A new chapter for indie bookstore Women and Children First
The long-running feminist bookstore that inspired a Portlandia sketch is up for sale. We talk to the owners about what's next.
Linda Bubon and Anne Christophersen, founding co-owners of Women and Children First, are tired—not of books or independent causes or feminist issues, but of the demands and duties that come with running an independent bookstore. "The place needs more energy," Christophersen told me during a conversation about their recently announced decision to sell the business. Women and Children First opened in Lincoln Park in 1979, then relocated to Andersonville in 1990. Since then, it has been a popular fixture of the locally-minded neighborhood. Bubon and Christophersen—both of whom have served on the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce—hope the next owner(s) will be similarly active in the community, as well as enthusiastic and willing to enact new ideas (so not anyone like Toni or Candace). Here, the business partners reflect on their long-running ownership and what's next for WCF.
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Is the desire to retire from bookstore ownership your main reason for selling the store?
Anne Christophersen Yes, absolutely.
Linda Bubon We've had to think about transition planning for a few years now. Certainly when the economy turned down in 2008, it wasn't a good time to think about it. It was a time to think about how do we survive the downturn. But in the last two years, we've been very encouraged. Sales are up a little bit, and there are more independent bookstores opening. The ones that have survived seem to be doing better. The big threat from chains on every corner has subsided, and while lots of people are reading [digital] instead of physical books, more and more people seem to be appreciating physical books.
AC It's the best thing for the store, at this point, to have somebody at the helm who is energetic and has her or his own vision of how to develop [it] in new ways.
It seems that in order to survive these days, independent bookstores need to do more than sell books. They need to be a community center with an active schedule of events and programs.
LB Thirty-four years ago, when we conceived of Women and Children First—and we weren't the first feminist and children's bookstore in the country by any means, but we were among the early ones—we started a program series. Because we sensed the need, even 34 years ago, for public space, space where people could gather and talk about ideas. We just came out of getting our Masters degrees, and seminars were exciting! We wanted to create that kind of excitement, that kind of public discourse, right from the get-go.
AC It's very organic in how it has developed. We certainly have put ourselves out there in a lot of ways and continue to work with other people and organizations and causes, but [the community] has developed a lot and gotten richer and richer. We're also a neighborhood bookstore in Andersonville, so we've generalized our stock over the years. We still have our focus on books by and about women and great children's books, but we also have Stephen King, all the new literary writers and a very broad selection of books on current events, politics and other general-interest topics.
Would you say that being located in a neighborhood like Andersonville has been important to your success?
LB Well, we opened in Lincoln Park…but after a while we outgrew the space. We wanted to stay in that central location but really couldn't find anything affordable. Then the Andersonville Development Corporation came calling on us. They took us on a tour of the neighborhood and showed us empty storefronts that they thought we might be interested in and polls that showed residents really wanted a bookstore in the neighborhood. They recruited us. The neighborhood was nothing like it is now, but there were a few key businesses. The Swedish Museum was here and Ann Sather and Andie's. We were able to carve out our space in a building that was being completely rehabbed, so we could grab the corner and all those windows and have a parking lot and an accessible entry.
Do you already have people in mind that you would want to take over the store?
AC We don't have particular people in mind, but we've had eight inquiries, mostly from customers who are people we know but hadn't thought of in particular. We're hoping we find a buyer who both wants to take advantage of the reputation we have , and all the connections we have with publishers in New York and on the West Coast, with authors—
LB And local media—
AC And who also want to carve out their own particular vision of what they'd like to do going forward. The perfect buyer would be someone who wanted to carry on with a good part of our values and vision but who also wanted to make her own mark, or his own mark.
LB And who also wants to be a real participant in this neighborhood, because I tell you, it is a gift being in a community like Andersonville with such an active, creative chamber of commerce.
What's next for each of you? Do you both live on the North Side and will you be staying there?
AC We both live in Rogers Park.
LB Right near the lake. You can't ever walk away from that. I get up every morning and look at the beautiful lakefront, and no matter where I go on vacation, I'm happy to come home to it. I would like to work part-time for another year or two. I'd like to continue to do story times, and I'd like to be a help to the new owners, if they're at all interested in having me involved. And then I'm very interested in politics, especially the issues that affect booksellers. The Sales Tax Fairness Bill—we keep inching closer toward something like that, but Main Street retailers really have to make our voices heard about what we need in terms of sales tax fairness.
How about you, Anne?
AC Well, same as Linda, I'm certainly available to the new owners, if they wanted, to train them and help them learn the ins and outs of the business—particularly if they come from outside the book industry. I'd like to help them become established. I just have a whole lot of art and culture interests that I'm looking forward to having more time to pursue. I want to see my family more, all of whom live out of town, and good friends, some of whom are falling ill and living in other states. I'm also looking forward to reading more and doing something politically, perhaps with environmental politics.
How do you feel about being the inspiration for the bookstore in Portlandia, Women and Women First?
LB I love satire. I'm a big Colbert/Jon Stewart watcher. I like irreverent humor. I've always thought that feminists have a great sense of humor and are able to poke fun at the patriarchy. But I have to say, I think satire is at its best when it is the powerless making fun of the powerful. And so [for the TV show] to target a little independent bookstore—you sort of wince thinking there are so many people who've never visited a feminist bookstore and this is what they might actually think! [Laughs]
But it's not really your store, of course, because it exists in Portland!
LB But as Anne says, we know the store in Portland too, and it's not the store in Portland either!