THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Very early on, I realized the power of people getting together to demand change.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, January 2022
LB: My name is Linda Bubon. Linda Marie, and I was born June 2, 1951. My parents, shortly after my birth, moved to Westchester, Illinois, which was a growing suburb west of Chicago. My childhood was wonderful. My father had a huge backyard garden, and I worked with him in the garden. We had empty lots around us that we called the Prairie, and there were endless hours of exploring the Prairie and later riding our bikes through Westchester.
There was a certain freedom. In the 50s, I think parents were much more encouraged to leave the back doors open and let their kids make friends and learn to play together. I was interested in sports from an early age as well as schoolwork and reading. I started writing poetry when I was seven. I was very deeply religious. As a young girl, I prayed for a vocation.
MJC: That would suggest you are a Catholic family.
LB: Yes, we are a Catholic family, and I went to Catholic school, and my closest friends today are those girls I went to school with. We’ve had 40th reunions and 50th reunions. Grade school reunions because we were such a tight knit group and many of us are still friends.
MJC: What was the name of your Parish?
LB: It was Divine Providence in Westchester. We didn’t have a gym because the church was the gym. Later there would be a separate church built, but all our activities took place in the Mayfair Room, from our choir practices to Friday night smokers and our lunchroom. You’d come in Monday morning, and you knew, there had been a smoker there. Even in my recollection, it seems to me a time where I was encouraged to be smart, encouraged to be active. I had a great group of girlfriends that remain to this day. A sense of sisterhood was certainly present in my Catholic high school.
I got to go with my friends to France the summer after my sophomore year, a trip that I took a job shampooing heads in a beauty shop so I could save enough money. My parents didn’t think it was important to go to Europe. Their parents had left Europe and never looked back and went for a better life in America. And both my father’s and mother’s fathers were coal miners. My uncles were coal miners.
My father was able to escape going into the mines because he was very good helping his mother in the garden and with the younger children and good at hunting and fishing so he could provide for the family in other ways. His mother kept him out of the mines. My father’s parents were from Croatia, and my mother’s mother was from Warsaw, Poland, and her father was from Croatia. So my parents were fluent in Croatian.
My mother and father spoke a kind of pigeon Polish Croatian, Balkan mix, and they didn’t want to teach it to us second generation Americans. That was the old ways. And the new ways were English and get an education. The old ways were keep your family close, support the family, the farm and the younger children. A very common story.
I think what was maybe a little different about my parents was that my mother always wanted to work, and she always felt that a two-paycheck family was better than one. My mom liked to dress well. She wanted to clothe her children in decent clothes. She wanted to send us to Catholic school. Those are little extras that my father’s factory job salary probably wouldn’t have allowed for. So even though it was not a popular idea in the 50s and 60s for women to work outside the home, my mother kind of thumbed her nose and said, why not?
And she also expected the rest of the family to pitch in with the housework and the cooking. She was a bread earner, too, and we all had to pitch in. My brother was eight and a half years older. So, when I came along, I was kind of the “little princess.” At least that’s what they told me when I would complain about anything.
The trip to Europe when I was 16 was informative, really expanded my horizons. And like many of my educational settings and social settings, the trip to Europe was also mostly girls, mostly females. There were 20 or so boys and 120 girls on that trip. So again, I think so much of what I did reinforced that model of sisterhood that I was growing up with.
I didn’t have sisters of my own, so I sought out my friends. I made friends with a girl in Houston. I made friends with a girl in New Orleans. Mom let me travel to New Orleans the next Christmas to spend time with the two of them. I was launching into adulthood in a way that my desire to be a sophisticated woman of the world, but also, I was pushing away the constraints of the 50s and 60s in terms of sexual morays, clothing.
I became a hippie when I went to college. I also had a deep dive into Pentecostal religion when I was in college. And then my first marriage: I made sure my husband was a confirmed Christian before I would marry him. And we got married in a non-denominational church, and we attended one of these charismatic churches. I was looking for deeper experiences, I think. And then early in my 20s, I miscarried our child. And it was a huge shock to me. Huge. I was 22 and had been so healthy, so that was a big blow. And after that, my husband and I split up.
I went to Europe for almost a year, seeking more broadening experiences and seeing more and more of the sexism that I was subject to in the US. I’d always made my part-time living – shampooing, waitressing, waiting tables. And sometimes the outfits were kind of revealing and sometimes the management was a little handsy. Then I worked as a waitress in England, too. And, well, it kind of seemed like men were the same all over the world. And I became more aware that I had to protect myself. So, it was a big education.
And then I came back to the States, continued to wait tables, go to graduate school, marry again, and miscarry again. And the marriage failed. And I fell in love with the woman I was in graduate school with. And that was another big shock to me. But as we drew closer, we had this terrific meeting of minds. I’m fond of saying that Ann Christopherson and I started a conversation in 1978 and are still having it.
