Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

Focus On: Feminist, LGBT, and Black-Owned Bookstores

In the months since the election, a number of bookstores have taken up the activist banner – but they’re far from the first to do so. In fact, booksellers have been doing social justice work for a long time. The 20th century in America saw a boom in stores dedicated to fulfilling and celebrating long-marginalized populations, and the work continues today. So we’ve put together a brief overview of feminist, LGBT, and black-owned bookstores to help you dive into the world of activist bookselling. As the slogan goes, the personal is political – and what’s more personal than a book?

First things first: these communities frequently overlap. For example, a black-owned bookstore might stock feminist writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, bell hooks, and Kimberlé Crenshaw, just as an LGBT bookstore might stock James Baldwin, and a feminist bookstore Octavia Butler.

That said, each community has its own history with literary engagement.  African Americans were denied access to education for generations, making the act of reading itself political. Depicting LGBT lives in art or literature pre-Stonewall usually ran artists and writers directly into one of several morality laws. And when second-wave feminists began doing intense work in the 1960s to organize a nascent movement around their own rights and freedoms, they did a great deal of it through the writing and reading of books and pamphlets.

Activist work wasn’t invented in the 60s and 70s, but that era’s political climate was heavily, and uniquely, influenced by the civil rights movement, the Stonewall Inn riots, and the second wave of feminism. This, plus the opening of a conversation about whiteness and maleness in publishing (a conversation we’re still having today), led to a vast number of new bookstore openings. Marcus Books, the oldest still-operating African American-themed bookstore in the country, has served the Oakland, CA area since 1960. Giovanni’s Room, America’s first gay bookstore, opened in Philadelphia in 1973. And Amazon Bookstore Cooperative (not to be confused with the online superpower!) served Minneapolis from 1970 to 2012 as the first lesbian/feminist bookstore in the United States.

At their height, these stores served as community hubs, access points to new thought, and spaces to organize.  These aspects were important for LGBT readers, who might otherwise be closeted. Clubs like Daughters of Bilitis, the Mattachine Society, and their kin held meetings in bookstores and provided “newsletters that became lifelines for those in the community that could not be present at group meetings—offering them not only practical information, but also written expression from other queer individuals.” Black-owned Hue-Man Bookstore hosted book clubs and discussions for all of its customers. Feminist bookstores across the country formed a network that sustained new presses and publications that might have been considered “too radical” for the mainstream.

Of course, the last two decades have been strange ones for all independent bookstores, and super-targeted sellers like these are no exception. The rise of Amazon (not to be confused with the lesbian/feminist bookstore!) changed the game for access. Once you could order books online – any book, anytime – the presence of a local vendor to hook you up with Audre Lorde was much less crucial. However, the industry continues to evolve, and recent years have seen a modest return to bricks-and-mortar stores, physical books, and smaller vendors. While there are a number of reasons for this – including Amazon’s manipulation of ebook prices – it’s still very welcome news for those who work in independent bookstores and those who browse them.

And in a way, identity-based bookstores have made themselves difficult to truly replace because they are so personal. Sure, you can order anything you want on the internet – but only if you know it exists. And sure, you can find digital community – but these bookstores invented the modern community model, and pairing these online and offline worlds only enhances both.

Access with no guidance can be overwhelming. A curated shelf, however, is an invitation – which is especially true for new customers, those who are exploring their identities for the first time. This isn’t just a boon for them, either. Authors within minority communities aren’t always given the same time and attention by larger (and still generally white and straight) publishers. Any conduit between readers and writers, and vice versa, helps.

Though many feminist, LGBT, and black-owned bookstores have closed, quite a few remain, and they’re as vibrant as ever. Some businesses, like New York City’s Bluestockings Bookstore and the Bureau of General Services – Queer Division, are entirely volunteer-run.  They welcome both money and time, so that no matter where you are, physically or financially, you can lend a hand. Others, like Chicago’s Women & Children First, use permanent staff but still appreciate your feedback and funding, whether via donation or through good old-fashioned book shopping. You can easily find your nearest feminist, LGBT, and black-owned bookstores and get to reading.

Independent bookstores of any stripe are all about community, and organizations like the American Booksellers Association exist as a resource for everyone involved in keeping the lights on. For the truly brave, the ABA even has a guide to walk you through opening a bookstore of your own. One thing is for sure: no matter who’s in office, book people are a force to be reckoned with. 

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