“The dream of a common language couldn’t exist without the dream of a common bookstore.”
— Kay Turner
ONE LONG COLD WINTER I learned how to be a lesbian writer in a feminist bookstore. I lived at the end of State Street in a second-floor apartment above an elderly landlady who had a mean squint and a screech. It was 1986. I did not tell her that my weekend visitor was my girlfriend, but I lived in fear that she would find out. Meanwhile, up the hill at Cornell University I was out and proud.
What I loved about moving to Ithaca is that there, when I told people I was a lesbian, they believed me. In the Canadian college town I had left behind and where my girlfriend still lived, no one could quite credit that our years of best-friendship had really changed, changed utterly, changed into that. I was alone in my new town, and scared, but I was also discovering that my splinter-new lesbianism could be a source for me as a writer and academic.
Somehow, the entering class of 12 students in the Cornell PhD program that year included three lesbians and one gay man. Before us they had just let the queers in one at a time. I remember how we startled an older student, an erudite and cosmopolitan gay man who had reigned alone for years. Once he snapped at me, “This whole department feels like a lesbian reading group.” Better start reading.
I was lucky enough to be at Cornell when Biddy Martin, now the rape-fighting president of Amherst College, was just beginning her academic career. An assistant professor in the German department, she started the gay and lesbian studies reading group that proved so irritating to my queeny friend. I was her TA for “Feminist Theory,” and later she was on my dissertation committee. She’s the one that told me about Smedley’s.
Some weekends I could drive back up to Kingston to see my girlfriend and other friends. But most often, on Friday afternoons I made my way down the infamously steep Buffalo Street hill — trudging if I was lucky, slipping on the ice and sliding down the precipice on my butt for half a block if I was not — to face a quiet weekend. Smedley’s Bookshop on State Street was my rest stop.
The store was located in an 1860s wood-frame house like so many in that part of town.The owner, Irene “Zee” Zahava, lived upstairs, and she was always there. I don’t remember ever seeing an employee. I would come into the warmth of the store from the biting wind and freezing temperatures, stomp the snow off my fleece-lined boots, loosen my face-shrouding hood and drop my giant pink down-filled coat in the entryway. Thus unburdened, I would browse for an hour or so. I usually bought the papers in order to get the news about my new lesbian world: Sojourner, off our backs (and later On Our Backs, its naughty younger sister), and Gay Community News for the Alison Bechdel cartoons. If I had some cash I might buy pleasure reading: novels like Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah or Andrea Freud Lowenstein’s This Place, an anthology of lesbian poetry called Naming the Waves.
Soon I realized I also needed Smedley’s for the research I wanted to do up the hill at Cornell. Like the time I wanted to write a paper on witches as feminist radicals for my 17th-century literature class. The professor was cautiously supportive, but when I found nothing in Olin Library to support my argument, she suggested I change topics. That same week, pulling one book after another off the shelf at Smedley’s to put off going back out into the cold, I found Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English — a small, stapled volume published in 1973 by the Feminist Press, really a chapbook of feminist theory. And so I wrote my paper.
Zee, the owner of Smedley’s from 1981 until she closed it in 1994, remembers lurkers like me. When I asked her recently about poetry and women’s bookstores, she said, “People were buying their books of poetry for very special occasions, for your sweetheart’s birthday. And if you couldn’t afford it you’d sit in the back and copy the poem out by hand. And people were always doing that.” Busted.
My editor asked me to write this piece as an elegy for the feminist bookstore. Easy, right?! Because like all independent bookstores, the feminist bookstore has almost disappeared. But as I talked to poets and booksellers and former booksellers across the country, somehow the elegy became an ode.
In my last column, I made the case that writing by poets formed a foundation of feminist theory and the academic discipline of women’s studies, partly because of the special status of poets in the women’s movement. As Zee put it, “the poets who would come from out of town [to do readings at Smedley’s] were like rock stars. It wasn’t a poetry-being-shunted-off kind of thing. And especially Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. The poetry was very elevated.” In today’s column, I want to explore the idea that feminist bookstores have made a distinctive contribution to American poetry because of this elevation. Feminist bookstores created an audience and market for poetry, a meeting place for poets and readers, and a public sphere in which poetry had an important bardic function. Feminist bookstores brought a new public to poetry both as readers and writers, a life-giving function that, little-understood and therefore little-noticed, continues to shape both mainstream and feminist poetry worlds today.
