The Business of Being a Feminist Bookstore

IFC

“This is a top-selling author. Do we want top-selling authors in here?” says Candace to Candace as they consider inventory for Women and Women First, Portlandia’s fictional feminist bookstore.  “No,” says the other Candace, ” we want bottom-selling authors.”

For seven seasons, Portlandia has filmed inside the In Her Words bookstore, which last year severed its relationship with the show for being “in every way diametrically opposed to our politics and the vision of society we’re organizing to realize.” If the business of running a bookstore is hard enough, the business of running a feminist bookstore is deeply entwined with a collective spirit and political agenda, and money can serve as the beginning and end of those problems. (Portlandia, the bookstore noted, also didn’t pay the store to film there.)

At LARB, Stephanie Young looks at Kristen Hogan’s history of the feminist bookstore, which details the divisions in the movement within the business of selling feminism. In a review of the book from last year, Laura Tanenbaum writes that “In focusing on survival, bookstores, like many other feminist institutions, found themselves professionalizing and turning away from antiracist and political commitments and utopian spirit.”

The financial and political woes of A Woman’s Place in Oakland is the flashpoint of Hogan’s narrative, a business which grew by two thousand percent in nine years, from 1973 to 1982, and served as the livelihood for the six employees who worked there. The group eventually fell out over management of the bookstore, which had “gross sales over $250,000 operating without a budget or financial analysis.”

Nearly every aspect of the store was locked in generational disputes. The older women were staunchly separatist, and resisted the younger four’s desire to host some events which would be open to anyone interested, including men, or only for more particular groups (disabled women, women of color, parents). Pagano, Summers, Kubo, and Meredith wrote that Wilson and Lando hoarded power like bosses, with ruinous effect on financial decision-making. The group regularly failed to reach consensus on basic operational processes. Covering vacations and work shifts was an ongoing source of irritation. Wilson’s notes from a 1981 meeting register this frustration: “Jesse had another fit about lack of substitute policy.” After the lockout when the store was ordered to reopen, a receiver’s report showed dangerously high inventory. Apparently the group couldn’t agree on how to cull books for return to publishers, nor on who should do the work. High inventory limited cash flow, a significant problem given their high expenses, the largest being salaries for six paid collective members.

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