We were just grad students with very little possibility for real academic achievement without a PhD – neither of us had a lot of resources to pay for the PhD. We paid for our master’s degrees as graduate assistants. So, we started putting our heads together about what kind of business we might start. And we were also feeling the pressure of being closeted and not being out in this new relationship. I mean, I’d been married twice. Nobody thought I was [gay]. And the idea of having to hide what was a happy relationship was just an anathema to me. I just couldn’t see it. And it was really very early days of gay rights.
I mean, there was very little happening, and bars were still secret places and people gathered at home parties, and everything was a wink and a nod. And I just didn’t want to live like that. And I thought if we had our own business, nobody could fire us for being gay. And we thought about what we knew. And small retailers, entrepreneurs, were kind of popping up all over the place in the 70s, little antique stores and resale shops and independent bookstores.
When we opened Women & Children First in 1979, there were over 60 independent bookstores in the Chicago area. I can’t even tell you the names of half of them, but yes, it was a landscape rich in independent bookstores. We had one locally owned chain, Kroch’s and Brentano’s, and they had a bookstore in the Loop. And then there were just lots and lots of interesting independent bookstores, many of them with a particular niche.
And of course, what we were most interested in was women’s literature. And master’s degrees in literature did not guarantee that you got to read many women. The cannon was so male, white, and mostly dead. You had three courses in Shakespeare, and you had three courses in Renaissance literature. But the Emily Dickinson course was only offered every other year.
And, you know, I kept track of the University of Illinois for a long time in their English Department because we had women working with us who were from those programs at the local universities. And it was incredibly slow to change, incredibly slow, which I think made Women & Children First even more viable, because if you wanted to read women, you weren’t going to do it in school, and you weren’t going to find it in general bookstores.
Feminist bookstores sprouted up around the country in the 80s. We weren’t really one of the first. There were four or five others before us, but by 1990, there had been 100 around the country and in Canada and some in Europe, too. What happens when a movement builds and proliferates? Well, we start having annual conferences, the Feminist Bookstore Network, and we include in that network not just booksellers, but publishers, feminist publishers, feminist newspapers and magazines, all were rife at the time, again, pre-Internet.
And it was just a growing time for the movement, even though we look at the 80s and say, oh, Reagan and backwards and the beginning of trickle-down economics. But in Chicago in the 80s, we had a progressive mayor, Harold Washington, and he set up a committee on diversity of which Ann and I were members.
The bookstore grew from its original location, which was on Armitage in Lincoln Park, and we moved two blocks east. We had a great network in the neighborhood. There were lots of small women’s businesses that gave us advice, helped us out when we ran out of change or ran out of bags. They helped us find an accountant, an insurance agent, and there was a network of trust among those women business owners in that Halstead/Armitage area.
MJC: How did the feminist organizations interact with your business and you with them?
LB: Right. There are networks within networks here so we could talk about the Chicago feminist and activist network that included Chicago NOW, Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, Rape Crisis Advocates, Chicago Women’s Health Center. All these organizations had grown in the 70s. Some of them were splitting apart to create more organizations. There was a distinct split between the socialist feminists in Chicago and the lesbian feminists and the sort of more mainstream feminists. And all these groups came to make friends and find other like-minded people.
And all these networks grew. And again, think about the time before computers, before access to books on the Internet. There were conferences and these organizations, Chicago NOW, Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Illinois Adoption Agencies. They all wanted to have resources, literature tables. And we came to be a very steady and trustworthy partner. And sometimes we had to give back 10% of our sales. Sometimes we didn’t. They just wanted us there.
And then we were able to get to know feminists from all over the country that had come to these national conferences in Chicago or all over the state. I remember even when there was a women’s studies conference in Champagne/ Urbana, we loaded up two carloads with books and drove down to Champagne/ Urbana and sold there because women’s studies were so important.
We can talk about the Chicago feminist network. We can talk about the Feminist Bookstores Network. We can talk about the independent bookstores supported by the American Booksellers Association and that network. I mean, very early on, even if I wasn’t from a union family, very early on, I realized the power of people getting together to demand change, whether that was to stop assaulting our daughters or stop skewing the medical profession towards men and give women a chance. Stop charging us more for insurance. Stop underpaying us.
There were so many issues. Sexism. It affects every single area of all our lives, just as racism does, just as classism does. All these things are intertwined. Now feminists call it intersectional feminism. All these things we have come to understand are intertwined. Some of us work on LGBT oppression and some of us work on women’s oppression in general and some on black women’s oppression specifically. All of it’s part of it, it’s all part of it. It’s not that we are factions. We are all passionate pieces of this many layered movement that has been going on since at least 1848.
And if you look back before that, in the Middle Ages, there were feminists, most of them coming out of convents, as my early role models did. And then we talk about neighborhoods and neighborhood coalitions. Our neighborhood now is not all women business owners, but it’s all small business owners. And we have worked diligently to keep any chain stores out of the Andersonville neighborhood. We do have Starbucks, but besides that, they’re all independent restaurants, independent businesses.