In the 1980s, Smedley’s hosted readings by Rich, Lorde, Cheryl Clarke, and Olga Broumas. Zee recalls that these already well-known writers would be invited to events at Cornell, “and then they would come down to Smedley’s and not expect to be paid, or maybe we’d pass the hat.” These readings were always special. Zee giggles as she remembers Olga Broumas insisting on sitting on the floor to give her reading. “I was very honored and proud to be at the bookstore, which was at the hub” of this dazzling work. “I wouldn’t have been involved with any of that without Smedley’s. I would have been very shy, not feeling part of the community. Having the bookstore plunged me into the heart of the community and it was quite lovely.”
Susan Post, whose store BookWoman has been an Austin institution since 1975, says that working at a feminist bookstore plunged her into both the lesbian community and the world of poetry. “I didn't read any poetry in college,” she told me recently; that didn’t happen “until I joined the bookstore collective and I was shown the Rita Mae Brown poetry and the Judy Grahn poetry.” Although Brown is best known for her classic lesbian coming-of-age novel Rubyfruit Jungle, her first two books were of poems: The Hand That Cradles the Rock in 1971 and Songs to a Handsome Woman in 1973. Grahn published Edward the Dyke and Other Poems in 1971 and her Common Woman poems were circulated widely throughout women’s movement venues in the 1970s until they were finally published in The Work of a Common Woman in 1978.“That was my first exposure to poetry,” Post recalls. In fact, BookWoman was known as the Common Woman Bookstore, named for Grahn’s poems, until a landlord made the owners change it, claiming that sounded like a house of prostitution.
BookWoman collaborated over the years with another Austin feminist institution that’s aging well, Women and Their Work Gallery.Women and Their Work was founded by artist Rita Starpattern, whom Post calls “the art maven,” and Deanna Stevenson, who “ran the literature arm. Deanna brought in all these incredible poets.” According to Post, the famous picture of Rich, Lorde, and Meridel LeSueur that has been ubiquitous in the year since Rich’s death was taken in Austin.
Irrepressible multidisciplinary artist Kay Turner (who recently appeared at Dixon Place with her new musical review, Otherwise, Queer Scholarship Into Song) saw the same phenomenon at Womanbooks in New York, which opened in 1975. “I was a collector and a person who was very interested in chapbook poetry,” she recalled. But the bookstore was “a very significant place for women who knew nothing about poetry, who were coming to poetry out of activism, who were learning about poetry by coming to readings.”
As an undergraduate at Douglass College, the women’s college at Rutgers, Turner had met Rich, who taught there for a few years. When Turner moved to New York City in 1972, Rich was living there too. “I remember Adrienne being so much driven to get her books into the feminist bookstores that were coming up at that time because she was very committed to the idea that she would reach women readers,” Turner told me. “The dream of a common language [the title of Rich’s 1977 book of poems] couldn’t exist without the dream of a common bookstore.”
National Book Award winner Marilyn Hacker had just returned to the New York from London in 1976 when she met Womanbooks owners Karyn London, Fabi Romero, and Eleanor Olds Batchelder. Soon she had started a poetry reading series at the store that was run for years by a collective that included Kate Ellis, Sharon Olds, Toi Derricotte, and Jewelle Gomez. When I asked her about this recently she admitted, “I sort of strong-armed Karyn, (whom I had just met — we were friends then, not girlfriends yet) and her two bookseller partners Fabi and Eleanor (also my new friends) into letting me get it going.” Hacker recalls — “and this is just off the top of my head” — the stunning roster of poets who read in the series: “June Jordan — her book party for Passion, Marie Ponsot’s book party for Admit Impediment, Adrienne Rich (lines around the block: she did two sets!), the [journal] Conditions black women's issue, the Ordinary Women anthology [Ordinary Women/Mujeres Comunes, An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women, 1978], Toi Derricotte, Sharon Olds, Jewelle Gomez, Cheryl Clarke, Alexis De Veaux, Alicia Ostriker.” Hard to imagine American poetry, including the modern MFA program, without some of these names.
