Linda Bubon and her co-owner Ann Christophersen first opened the Women and Children First Bookstore in 1979. Today it is the largest feminist bookstore in the country, and has been honored with awards from Chicago Now, the ACLU’s Roger Baldwin Foundation, Bailiwick Repertory Theatre, and the Lesbian Community Cancer Project, among others. In 2004, the Chicago Sun Times named Bubon and Christophersen among the city’s 100 most powerful women. Bubon is also a story performer of written literature for adults and children, a book group leader, and book reviewer for both print and radio. She has an MA in literature from the University of Illinois.
Daniel Duffy: Congratulations on your thirtieth anniversary at Women and Children First. How has the original vision for the bookstore changed over those thirty years?
Linda Bubon: My original vision at twenty-eight years old was that perhaps there would be a niche in the market for a bookstore like ours for five years or so. I remember being unable to think beyond doing this for five or six years. I really thought we were going to change the world pretty quickly. There were feminist bookstores springing up all over the place and I thought “In the next five to ten years general bookstores will have incorporated all this material that we’re featuring, and bookstores won’t be sexist and dominated by male writers and subject areas that predominantly men are in interested in.” I thought a bookstore like us would be an anachronism in a post-feminist society. (laughs)
DD: That didn’t really happen.
LB: Not like that. There have been enormous changes for women in the last thirty years. But it seems pretty clear to me that my original vision of getting more women writers into the mainstream and having more space for women in the world is still an unfinished vision. The need for bookstores like ours to exist in the marketplace seems to be still necessary. It just turns out to be a much bigger, longer job to change the world.
DD: Well, you’re definitely working at it. You’re open seven days a week, and you’re hosting readings and feminist book groups several times a month. For a woman who has been at this for three decades, it seems like you’re staying pretty busy.
LB: I certainly had hoped that at this point in my life there would be a slowing down of my activities, and that the bookstore would gradually be run by younger, more energetic individuals, more in touch with the younger generation.
DD: What has kept that from happening?
LB: The economic and political forces have had so much more to do with my work than I ever thought they would. They come right down to my level: the banking collapse means Women and Children First is paying higher credit card fees than we ever have, and it means that publishers are calling in their invoices in an ever-tightening way. There’s an inability to borrow, where as six years ago we were able to consolidate our debt, take out a loan from our independent and localbank, and proceed to pay that off. If we needed that loan today, I don’t think that money would be available.
DD: And it makes it hard to hire a full-time staff to help you out under those conditions.
LB: All these brilliant women I have worked with over the years have contributed so much and have helped keep me motivated to continue to do what I do. They may only work two or three years before moving on to something else, but those two or three years that they’re part of Women and Children First, they change it. They keep it relevant and they keep it interesting and they keep their young friends coming in. But most of them come to me right after college or graduate school, and then they get out of school and what happens? Student loans. In my day, college was affordable even to a working-class kid like myself, and you could take a low-paying job for a while because you didn’t have a debt. But my full-time girls the last three years are both a year out of graduate school now, and their student loans are due. They can’t afford to work at a bookstore full-time.
DD: Does the lack of healthcare factor into your inability to hire a full-time staff, as well?
LB: Five years ago, I had a full-time business partner and three full-time employees, and all five of us got health benefits. We were able to pay one hundred percent of the healthcare for ourselves and three other people. But three and a half years ago, after a very tough year, my business partner and I made the decision that she would take on another full-time job. We couldn’t afford both of our salaries and health care. Now, three years later, I have one full-time person, plus myself.
DD: Do you have a part-time staff to help out?
LB: I have increased the number of part-time people we have, but when you’re part-time, you’ve got papers to write, you’ve got another job to attend, or you’re a parent with a couple of small children, and your focus just cannot be on your part-time bookstore job. Part-time people are wonderful—they’re smart, they’re energetic, and at staff meetings they contribute good ideas. But that doesn’t lighten the pressure on me. And I’ll be fifty-nine in June. That’s a lot to carry around.
DD: How do the ridiculously low prices for books sold on the internet and at places like Walmart reflect on your book sales at Women and Children First?
LB: I lost twenty percent of my sales to the internet and big box stores. Whether it’s Amazon or Half.com, internet sales leach business from me at every level. People buy brand new books that come out in advance. They can do that through me, but they don’t think of it in the same way. Textbooks were also once a really good supplement. In the late nineties we developed textbook sales, and I’d take the textbooks right into the classrooms and sell them off the teachers’ desks. It would get me into the classroom to talk to students, tell them about Women and Children First and our programs, and sell eight hundred dollars worth of books in fifteen minutes. But textbook business has been decimated by the internet. Decimated. I have to now assume that if it’s a forty or fifty dollar textbook that I’m bringing to a classroom that maybe half the students will buy it. (laughs) I went into a classroom last month at DePaul and two girls next to me were on the internet comparing my prices to what they could get online.
DD: They were doing it right in front of you? That’s brutal. What have you done to offset the loss of those textbook sales?