We know that we must support each other. So, we have a very robust Chamber of Commerce that raises their own salaries every year through neighborhood festivals and art walks and bicycle week, all of that. And what’s our participation in all these different organizations? Well, if we go back to Feminist Bookstore Network, Ann and I both participated in all those conferences, and I wrote a column. Feminist Bookstore News was a big, thick newsletter that came out every two months, I believe, to all these 100 or so feminist bookstores.
And many of those bookstores were in small communities where they didn’t have the advantage of seeing sales reps and seeing samples of books and I was getting very interested in children’s literature. I published a column alerting buyers in the smaller stores. What were the really good children’s books? Because in the 80s, we finally were starting to get some books out of mainstream presses that were featuring girl heroines. And it wasn’t until the 2000s that we had great biography series. But that’s something we all kept pushing for and that was my role in FBN.
MJC: I wonder if you could talk about whether you think there was an impact on the number of women authors that came out of this period because of the presence of the women’s bookstores.
LB: Yes. Well, having author events at bookstores was only done for very big celebrity authors who might publish an autobiography or a sports star or a movie star that would do a small tour to major cities. They would be at Kroch’s and Brentano’s, typically at lunchtime. But other than that, touring authors was not done. But just as the feminist bookstores were growing, independent bookstores were growing, too, and ABA members were growing.
And so publishers began to see independent bookstores and fortunately, feminist bookstores, as a genuine market. And so, yes, they began publishing for us, and there started to be – as we would look through the list from the publishers’ reps – there started to be more books for us in every catalog. Like, at first, it was just whatever woman they published that season, we would buy. Whatever woman from history they had uncovered or reissued, we would buy. I don’t even remember very many women of color authors in the early years, but we would buy.
But then it got to be as we moved into the 90s that we had to make a distinction about which women writers we would buy, because now there were so many and there were more romance novels and more mysteries, and we had to start selecting, which was a thrill, frankly.
We started seeing more women’s books reviewed, although that really, again, has taken more than 30 years to get anywhere near parity in the New York Times Book Review or The New Yorker. I mean, I’ve been a subscriber to The New Yorker since the early 80s, and every week I would run down the table of contents and count how many women were there compared to how many men. And I kept subscribing and kept counting. And it hasn’t been until the last ten years. If there’s anything like parity and I say like parity, I don’t keep this careful track anymore. But yes, definitely.
Again, one little bookstore or feminist bookstore can’t make much of a difference in the marketplace. But 100 feminist bookstores, and out of those, maybe 10 that start to have a national reputation as places that really bring in audiences for these particular authors that they know how to sell. Lots more touring through the 90s. And for feminist writers like Gloria Steinem, this was such an opportunity to get the feminist message out to a wider mainstream audience. And she toured tirelessly with each book of essays she wrote.
I mean, she’s a wonderful writer. She’s a brilliant speaker. But it was important to write books to get the message out. And I will tell you, every politician who runs for office shows up on The View with their new book or shows up on Hannity or shows up on MSNBC to talk about their new book. So come on, the book is not dead. -books did not put the book out of business.
And it is still a wonderful way to reach people. So, yeah, you can have an influence, which really you know, as I grew older, I thought, I don’t want money, I don’t want power, but I do want influence. I do want to share good ideas. I do want to share progressive ideas. And I do want to stand up for women wherever I can. I want to be this reliable voice that publishers can call on the phone and say, do you think there’s any interest in such and such, or has she faded from consciousness?
MJC: You and Ann had this business. How did the business shape your life? Or can you talk about that? How it changed over time?
LB: Yes, again in the 80s. Remember, I’m only in my 30s then, and I have traveled and had two marriages and a relationship with my business partner that has ended, and we are now just business partners. And that was not easy. But we cared about the business more than our personal lives. The business was bigger, really from the beginning. We could see that women could relax when they walked in the store. Women could hold hands with their girlfriends if they wanted to. Women could rant about something. Women could come in and sit and cry because they were going through divorce, or they had a new baby and they just weren’t coping.
It was a safe place. And once you get that kind of personal satisfaction, there’s not going to be any stopping – this means something to people. This makes a difference in women’s lives, however small our part, it’s making a difference. So damned with our fussing and fighting. We have a bigger job here. And it’s not easy to be in business with one other person. And it was successful, particularly because we were very different personalities. One goal, one purpose, but very different ways of thinking of how to achieve that.
We had to figure out how to deal with conflict and how to come to compromises. And that, I think, well, profoundly affected me. And I’m sure her, too. And then I wanted to have a child like seven years into this business. I’m turning 34, and I just don’t want to wait any longer. And there is no number one man in my life. And I decide to become a single parent by choice. The most arrogant decision I’ve ever made.
But fortunately, I gathered around me my dear friends and my lesbian friends without children who love children, who would babysit for free. I raised my son in the bookstore. He was there as a baby until he started walking and pulling books off the shelves. Customers held him and entertained him. Customers’ children played in the play pen with him.
Women do business differently. And a business can have room for all of this. It can have room for women to take off time when they’re ill and be supported when they’re having children, when they need you. Now, we can do this in this retail space. It doesn’t have to be some sterile kind of mechanistic kind of place. It can be this loving, warm, nurturing place.
