Impermanent Dwellings: Bookstores and Feminist Approaches to History

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

It would make an amazing opening sequence to a film: the camera catches the glint of chrome, leather, motorcycle, boots, asphalt. A helmet is secured, and a stack of books and belongings piled onto the back are double-checked for safety. On the top of the stack is the silver-on-blue imprint of a peacock, the book is Rita May Brown’s Songs to a Handsome Woman.

songs-to-a-handsome

A voiceover narrates a poem from the book, “For Those of Us Working For a New World”:

The dead are the only people
to have permanent dwellings.
We, nomads of Revolution
Wander over the desolation of many generations
And are reborn on each other’s lips
To ride wild mares over unfathomable canyons
Heralding dawns, dreams and sweet desire.

The year is 1974 and the woman on the motorcycle is Carol Seajay, and she’s about to ride from Kalamazoo to San Francisco. Forget Shakespeare’s sister Judith in a room of her own — this is Jack Kerouac’s younger, smarter, and politically awakened sister’s On the Road. Revolutionary without the misogyny, nomadic without the exploitation. The screenplay to this film would be written by Sarah Schulman in the style of Girls, Visions, and Everything. The protagonist Carol Seajay really did ride across the country in 1974, stopping at the kinds of bookstores that sold books like Songs to a Handsome Woman. Other women would make similar trips to these feminist bookstores, which in the 1970s began to open all over North America in a glorious manifestation of the energy and passion of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The film documenting this explosion of over a hundred bookshops would begin with Seajay’s ride to San Francisco, feature a pitstop at the Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis. It would show her arrival as a volunteer at the bookstore ICI: A Woman’s Place, in Oakland. It would cut to 1976, when Seajay opened Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco 40 years ago this Halloween. In that same year, it would show her typing up and collating Feminist Bookstore News, the publication that the transnational network of bookstores used to communicate and coordinate with one another when they weren’t travelling to meet in person at the Women in Print conferences they planned. The Feminist Bookstore News was a tool for calling out racism within the sprawling community of feminists; it was a tool for sharing information about books worth stocking; it was a tool for coordinating campaigns to keep books by female authors in print; and it was a tool for fighting against the rise of large chain booksellers and amazon.com, and their impact upon the sustainability of independent bookstores. The movie would end in 1995, when Old Wives’ Tales closed.

old-wives-tales

Carol Seajay at Old Wives Tales, c. 1980.  Image courtesy of Found SF.

Cross-country travel linked Old Wives’ Tales with hundreds of other bookshops between the 1970s and 1990s. Kristen Hogan’s The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability (2016) details the story of the women who ran Old Wives’ Tales, the political and social contexts and plain hard work that allowed for it and so many other bookstores to flourish. This is also taken up in This Book Is an Action: Feminist Print Culture and Activist Aesthetics. The influence of bookstores upon their local communities is difficult to pin down, but diffuse in the opinion of Carol Seajay, who described to Hogan in The Feminist Bookstore Movement the importance of finding the right book at the right time in these terms:

I brought those books back and said to friends of mine, “These are the lesbian books with good endings. These are going to change our lives.” And they all looked at me, like, “Yeah, yeah, Carol. All about books, Carol, again. Yeah, yeah, yeah.” “No these are going to change our lives. No, you have to read this. Songs to a Handsome Woman, you have to read these!” They did read them. And it changed some of their lives and not some of them. But I do think that there being lesbian books changed even the lives of the women who didn’t read. Because it changed the lives around them.”

Sometimes a book’s message, or the feeling of having read it, can be felt by those who haven’t picked it up — the sight of that radiance in the face of the reader can change the quality of a room. Sometimes the book’s existence becomes a distinctly distant comfort: unread, alongside others on the shelf, it is not alone, and neither are you. Libraries and bookstores produce those comforts, working in tandem to foster existing communities , and to imagine those that do not — although less on the level of the imagined national communities of Benedict Anderson than on the level of the neighborhood. Yet the latter is a precondition to the former, as Kay Turner put it, speaking almost directly to the “dreams and sweet desire” from “To Those of Us Working For a New World”: “The dream of a common language couldn’t exist without the dream of a common bookstore.”