In 1976, Kay Turner toured women’s bookstores across the country in a VW van full of lesbian feminists, distributing their art journal Lady-Unique-Inclination-of-the-Night, which they had self-published in a collective called the Sewing Circle Press. Lady-Unique published poets like Broumas, Marge Piercy, Joan Larkin, and Joanne Fuccello. “We spread our flyers from hither to yon. Everywhere that we could get connected to a women’s bookstore, that was the center of everything, everything was centered in those places. That was a real circle of power: bookstores, readings, chapbooks, small presses.”
Hacker says that rock-star poetry readings at Womanbooks in New York helped develop new audiences for poetry. “The bookshop was almost always filled to capacity when there was a reading,” she told me. “The free wine, cheese, and fruit may have augmented that!” More seriously, she added, “I think that many women who didn’t think of themselves as readers of poetry per se came to the readings — because of the feminist, lesbian, African-American, Chicana/Latina, cancer survivor — fill in the blank, or several at once — interest of a particular reading, because of the sense of feminist community, with room for dissent, that the readings engendered.”
In her study of women’s bookstores, Kristin Hogan notes that “by the mid-1990s, there were 124 feminist bookstores, the most ever in the United States,” creating what she calls “a feminist literary public sphere.” The earliest was A Woman’s Place, started in Oakland in 1970. Later that year Amazon Books opened in Minneapolis. Carol Seajay, founder of Feminist Bookstore News, got her start at A Woman’s Place and then opened Old Wives’ Tales in 1976 in San Francisco. Another bookstore called A Woman’s Place began operations in Portland in 1973; New Words opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1975. By the 1980s, women’s bookstores were a strong and visible part of the landscape of American letters.
Kay Turner worked for Austin’s BookWoman in that period. Having moved from New York to Austin in the 1970s, Turner had started the iconic lesbian rock band Girls in the Nose in 1986 with Gretchen Phillips. By 1992, the band had taken off nationally, and Turner left her full-time job to tour. BookWoman owner Susan Post “took pity,” Turner recalls. “She took me in.I told her I have to have a schedule that can accommodate my crazy rock-and-roll lifestyle, and she said, ‘You can work part time here, Kay. It won’t be that much money.’” Turner says appreciatively, “Feminist bookstores are always very accommodating of the artistic lives of their employees.” Turner recalls poets Ana Sisnett and Naomi Shihab Nye reading at the store in the early 1990s.
Like BookWoman, Atlanta’s Charis Books, started in 1974, is still in operation. And like Susan Post, Charis co-owner Sara Luce Look was introduced to poetry in the feminist bookstore. When we spoke recently, she remembered a visit from Native American activist and poet Chrystos in the early 1990s. “She blew me away. I’m 43 years old, so I was like 21 when she came to Charis and she was reading from In Her I Am, which is a collection of erotic poetry, and every poem is dedicated to a lover. And she was wearing — and I am not kidding — lime green spandex. This is not what I was expecting from someone I considered an icon of lesbian feminism!”
Look says Charis Books has had longstanding connections to poets and poetry. “There’s a group of folks that over the years we have had very strong connections to. Pearl Cleage has had a lot of success as a playwright and novelist but she’s also a poet. We have a very long history with Dorothy Allison, who when she first came to town slept on [Charis co-founder] Linda’s couch.” Allison is best known today for her 1992 novel Bastard Out of Carolina, which was a National Book Award finalist. But her first book was the poetry collection The Women Who Hate Me, and Look told me it continues to sell at Charis Books. Along with Cleage and Allison, Alice Teeter is another Southern poet who continues to sell steadily there. In addition to these writers, Look says, “There are a handful of poets that keep our poetry section going: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver, and a little bit of everything else. We always sell Alice Walker, Sonia Sanchez. Oh and Nikky Finney,” recently on the cover of Poets and Writers Magazine. “When she released Rice [winner of the PEN Beyond Margins Award], I believe that Charis was among the first places she read. She has read at Charis for every single book so when she won the National Book Award [in 2011, for Head Off & Split] it was just great.”