I think Ann and I totally agreed on that. And we also agreed that it had to be a welcoming place for everybody. Rich, poor, able to buy books or not, any race, any ethnic group. Everybody was welcome. We both got involved a little bit in local politics, but then my decision to become a mother kind of took my free time away. Ann devoted herself a lot to local politics. And in our current location, where we have been since 1990, we’ve been very involved with our alderman’s office, our state Senator, our state representatives.
We have been involved in the fight for retailers to demand that States collect sales tax from online retailers. That was a battle I took on in the 2000s. And in the 90s, we had the chains coming into Chicago, and I got involved and helped to start an organization in Chicago called the Independent Booksellers of the Chicago Area. And we printed brochures. We did press releases and newsletters and had brochures that included every one of our stores on them with the hours and information so that we, as independent book sellers, would only recommend each other. Because the chains were sprouting up: first there were three, then there were seven, then there were ten.
And by the end of the 90s, there were 20 B&N and Border stores in the Chicago area. And then in the early 2000s, Borders did another push and put literally five stores in a ring around us, Unabridged Books and a new independent store that had opened in Lincoln Square. And we were just ringed by these Borders stores. Their business practices were poor, and they just kept getting new investors and opening new stores without really having any growth in sales.
So, yes, I became a local political person. I became a national political person when I went to Washington and with other ABA members, lobbied Congress and senators to explain to them what an unfair advantage Amazon and other online retailers had over brick-and-mortar stores and how much revenue States were losing because these taxes weren’t being collected and these goods were being sold somewhere else than a tax paying retailer.
So that was a national struggle that Ann got very involved in. She went to work with the American Booksellers Association as a board member and then as Vice President, and in the mid-90s as the President of the ABA. And she brought a strong feminist perspective and a pro LGBT rights perspective in her dealings with bookstores around the country. And she was instrumental in getting independent bookstores to form the Booksense Group, which then was a more formidable challenge to 200 chain stores around the country.
And eventually we took the chain stores to court. First, the ABA and member stores sued the publishers for giving unfair advantages to these two chains. And we cited lots and lots of examples. And as a result of that, all the independent bookstores in that lawsuit got like $10,000 from Viking Penguin, who were the most egregious in discriminating. We used it to put up a beautiful purple awning outside our store that’s there today – Women & Children First.
So these struggles were about getting the hearts and minds of the American public, certainly. But they were also about pointing out the consequences of moving to an online economy and a big box economy, which was devastating Main Street everywhere. What can I say? I mean, I became a citizen in a much bigger struggle. Clearly, by the end of the 20th century, we knew capitalism had won. But if capitalism was going to be completely unrestricted and entities like independent bookstores were just going to lose out to the big money, is that a country we really want to look at?
Is that a landscape we really wanted? And I think it’s taken another 10 or 15 years. But Borders went out of business and Barnes and Noble had to downsize very dramatically. And although Jeff Bezos lost money the first six years, Amazon has really dominated the marketplace. But I believe that people are beginning to see the consequences of this form of economy. So all of that was exciting.
MJC: Women & Children First has survived this whole time. So, can you talk about the economics and the survival and then tell us what other people’s survival rates have been as well?
LB: Yes. Well, the high point certainly for feminist bookstores was the early 90s. And then, like independent bookstores around the country, they began falling to the chains. We had at one point in the early 90s, over 5500 independent bookstores, 100 feminist bookstores. By 2010, there were 10 feminists’ bookstores left and about 1500 independent bookstores.
The good news is in the last ten years, we have doubled that number of independent bookstores. So Borders leaving and B&N downsizing has really helped. Amazon is still a force to be reckoned with. There’s a new lawsuit out there supported by the ABA, and the first named plaintiff in that case is Nina Barrett, who is the owner of Bookends and Beginnings in Evanston, and she was a Women & Children First worker for almost five years.
The work goes on just as the women’s movement work continues. I was saying the other day how every 10 years the women’s movement is pronounced dead and independent bookstores and the book is pronounced dead and the truth is, the numbers of NOW members, the numbers of Ms. contributors and readers goes up all the time. And the independent bookstores are growing. Feminism has not died. It has grown and grown and continued and reached so much further out too.
Now, you did ask me about the economics. We started by not taking any loans. We started tiny with what we had saved up, and a little bit we borrowed from my mom and a little bit we borrowed from somebody else. But we paid back within a couple of years. Ann and I took no salary at first. When we talk to new business owners, they really don’t like to hear that. But if you have more money to start, maybe you can take a salary.
But we knew before we could begin taking a salary, we had to get bigger. And in order to get bigger, we had to reinvest the money in more books and more events and all of that. So we didn’t take a salary for a year and a half and then a very small one for the next couple of years. We had one employee. I continued to waitress for the first four years part time. Ann continued to teach freshman composition at the University of Illinois as an adjunct for three years.
