking to think that there are only 9 feminist bookstores left in the country. How does that square with your sense of the landscape?

Bubon: It’s true. There were 100 self-described feminist book stores in 1990 and fewer than 10 left now. So roughly 90 percent of those stores have gone away. That’s a shocking and horrible statistic, but we’re also looking at 70 to 80 percent of independent bookstores, period, have closed in that same amount of time. So we’re not so out of line with other kinds of independent bookstores. Some of the finest and most established stores in the country have closed in the last 15 years. Or I guess it’s almost 20 years now.

And at first those closings in the ‘90s were due to the expansion of chain bookstores. If you looked at our business through the ‘90s we had steady growth from the time we opened in ’79 until 1992. And when the chains started moving into the city our sales dropped 14 percent in two years. We really had to make some changes to accommodate that and stay in business, including taking some loans and changing our staffing. We started selling textbooks at area universities as a way of bringing in extra money, we started doing a lot more conferences and out-of-store sales to compensate for the traffic the chains were taking away from us.

So things were back on an even keel by 2000 and in the first 5 years of the new millennium really took hold. Once they stopped selling just books and started into all the appliances and hardware and the millions of other things that they sell, they could begin to use books as a loss leader. That means they offer books for the same price they buy them at or even less. They are often selling books at a 40 percent discount, which is virtually the same as the discount we get from the publishers.

WBEZ: And so how did that affect your business?

Bubon: That has been really difficult to cope with. People still came in and shopped. They were also taking note of books they wanted and went on Amazon and bought them.

WBEZ: Did people tell you that?

Bubon: Oh yeah, unabashedly. I’d have people call and say, “I want to buy 3 copies of this new book and Amazon has it for $18.65.” And I’d say, “I’m sorry, it’s $29.95.” “Oh well. Guess I’ll get it from Amazon unless you can sell it to me for the same price.” You know, no, I can’t. So it really became much more difficult and we watched our sales steadily decline.

Then, I believe it was in 2007, we were looking at our sales decreasing again for another year and my business partner and I sat down night after night with the figures and came to the conclusion that we couldn’t afford both of our salaries if we were to stay in business. And so for 4 years she only worked one day a week and took another full time job at a bookstore software company. And I ran the store with a lot of part time employees. And I think while many of those independent book stores had closed in the 1990s, certainly in the early 2000s we saw a lot more of them go away. People were maybe unable to do what we were able to do: one partner taking a lower salary, working with fewer staff.

WBEZ: How has your business been affected by the economic downturn of the last couple years?

Bubon: The recession kept Ann at her other job and kept us real lean here. We didn’t really drop much in sales, maybe a couple percent a year. It wasn’t a real dire situation, but regardless of what we were doing we weren’t boosting sales.

And then, our 30th anniversary was a couple years ago and we had another big fund raiser and had a lot of press coverage around that. And then we felt a little more economically stable, and last year Ann came back to work on an almost full time basis. We both work 4 days a week now and take an hourly salary, which is somewhat less than what we were making in 2000. We pay ourselves around $20 an hour. Salary-wise it’s a little under $40,000 a year. Probably if I’d gone into teaching I’d be doing a little better. (Laughing) But I wouldn’t be having nearly as much fun.

WBEZ: You mentioned when we spoke on the phone yesterday that the closing of the Borders stores in Chicago has had an impact on your business.

Bubon: I thought our first quarter of the year was pretty disastrously slow but lately I would say the last couple months, and this has to have something with all four Borders stores around us closing, business seems to be picking up.

But you know, back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Costco didn’t sell books. Wal-Mart and K-Mart and Target weren’t book sellers. Through the ‘90s the various avenues for book sales just grew by leaps and bounds. Independent bookstores that made up 30 to 40 percent of the market shrank to 15 percent of the market. And it’s not just because of Barnes and Noble and Borders, and Books-A-Million in the south, or because of Amazon. It’s also because of these other hugely discounting retailers who use books as a loss leader. I remember going to Costco when I was running low on the last Harry Potter book and I was able to buy 50 or 100 copies at Costco for frankly a few percentage points lower than I bought it from Scholastic directly.

WBEZ: And were you able to do that because…

Bubon: Because Costco is using it as a loss leader. You know, I ordered 700 copies from Scholastic. I got as good a discount as they did. But I couldn’t afford to sell it below cost. But because Costco sells a few more things than books (laughing) they could sell it below costs.

WBEZ: You don’t also sell 27-gallon jugs of olive oil?

Bubon: Right. (Laughing) 500-count bottles of Tylenol.

The fact that we can now sell e-books and compete with Barnes and Noble and Amazon with e-books…

WBEZ: Is that a relatively new thing for you?

Bubon: It’s relatively new. It’s since January that we’ve been selling Google e-books on our website. It’s taken a lot of education of the public because they don’t see us as an e-books seller. It’s a very small percentage of our sales, less than 1 percent. But it’s growing. In 2010 we did around $850,000 in total sales. I’m cautiously hopeful.

WBEZ: Do you think the decrease in the number of feminist bookstores nationwide says anything about America’s relationship with feminism or the relevance of feminism, or is it really just about the economic factors we’ve been talking about?

Bubon: I don’t think feminism is any less relevant. But I think it’s evolved and changed, or else it wouldn’t be relevant. Some issues, like reproductive rights, are more under attack now than they’ve been for 20 years. And I don’t think women feel any less passionately about reproductive freedoms than they did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And with 1.5 million women suing Wal-Mart…

We’ve had very close contact with the women’s studies programs at DePaul and Northwestern and other schools, and those women’s studies programs have grown and grown through the 1990s and 2000s. They are robust programs. Loyola now offers a master’s degree; I think DePaul does, too. I mean, we ask right on our job application, “Would you describe yourself as a feminist? What does that mean to you?” I can’t tell you how our applications have increased over the last 15 years because all these young women are being educated in women’s studies and feminism. And they like it! And they want to work at the feminist book store in Chicago.

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