For The Love of The Feminist Bookstore

Feminist bookstores aren’t just places to purchase queer books, they are gathering sites that bring local lesbian and queer communities together.

I had seen an ad for In Other Words in Portland’s local gay newspaper. I watched the mysterious feminist bookstore pass by from the bus window multiple times before getting up the nerve to, finally, get off and go inside. Walking through the doors felt like coming home. A few years later, I moved to New York City, and knew I needed to find my literary home there. Bluestockings bookstore on the Lower East Side welcomed me just like In Other Words did. There, I found some of my favorite queer books, began writing, and established the beginnings of my literary career. Feminist bookstores have always been the center of my creative world.

Feminist bookstores sell books, of course, but they have always been more than that. In their heyday of the 1970s-1990s, these bookstores made it possible for people to find LGBTQ+ and feminist literature, not available anywhere else (this was before the internet and social media!). I came out in 2002 and feminist bookstores were where I found my first introduction to LGBT+ literature and culture. Feminist bookstores are where I saw some of my favorite authors like Kate Bornstein read for the first time. I discovered books like Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, Cherríe Moraga’s This Bridge Called My Back, Dorothy Allison’s Skin, Matilda Bernstein Sycamore’s That’s Revolting, Amber Hollibaugh’s My Dangerous Desires, and so many other books that laid the groundwork for forging my identity, my feminist queer politics, and my creative process as a writer.

I found my first rented room as a 17-year-old queer runaway on a message board at a feminist bookstore. Before social media, all community connections happened in person. In addition to events where people could meet, most bookstores had community message boards where people could post flyers to trade services or find a roommate. Feminist bookstores became gathering sites for people to meet like-minded people in the local community, support each other, and share resources. After finding the courage to walk through the doors of In Other Words for the first time, I immediately got involved with events. I hosted and organized a monthly open mic and saw queer writers of all ages feel seen, supported, and find a place to creatively grow. Feminist bookstores also made it possible for lesbian and queer authors to promote books when mainstream bookstores wouldn’t shelve our books let alone invite us to read in their stores. 

At the height of their popularity, there were over a hundred feminist bookstores in the US, spreading feminist, antiracist, queer books and political ideologies and serving as sites of community connection. In the mid 2000s, feminist bookstores became dangerously close to extinction with only 13 remaining in the states.The ease and affordability of purchasing books online, including feminist and queer small press books played a big part in closing independent bookstores. In addition, shifting community priorities, dwindling volunteers, as well as rising rents led to the mass closing of feminist bookstores. 

The silver lining of the 2016 election and Trump’s presidency is that they led to a resurgence of feminist literature and bookstores. Charis Books & More in Atlanta maintains an online list of the feminist bookstores currently open in communities across the country. These feminist bookstores, along with the other queer, anarchist, and radical independent bookstores continue to provide vital community space and keep outsider queer and feminist literature accessible. These bookstores also focus on making sure they are continuing to evolve and serve our ever-changing community with a focus on uplifting LGBTQ+ authors of color, and transgender writers. This is especially important in our current cultural climate where progressive and inclusive books are under attack. 

There is a current surge on book bans or attempted book bans, especially queer books. The literary organization PEN America reports 3,362 books being banned during the 2022-2023 school year, which was a 33% increase from the previous academic year. As an author, I believe in the importance of books, but safe access to books is important to me on a deeper level. I vividly remember being newly out and still figuring out my own queer identities and looking to books to find connection, to find others whose lived experience I could relate to. When I first came out and began writing, the only place I could find those books was at feminist bookstores.  Seeing ourselves in the pages of books helps queer people to feel connected and to better understand ourselves and our community. Today, we can purchase any book we want in an instant from our phones or computer, but next time you find yourself wanting to buy a book, especially a queer book, consider looking to see if there is a feminist bookstore near you. Making your purchase from a feminist bookstore this month is an easy way to celebrate Women’s History Month and help keep these bookstores alive for future generations.

What Do You Think?

One comment on “For The Love of The Feminist Bookstore

  • Viola Jackson-Folkes says:

    At 71 I am happy to see how we have opened up and are thriving.As a New Yorker,I remember Bonnie and Clyde and many more, The Dutchess comes to mind. We Have Come A Long Way!!!

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