We did what we could. We scraped by, we lived cheap, and we built everything ourselves. We created our own stationery. We painted our own sign. With all of this, we got help. We knew people who are good at graphic design. That guy showed us how to do stationary. We made friends with the sales reps right away and kind of endeared them to us and exchanged ideas and made our buying sessions fun. So they’d come back and say good things about us and give us credit.
We just frankly grew and grew and kept adding more staff. We moved to the bigger store on Clark Street in 1990 a neighborhood that was developing. So we were taking some chances. We were further from DePaul and UIC, but we were closer to Northeastern and Loyola and Northwestern. So we kind of traded. Instead of picking up business from Oak Park in the western suburbs, we started picking up more business from Skokie and Evanston. So we kept growing.
We were pretty sure we had done the right thing to move to this larger space. The chains were starting to move and develop, but out in the suburbs – they hadn’t come into the city yet. So we made our move before that happened. And we made sure we had a parking lot. We made sure we didn’t have any steps to climb. And we made sure we had more room for browsing. And we put in some seating areas. Not a whole lot, but a window bench and a round table in the middle where people could sit with their kids and a rocking chair and things like that.
And then when the chains did come to the city, it was a blow. But we had kind of been established in that location. So we pretty much kept growing in the 90s, even with that chain competition. It really wasn’t until the recession of 2007 that we suffered a real financial setback. We had some loans out and we had some credit card loans that unfortunately a lack of oversight on Ann’s and my part of our office manager led to increased debt. So we put our heads together and decided that what made most sense, what was the biggest expenses were salaries, and that if we could take the bulk of one of our salaries out and not have quite as many employees, that we could weather it.
Ann took a job with her best friend, who had started Booklog. Booklog is this amazing computer software program for independent bookstores. And she designed it based on our store. We were the beta tester, so the relationship was very close. And Jean was such a good supporter of the bookstore, Jean Fishbeck. And she said, Ann, come work for me for a few years and take your salary out and keep your hand in. She worked one day a week in the store, and we just girded our loins.
And we went to the Midwest Women’s Business Center, another organization that we had sent so many women to over the years. And now it was our turn to go to them and say, what can we do to get our finances back in shape? And they were enormously helpful, and our local bank was enormously helpful. At that point, we were kind of keeping this all a secret. We didn’t want to show any weakness. Then Tracy Baim helped, a most brilliant newspaper editor in Chicago, (she’s the Chicago Reader editor now), but for many years, she was GLBT newspapers main source of information, Windy City Times.
And we had talked to Tracy about not being able to buy advertising, having to really scrimp and save. And when we kind of confessed to her our plight, she said, bring it to the community. Please let me do an in-depth article and present it. She said, people don’t want you to go out of business. You are our treasure, and we need you and bring it to the people. So we did. It was really hard, but we did. And I’m telling you, after that article published, we had our best month in business in several years. People really responded.
Before that, in 2004, we brought together all the women heads of nonprofits that we knew. The Crossroads Fund, Chicago NOW, Chicago Women’s Health Center. We brought together all these wonderful leaders who operated nonprofits. And we said, how can we do a fundraiser? How can we raise money for the store that isn’t direct retail sales? And we’re not a nonprofit – how can we do that? And they helped us figure it out. I mean, it was just amazing.
And they supported this big fundraiser that we threw for our 25th anniversary, and we raised 30 grand. It was marvelous. We even raised money so that we could give to another small feminist organization, Karen Thompson’s Literature For All of Us, which Karen Thomson had started by making a living running book groups on the North Shore for wealthy women who would call her to lead book groups. She took the money she earned from that and she set up a foundation to provide literature to teenagers in poor Chicago schools. Feminist literature about their bodies and sexuality. And she set up this whole wonderful nonprofit. So when we had our 25th anniversary, we made her one of the beneficiaries of the money we took in. It’s such a beautiful chain. It really is. Of feminists who have worked together in Chicago, have supported each other, support each other’s ventures and lend their brain power and their time and their experience without charge just to help you.
So we established the Women’s Voices Fund at our 25th anniversary. And the Women’s Voices Fund became a place where people could make donations to the bookstore through the Crossroads Fund. And we also took donations after programs instead of just a free program, we talked about the Women’s Voices Fund at the beginning of each program and said, “If you would like to help support that, we’re going to pass the hat now.” And some nights, the people in the audience, depending on the author – we had some nights the people in the audience had never been in our bookstore, but they were so thrilled that their cousin was reading there that they threw $20 in or they wrote us a check for $100. You kind of never knew.
We just kept our eyes on the mission of keeping Women’s Voices out there and supporting the work of women writers with small presses, big presses, University presses. We didn’t care. It didn’t have to be a press we were going to get co-op from (when publishers give you some money to advertise). It didn’t matter to us if it was a local author who had self published her work under her own steam, which is to say not through Amazon.
If we deemed that book worthy and that voice important and underrepresented, Women & Children First was there for it. And sometimes we’d collect $3, sometimes we’d collect $150. You never knew. But that made it able for us to buy wine for the programs or soft drinks or to put some posters in the window. And the programs became self supporting. They no longer were a drain on the bookstore. They became a source of revenue.