In the late 1980s Deborah Paredez, founder of the national organization for Latina/o poets, CantoMundo, discovered the feminist bookstore. “I had known about BookWoman growing up in San Antonio,” she told me recently in her sunny South Austin living room. “I would come up and visit, and I had the T-shirt — what a young poet would do.” She recalled favorite independent bookstores in San Antonio like Half Price Books and The Twig, “but BookWoman was special. One, they had these books of poetry by women, which was freeing. But also, you have the sex-positive books right next to the poetry books!” she laughed. “The erotica can be showcased alongside the poetry in ways that may not happen at another independent. There was this genuinely promiscuous approach to knowledge that I learned there. It’s the space of the irreverent.You can let the ‘too much’ show. There was the space to laugh out loud, to be in relation to the books in the excited way I wanted to be, and to take up space. For a young woman of color that means a lot.”
In the early 1990s, Samiya Bashir was coming out as a queer poet in Los Angeles’s legendary LGBT bookstore, A Different Light. While not specifically or exclusively feminist, it catered to lesbian and feminist customers and so was enmeshed with the feminist bookstore community in many ways. (Do poets have a special relationship with the LGBT movement analogous to the one I’m arguing for in the women’s movement?That’s a subject for another column.)
Bashir said recently from her home in Portland, where she teaches creative writing at Reed College, “the coming-out process for me and many people I knew was going to the Different Light bookstore when there wasn’t a feminist bookstore. I lived just up the street, and sitting on the floor with Cheryl Clarke’s books, Narratives and Living as a Lesbian, trying to figure out my life, that’s kind of what one did. Right next to A Different Light was the feminist lesbian coffeeshop where they hosted poetry readings. People had their guitars and all of that was happening. In my memory, there used to be a lot of connections with other businesses that were helping each other — the coffee shop and the sandwich place and the place to buy shoes — those people would support the poetry too.”
Bashir says that the connection bookstores provided between poetry and feminist communities has given way to the pressures of po-biz professionalization for many. “To come up with people like I went to school to study with, like June Jordan, and to look up to people like Adrienne Rich, who were both doing this beautiful work, was a gift. Their work offered roadmaps and directions about how to make a map of one’s own. I’m interested in how we continue this tradition even amidst the very different academic poetry tradition that is currently at the forefront.” Bashir went to Berkeley specifically to study with Jordan and was in the second class of Jordan’s groundbreaking program, Poetry for the People.
“I feel like I absolutely come from that tradition of a politically-engaged literary movement, a feminist-identified literary movement, a queer-identified literary movement, a queer community that identified itself through its literature specifically,” says Bashir. She applied to MFA programs after publishing two books of poetry with RedBone Press, which specializes in the work of black lesbians and gay men. When I joked that getting into an MFA program (she ended up going to Michigan) with two books must have been pretty easy, she pulled me up sharply. “That whole lineage is exceedingly devalued in the current ranks of poetry.” In her own generation, she sees a tendency to “somehow stand up by stomping down these politically engaged literary giants, feminist thinkers and leaders and doers,” she said, citing what she calls the recent “takedown” of Adrienne Rich in The Nation. “I find it really devastating. I learned to get to poetry through movements against and in resistance to oppression, including feminism. My parents were teachers, and they always directed us to the poetry, to the movement, to creative ways to articulate one’s experience and understand one’s heritage. I just think it’s important not to lose that. We can certainly add to it, we can grow in new directions — I think that’s part of the progression of an artist’s life — but we shouldn’t lose access to that for those that are emerging, and those yet to come.”
According to Hogan, in the late 1990s, “changes in the economy, the book market, and the feminist movement dropped the number [of surviving stores] into the teens at the turn of the century.” Charis Books keeps an updated list of independent feminist bookstores in North America, which currently stands at 11. Charis and BookWoman have beaten the odds for a variety of reasons, but one of them is definitely their success as venues for poetry — including their willingness to change up the conventional poetry reading to embrace performance, self-publishing, and other new realities of the poetry business.