Scholarship in history of the book has concerned itself with the dreams imagined by individual books — the imaginary readers, the individual houses a book has inhabited. It has scaled up to think about the history of libraries. But in The Feminist Bookstore Movement and This Book Is an Action, the authors and editors expand our understanding of the reading experience by thinking about the relationships between books and their audiences within pre-sale geographic and economic contexts. Particular to the feminist bookstore movement was the repeated use of the bookstores as platforms for transnational and international conversation and debate. Bookstores themselves (during road trips especially) and the Feminist Bookstore News, were the sites of sometimes-painful arguments about the practices of inclusive feminist activism in real time. Bookstores were incubation chambers where theory turned to to practice. The presence of books that addressed racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia head on encouraged and informed the discussions and practices not only of bookstore workers, but also for the community that took shape in and around the shops. For example, in 1989 Sharon Fernandez, and Cindy Beggs, in tandem with the Toronto Women’s Bookstore collective, published the Women of Colour Bibliography documenting publications of and by women of color in the 1980s to make it easier for other bookstores to keep those titles in stock. There was nothing like it at the time, even in the academy. The bibliography was much more than a list of books — it was a record of the pain and struggle within as well as outside feminism to come to terms with its own systemic racism, and to hold readers accountable for theirs. This was a bibliography that meant something, not just to the people that wrote it and the authors of the books they documented, but to a larger community that strove to address the needs and experience of women of colour.

The feminist bookstore movement offers a powerful model for analysing the influence of bookstores as units of intellectual meaning as well as forces for social change beyond the Women’s Liberation Movement. The history of libraries is increasingly well documented and theorised within scholarship, but the history of bookstores is only beginning to receive a similar level of attention — such as with the University of Pennsylvania’s Gotham Book Mart Project, work documenting the influence of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, or New Beacon Books in London. Focus on these bookshops facilitates a shift within book history as a subject taught in English and History departments to one requiring the tools of the anthropologist or sociologist, of doing fieldwork to square up the changing realities of bookstores today and their staff and patrons. It is fitting that this work might take as its model the work of The Feminist Bookstore Movement and This Book Is an Action — thinking socially about the collective action fostered by communal spaces is an inherently feminist methodology. To focus on the sociology of bookstores also realizes the dreams set forward by scholarship focusing on much earlier time periods. Bookshops, like public libraries, offer modern heirs to the ‘textual communities’ of medieval heretics Brian Stock documents in The Implication of Literacy, or complementing the observations of Margaret Ezell’s Social Authorship and the Advent of Print or Helen Smith’s Grossly Material Things to think about the highly collaborative nature of the production of books, and the role readers and booksellers play in that collaboration. Finally, the fusion of history and experience that has given rise to these works of scholarship also allows us to acknowledge the role bookshops play in the individual development of scholars and writers — The Feminist Bookstore Movement, for example, is as much a memoir as it is a work of intellectual and cultural history.

A bookshop is impermanent by nature: its contents are always changing, and there is a constant threat of closure if the rent isn’t paid. The closure of Old Wives’ Tales at the end of my movie on the feminist bookstore movement would fulfil the opening poem, “For Those of Us Working For a New World,” as if it were a prophesy. Bookstores must remain impermanent dwellings if they are to remain faithful to the reality of the changing needs of changing times. Their impermanence and precariousness makes them feel more human and more real than the institutions that take on an immortal purpose and character. Every great bookstore gives us something connect with – perhaps even to fight for – when it’s going, and model revive when it’s gone. For instance, in July 2016 Her Bookshop opened up in East Nashville, Tennessee, another heir to Seajay’s work. Loss can be formative, and it can build resilience. The stress dream of impermanence generates a very different worldview from the escapist dream of endlessness—the trick is, in the case of bookshops, to document the worlds they create before they vanish.

 

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