MJC: So, yes, the revenue you had depended on originally was just from sale of the books, but now you are also getting a little revenue from the events themselves. So that was a good change.
LB: Sometimes you would sell 40 books or 70 books at a program and heck, that was supporting it. But sometimes you brought 10 books for the program and you sold 2, and some of those academic books were $49.50 or something, and people couldn’t afford to buy them. We knew that, but it was still important for that author to get a message out.
I’m very proud of our profamily stance. Early on, I got so annoyed with Republicans being the party of “family values” when it seemed to me anything but. It’s like we cannot ignore the children. We’re living in a country that expects children to kind of raise themselves while both parents go to work. We’re not going to provide daycare. Oh, yeah, you’re going to have to pay for that on your own. We’re not going to help you with giving you flexible hours or allowing you to come in after you drop your kids off at school.
This is a cruel society for parents. I felt it as a single parent when I was my own boss and could dictate my own hours and bring my child to work if I wanted to or needed to. It seemed to me that we had to support families and to support progressive voices about families’ economies, and the nurturing that children require – and not just from their own parents, which is great but they require it from all of us. All of us need to turn to the baby in the department store who’s fussing. We can all just help parents a lot more instead of resenting them because they have to leave early to pick their kid up from school.
MJC: How did that philosophy affect how the bookstore tried to serve parents and children?
LB: Well, from the beginning, we knew we wanted to have children’s books. Even though Ann and I didn’t have children. Where there were women, there were children in their lives. They were teachers, they were aunties, they were grandmas. Children were in women’s lives. That’s what we saw. That’s what we knew. That was the solid evidence out there. So that seemed like the natural other kind of book to sell. And we figured if women weren’t outspoken, demonstrating, activist feminists, maybe they were home with a couple of little kids and they would find something in our store for their children, if not for themselves.
But I will tell you that more and more over the years, I saw that so many mothers liked to come to the store because there was something for their child and something for them. We tried to have the best selection of children’s books we could afford, and those with the most meaningful messages and the most progressive and brave girls and strong girls and girl characters. We encouraged parents to take Brown crayons to the white faces in the children’s book so that their children would feel more at home in the books. Because there were very few books with children of color in them.
We encouraged parents to use she instead of he for an animal. The Very Hungry Caterpillar has always been a she in my story times. Why not? “She started to look for some food”. She’s always been a she. And then as books were being published, there was starting to be a little grouping that we called Great Girl stories. So we created a section of the store. We printed up lists that we would distribute. I made sure I always took those books to conferences, some of the most recent Strong Girl stories or any biographies of women for children.
And then I started doing a story time. I know I started it before my son was born. ’84 or ’85 I started doing a weekly story time on Saturdays for two different age groups. And that was okay. It was attended, but not heavily. And when we moved, actually, even before we moved, while we were still on Halsted, we changed it to a weekday morning, you know, sort of after morning nap time and before afternoon nap time. And that started being much better attended than Saturdays.
Parents, we discovered, just had too many other conflicts on Saturdays, or they wanted a morning to just sleep in late with their kids. So when I switched it to weekdays, then it became much more popular. But it wasn’t until the 2000s that I started getting audiences of like 30 to 50 kids, especially in the summer. I think there were more children in our neighborhood at that point. The word of mouth was really good. I didn’t have to advertise it at all. In fact, I stopped advertising it because it was sort of too many for a while. And we didn’t want to make it a registering thing.
Lots of nannies came to story time with their charges. Lots of moms and dads more often in the more recent past, dads came to story time, but people hung out afterwards and they made friends. And they took their kids to the park together and started chatting with each other. And a couple of the grandmas made friends with each other and started having their kids have play dates together. And a couple of the dads started chatting together, and one neighbor brought another neighbor, and then they’d go out for coffee with the kids afterwards.
So it was community building. It was community building, and it provided an outlet for parents to talk to each other. Here’s the other thing. We always had a toy box. We used to have a little teepee, a little wooden teepee that kids could go inside of. It wasn’t big enough for grownups, but it was just big enough for children, and they could take a book in there and read. We always had sample books for them to play with, and we always had boxes of toys, and people donated them.
It wasn’t like it was a big expense. People would donate toys their kids had outgrown. Once a month, I’d take them home and put them all through the dishwasher. And if you’re a parent, you know that when you go someplace new with your child, that signals to your child “new” toys, even if they aren’t anywhere close to as sophisticated as what you might have at home. It’s new toys. So a busy mom would have time to shop, chat with her friends.
MJC: So at some point you’re getting more to the current time and what you’re working on now, but at some point you change your relationship with the store. Is that right?
LB: Well, yes. In 2013, two significant things happened. Ann and I decided we were going to sell the store in the next year or so. We were both in our 60s, and at the same time that we made that decision and talked about how we would do it and how we would announce it, et cetera., I started developing some muscular pain in my neck. Lo and behold, I have spinal stenosis in my neck. I had to have those bones removed and replaced with plastic. I had an eight hour surgery. Two weeks later, I had to have a second surgery to correct the problem.