LB: Fortunately, five and a half years ago we came up with the idea of having an Author Project Fund take care of all our programming expenses.
DD: How does that work?
LB: We use the fund to pay for all of the marketing and promotion for programs that would normally be paid for by our regular budget. We have grants and then individual donations. So that’s been one way to relieve some of the pressure.
DD: But you still have to sell books.
LB: Exactly. And all of us independents put together have such a shrinking market share that the publishers aren’t publishing for us anymore. In 1991 there were one hundred and ten feminist bookstores in the U.S. and Canada. Publishers published for us, we had a real market share. I mean a publisher could say to herself, “This will sell in the feminist bookstores.” Now there are eight of us. (laughs) Nobody’s thinking, “I better publish this book because the feminist bookstores will take it and run with it.” So one of the toughest things for me is that there are fewer really good feminist and women’s studies books being published for the trade. When they are published, they are like sixty dollars, and clearly designed for a library market or textbook market. You think, “Wow, this is an important new book by Judith Butler, and—it’s $49.95!” And then there are the proprietary products that only Amazon sells. I can’t sell a Kindle. I can’t.
DD: With developments like the Kindle and the iPad, and people publishing stories through Twitter, how will independent bookstores stay relevant in the twenty-first century?
LB: That’s a huge question. One of the things we’re doing is selling e-books on our website. The e-books work on Sony readers and a couple of other readers. And Google is coming out with a new sort of product that will allow people to play the e-books they buy on a variety of vehicles, in a variety of locations. So, when that happens, I think the Kindle will lose some of its cache, and more friendly products like e-books will grow. We can certainly sell e-books.
DD: It seems so absurd to me that a bookstore owner who has been as successful as you have has to sell e-books. It seems sort of like you’re compromising your integrity in order to sell e-books. Does it ever seem like that you?
LB: It does. But for thirty years, I have fought the stereotypical image of an independent bookstore being this doughty, dusty little place that wasn’t with the times. I mean, I still have my lawn chair, and there are still certain activities I’ve enjoyed since the sixties. But I really try to stay current. The digital versions of books kind of surfaced in the early nineties and I thought it was stupid and ridiculous and it kind of went away, and I felt very justified (laughs). But there’s a new level now. They went back to the drawing board and they have a terrific product. I’ve handled a Kindle, and it won’t replace a book for me, but I understand why people find them attractive. I have a friend who travels three weeks out of four and she’s a very heavy reader, and she’s getting older. She doesn’t want to cart books around with her, so it totally works for her. On the other hand, she still has to come in my store and buy the novels that she loves to read on vacation.
DD: And it’s those alternative novels that will keep people buying books from you, right?
LB: There are the alternative presses, and I have a really thriving zine section. There are all these cool magazines out there that offer important and fresh news and cultural information, and those can’t be replaced. They are a very hip, current thing, and you’re not reading them on your Kindle.
DD: But those sales can’t possibly replace the sales of the $49.95 Judith Butler books. Is that why it’s still a struggle?
LB: Well, of course you’re talking to me in the first week of March, and March is one of the worst months of the year, every year. A lot of the people who are coming in during the day right now are coming in because they’re unemployed. They’ve lost jobs. They are stay-at-home parents with one parent working, and so they come in and spend time reading books with their kids or their nanny is in here reading books with kids. It’s kind of like we’re a library or a public space, rather than someplace you go and actually buy things.
DD: Do you sometimes find yourself focusing more on serving the community than on selling books, and then you have to step back and say, “Wait, we have to make money somehow so we can keep this up”?
LB: Actually, I think stepping back and figuring out ways to create more community events is the smartest thing we can do. Maybe they’re not going to be paid for through book sales, but we do have this not-for-profit arm (the Author Project Fund), and we pass the hat at readings. And we’ve received some small discretionary grants. And it seems to me, if I’m not just looking with rose-colored glasses, but really paying attention, that while people are buying fewer books, they are attending events in greater numbers. I mean, we used to have one book club. Now we have five.
DD: Do those book clubs and readings get more new customers in the door?
LB: We used to get fifteen kids at every story time. Now I get anywhere from twenty to fifty. There were sixty people here last Sunday to see a local author—a brilliant woman in her eighties who’s a scientist, and who has written an autobiography. And we had slam poet Stacy Ann Chin in on a Friday—you and I know who she is, and a certain generation of hip-hoppers and people who follow slam poetry—but there were one hundred people there. We sold forty books.
DD: So what is your role as an independent bookstore in the twenty-first century?
LB: We don’t have much public space, and if the bookstore can function as this public space where people meet and gather and discuss ideas, I think we’re going to continue to attract the kind of people who like books, who like to read, who buy magazines, and who want human connection. I think that while we cocoon and we have our media centers and our laptops and spend a lot of time alone, there is an even greater urge to go and be with people. To the extent that the bookstore can provide a rich environment where you can meet and share interests and argue with other people—I think we’ll figure out a way to continue to be that space. Whether book sales are the main part of it or a secondary part of it—that’s not as important to me as keeping this space.