“That’s what I love about BookWoman,” says Kay Turner:
It’s developed more opportunities for performance than ever existed in what is called back-in-the-day, 20 years ago. Charis too has grown. They are another store that has really continued to grow and have an expanded event cycle. The emphasis now has shifted quite dramatically because books have to be marketed in as many ways as you can think of, so the emphasis on live events and live readers has increased.
In 1996, Charis expanded its programming arm under the nonprofit The Charis Circle. One popular program is an open-mic series called Cliterati, hosted by Karen G. and 2011 Women of the World Slam Poetry Champion Theresa Davis.
And BookWoman is the center of a lively monthly reading series currently hosted by Cindy Huyser, a poet and editor with Dos Gatos Press. “The audience often includes a number of poets who are regulars in Austin’s poetry scene and a handful who participate exclusively in the BookWoman reading,” she told me recently. Poets who have read recently include Chandra Washington, Kelsey E. Shipman, Susan Rooke, Liliana Valenzuela, Lyman Grant, Ken Fontenot, Gloria Amescua, and Bree Rolfe. As member of the Writers’ League of Texas Poetry Critique Group, Huyser, who discovered BookWoman as a young lesbian in the early 1980s, invites both men and women to read. “BookWoman has been very generous in its support of the poetry scene here,” she says.
Jack Brannon agrees. Brannon is the co-director of Poetry at Round Top, the distinguished Central Texas festival about to celebrate its 12th anniversary in May with appearances by Nye, Tony Hoagland, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Kwame Dawes, Joe Ahearn, and others. “We would not have an onsite book-sale operation if it were not for Susan’s dedication to this community and to poetry too,” he told me emphatically. Brannon says he knew of Susan Post from the Austin LGBT community — “she was a friend of friends” — but did not initially think of collaborating with BookWoman on his festival, which would, of course, include men. “When I first dreamed of such a thing, I contacted Borders because I knew they had been doing this for the Dodge Festival back east. Zero interest. Ditto for Barnes & Noble. How could they really take a gamble on a tiny number of poets meeting in the smallest incorporated town in Texas?” he asks. “Anyway, they did not.The fellow with the used and rare bookstore on 12th Street was pleasant but said he couldn’t manage it at all. So, more or less at my wits’ end, I walked across 12th Street to visit Susan.” The rest is Texas poetry history. “Susan and the store provide remarkable support to the poetry and literary and LGBT community in Austin. We can virtually count on a reading event for anyone we tell Susan is important. Most recently, she welcomed us on very short notice for a special reading in support of a gay/radical faerie film, Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, that was making its premiere at South by Southwest.”
In BookWoman these days, you’ll find lots of poetry by men and by women. Susan says, “People do come and peruse the shelves looking for poetry. Recently I had a random guy come in who was getting his car repaired up the street. He said, ‘I’m looking for poetry. I like Billy Collins, it helps me settle down at night.’” Going all the way back to Grahn and all the way up to Round Top, Susan says, “I have a lot of years of poetry under my belt.” So she came up with something for Car Repair Guy. “It was Ted Kooser left over from when he presented at Round Top. I tend to keep those books so that helps build the collection there. He was quite surprised to come to a woman’s bookstore, and I could give him a guy book. That was really fun — I was really glad I was there.”
I missed the radical faerie reading, but I was at BookWoman in January for another series called Kin City, which brings together Austin and San Antonio poets. I wasn’t late, but I was lucky to find a chair at the back of the spacious store, crammed in between Dean Young, whose wife Laurie Saurborn Young was reading from her new book Carnivoria, and Cindy St. John, whose most recent book is Be the Heat. Carrie Fountain, whose Burn Lake was selected for the National Poetry Series by Natasha Trethewey in 2009, was there with some of her buddies from the Michener Center for Writers MFA program. Gloria Amescua of CantoMundo came up from San Antonio to read. The table in front of me was piled high with books. I went home with Olds’s collected, and the BookWoman bumper sticker, which reads: “Support Your Feminist Bookstore — She Supports You.”
The story of poetry in feminist bookstores turns out to include not just Rich and Lorde, but Olds and Ostriker, Paredez and Bashir, even Young and Kooser. If you are a poet, chances are you owe at least some of your audience — and probably some of your education too — to a feminist bookstore. Time to own it.