And the result was I was in a walker for two months. I was in physical therapy. Well, I’m still in physical therapy, but I was in continual physical therapy for five years. I had a brace, I had a cane, and I still have a limp. I’ll always have a limp. But it was a long recovery. And for a person who had been extraordinarily healthy all her life, a runner. I played five sports in my 50s, five, including competitive running. And all of a sudden I couldn’t walk. I had to re-learn walking, and I had to take a full month off from my business in the hospital. Couldn’t even do things over the phone.
And then I just said, I have to get out of here. It’s December. I have to go back to my store. And then, of course, we were afraid that people would think we were selling the store because I was disabled. It was a very difficult time, and we were getting wonderful responses to our ads to sell the store. We went through Paz & Associates who help booksellers sell and buy stores. And they vetted, like, over 40 potential buyers and got it down to a shorter list.
And then Ann and I had two-hour meetings with eight different parties, all of whom agreed to call it Women & Children First and keep the mission of the bookstore the same. And [they] needed to present us with ideas with how they were going to grow the store because we were fresh out. After another four or five months of the process, we settled on two women who were currently working at the bookstore, and they really had the strongest proposal, a beautiful proposal for growing the store.
And I had faith in them because one was only 30, one was 50, and had worked for us for six years. I knew their feminism, I knew their values, I knew their families, and I knew their work ethic. And they were as different enough from each other as Ann and I were. And I thought that was a good thing, too. And Ann agreed with me. Although we bickered so much over the years, when it came time to sell the store, we were in complete agreement.
The new owners have done a fabulous job with the store. And when we sold the store in August of 2014, I still wanted to work part time, and they wanted me to. I took a position as a bookseller, an hourly position, and I volunteered for nothing. I did my story time, I did my book group, and I worked three days at the bookstore. And then I tapered it down to two, and then we tapered it down to one, and then Covid hit, and the bookstore had to close for instore traffic and turn into an online bookstore, which was my least favorite part of the business.
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t want to learn. I didn’t want to learn all the ins and outs and intricacies of online orders. I didn’t want to sit at a computer for 6 or 7 hours a day. I just didn’t want to do that. And they were really investing in their staff and trying to solidify making enough money to have full time staff with insurance and benefits. They needed to invest in those younger staffers. They really did.
And it seemed like every time I was at a staff meeting, I would find myself saying, well, back in 1992, back in 2001, it’s like, not relevant or well, we tried that before. Well, yeah, we tried that before, and it didn’t work. But maybe it’s going to work now and shut your mouth, Linda. And it’s hard when it’s been your baby for 40 years to just say, Take that baby, you raise it your way. But they’re doing a marvelous job, and I just couldn’t be prouder of them. I know Ann feels the same way, too. Our legacy is intact.
MJC: It is intact. So what are you doing as an activist?
LB: Well, along the way, all kinds of little things I could do with community organizing. And then I guess my most frequent outlet is Facebook. I have opened myself up to the world of Facebook and embraced as many friends whose names I barely recognize as customers, many authors, which just thrills me that so many of the authors who have been at the store over the years have become my Facebook friends. And they share with me when they are working on a new book or when they have a new book out. I can request a galley and be a promoter of that book.
So that’s very satisfying. I’m still promoting women writers that way. And then a lot of politics on Facebook. And for some reason, I don’t get trolled, ever. And everything I put out there that is very radically feminist, radically antiracist, exposing our difficult and shameful past as a racist country, as a sexist country, as a classist country, as a country that exploits immigrants and continues to do so to this day. I post all of that, and I have friends across the political spectrum. I mean, very few Republicans, but a few and certainly people with much more conservative views than mine.
And I share it all with them, and they want to read it. Fine. I’m just going to keep trying to educate, influence. I recently took part in some marches. I went to Washington, the Women’s March, with my dear friend Ellen Larrimore, who also worked at the bookstore for five years. Ellen and I drove to Washington and were there with a half a million women in 2016. It was so amazing. I wore a sign on my back, a pillowcase that I had painted with the words Marching for 45 Years for Peace and Women’s Rights. Never Give Up. I had a couple young children, young men come up to me at the parade and say, “45 years. Awesome. Thank you.”
And then when the Access Hollywood post came out and women around the country rose up to decry Trump as a sexual assaulter, I went with the two new owners of the store down to Michigan Avenue, and we marched and protested together against Trump. And I have been to several more women’s rallies in Chicago and several more pro choice rallies.
I went with childhood friends to Springfield, and we made sure that Illinois will be a state that whether or not Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion will always be legal in Illinois. We keep doing it. I’m in a very progressive place, but there are still opportunities to put my body in place and say, this is what I stand for.
MJC: So, Linda, is there an area or anything that we haven’t covered yet that you want to make sure is included?
LB: I don’t think I got to tell you, either my Molly Ivins or Gloria Steinem or Maya Angelou stories. Those were events that stand out in my memory so well. The first time Gloria came to the store was, I believe, in 1991. We were newcomers in our new neighborhood in Andersonville, and she drew 800 people to the store. We squeezed 300 in. And then the other 500 lined up down the block two blocks long all the way down to the shoe store.
Apparently, the shoe store saw a very good night of sales. And all the restaurants in between us and the shoe store were swarmed with customers and made sure to let us know that in the future, when we have big authors, we have to let them know so they will beef up their staff at the local restaurants. She was a wonderful way for us to get in well with our neighbors. And she came in and she came in through the back door with Carol Mosley Braun, who was running for US Senator. And she came in and they stood up together with their hands, their fists high in the air.
And Gloria spoke. Carol spoke. Gloria put a signing sheet for volunteers for Carol’s campaign. And it was this activist event with 800 people. After the first 300 filed out and the people who had waited on the street got in, Gloria said, “You didn’t get to hear me talk.” And she stood up on this table we had on the stage and talked for another 20 minutes and took questions. She was so funny, so wonderful. And we did several other events with her. She always had women of color with her.
Her most recent event she did with the bookstore was at a big venue that held 1100 people. And she invited Roxane Gay to be with her and dialogued with her. She’s just the best. She’s been such an example to me over the years of how to be an activist and how to be a leader by pushing other people to the front. When she came in the mid-90s, her publicist called and said, “Oh, I’m in big trouble with Gloria. She only has a school in the morning and your event in the evening. Can you find something else for her to do? Some people she can speak to because she won’t want that break in her day.”
Okay, I have three days. What do I do? I called every woman journalist I knew and some of these women who were heads of the nonprofits, who were doing amazing work in the women’s community. And I invited them all to a lunch at a restaurant down the street. We took over a private dining room upstairs. And 20 women sat down around the table, just so eager to hear what Gloria would tell them. And Gloria said, “Wow, I’m so glad you’re all here. Now we’re going to go around the table and you’re going to tell me the good work you’re doing.”
And as each woman talked about her work, you could see the pride, the sense of purpose that came across because, yes, we were all doing this important work. And Gloria was there just to cheer us on and help us connect with each other. She didn’t have grand advice for us. She just wanted to listen. And that was a huge lesson to me.
Maya Angelou came to the store in 1986, and I remember very distinctly it was the spring of ’86 because I was six months pregnant with my only child. We were so excited. We had not had an author of her stature at our second little store. And she again came around the back door. Her cab let her off in the alley. And Anne and I were there just on our tip toes to meet her. And she graciously said, oh, you must be Ms. Bubon and you must be Ms. Christophersen.
She had made a point of learning our last names. Tell me what they look like, which one is which before she even got there. “We are so honored to have you, Dr. Angelou.” And then she said, “I came down with a terrible head cold and I’m not going to be able to perform tonight.” And our faces just fell because now there were 100 people gathered in 1500 sq ft to meet her. And she said, “But I will sit at your signing table, I will sign every book. I will take pictures. I will talk with everybody.”
And we said, “Whatever you want.” And so she did that for over 2 hours. And there were still about 40 or 50 people left. They were standing around anxiously waiting for her to say something else. And she got up and said, “And now I think I will perform for you three poems.” She did Phenomenal Woman and two other poems. And we were all just gobsmacked. She’s six foot tall, she’s regal, and her performance was so beautiful. And then she came over and she put her hands on my pregnant belly and she blessed the child within and wished me good luck with the birth. She was also a single mother of a boy. And I just felt like – the moon. I was just over the moon.
The Rita Mae Brown story goes back even further, although we had her many times over the years and later into the 90s. But the first time was 1981. She had written Southern Discomfort, her third novel with Harper and Row. Harper Collins, Harper and Row. Sorry, it’s Harper Collins now. And [they] sent her on tour. And Rita Mae Brown was a poor girl who was newly rich on her publishing and just as sassy as you can imagine, the author of Rubyfruit Jungle.
And she marched down Armitage Avenue in a full length to her ankles mink coat with the diamonds shining in her ears and just gave a hilarious and wonderful reading. And when asked about her recent fortune, said, “You know, I’m a poor girl. I don’t know about stocks and bonds and all those things. I know what I can touch and see and feel. So I buy fur coats. I’ve got some beautiful cars now and I’ve got some jewelry and I’m going to buy horses and a horse farm.” And that’s just what she did over the years.
So those are just three priceless stories that I love to tell because it means I got to brush arms with these fabulous people and be influenced by their genius and their confidence. I’ve been very blessed.
MJC: Feminism can be fun, too.
LB: Oh, my goodness. That was the worst myth about feminism ever. I mean Nicole Hollander, our Chicago treasure of a cartoonist and her Sylvia cartoons. Nicole had such a wonderful influence on the store over the years and Sara Paretsky who is a great hard boiled mystery writer but she is a champion for pro choice in Chicago and she was champion for Women & Children First over the years. So many local authors who made good, they never forgot that they gave their first reading at Women & Children First. Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros. Both of them gave their very early, if not their first readings at the bookstore. Yeah, that’s a wonderful history to have and gosh, we sure had a lot of fun. Absolutely had a lot of fun.