THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“We wanted a form of employment where we could not be vulnerable to other people’s decisions.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, July 2022
AC: My name is Ann Christophersen. I was born in 1948. I lived in a small town in northwest Indiana, Crown Point, Indiana. I was born in Gary because my town was little enough that there weren’t hospitals in it. I lived in Crown Point until I was about 17 years old. I had what I thought of at the time as just a delightful childhood. I had lots of fun. We lived in what I thought of as the country because it wasn’t in town, which is where a lot of my friends lived – a mile and a half out of town. It was a lot of playing outside with the kids in the neighborhood and having horses, other animals, taking care of them. It was just a nice way to grow up, for me, anyway.
Some of the circumstances in my childhood that I think influenced my feminism really started at a very young age. I grew up in a large family. I had a brother who was four years older than me. Then my next sister was four years younger. Then there were three younger brothers and sisters who came pretty close together. There were six kids, and my being the oldest girl meant as I got a little older, I did a lot of caretaking for the younger kids.
I remember when I was young, and our parents were distributing tasks that I had a pretty strong sense of justice and equality and fair play between my older brother and me. If one of my brother’s chores was cutting the grass, I wanted to cut the grass. If my chore was doing the dishes, I wanted my brother to participate in that task equally.
My mother, though never a declared feminist, at least as far as I know, was certainly supportive of that. Even though in many ways, she was a typical housewife while we were growing up, she was a pretty independent spirit. In her past, she had made decisions about her own life and what she wanted to do, even when that wasn’t the expected way or the conventional way to behave. I think she brought to her marriage and us children, an idea of fair play.
MJC: What’s the ethnic/religious background of your family?
AC: My family is Norwegian on my dad’s side, Irish on my mother’s side. My father was second-generation Norwegian. We were not WASPs exactly, but ethnically white and European. Thinking about this interview brought out thinking about my childhood and how fierce I was about independence. I was happy to take care of my brothers and sisters and play a role that way. My mother was careful to not over ask.
She was not a working mother while she had children at home. And my mother had an experience that I think helped inform her, which was she was teaching high school when she was pregnant. After she got married and was pregnant with my brother, she had to stop teaching because the high school she was working at required that pregnant women, once they were showing, couldn’t teach. I don’t know if she had said if she resented it, but I was always like, “I can’t believe that,” from when I first heard it.
Another thing that I was aware of was how not only independent I was, but how competitive I was with boys. There were many more boys. I had one girl in my neighborhood, and we hung out and did certain things, but I played sports and all kinds of games and things like that with boys. I was very conscious of being a girl in the middle of a gang of boys and I was competitive. I wanted to be a full member.
MJC: Did you play sports with boys?
AC: Yes, that was definitely a part of it.
MJC: Did you go to public schools?
AC: Yes, I went to public schools. Everybody in our town did. I can’t think of anybody who went to private schools. We all went to public schools or Catholic schools.
MJC: Was there talking about your going to college?
AC: All of us went to college. My dad was first-generation college graduate; he went to school and became a lawyer and was always ambitious. Both my parents were very interested in education and the promoting of education. There was an assumption for all of the kids growing up that we go to college.
MJC: Great, so that wasn’t a struggle. What were some other things in high school that you remember that might have affected your feminism?
AC: I wish I could have talked to this man to ask him, but the guy who was my high school boyfriend, when I came back to reunions, talked about how fiercely feminist I was in high school. Now, I can’t remember exactly what he was referring to. This was, I don’t know, 45 years ago or so that we met up again after 40 years. But I was surprised by that because there weren’t particular things in my mind about that.
I feel like I had an intuitive, experiential feminism growing up, including going through high school. There wasn’t a whole lot on a conscious level that I can claim, other than all the things mentioned earlier about growing up that carried through high school. I played sports, of course. At that point, things started becoming much more gendered. It was way pre-Title IX. There were boys’ teams and girls’ teams, and boys’ teams were much advantaged, the usual.
MJC: You graduated from high school and where did you go to college?
AC: I went to Indiana University. It was where my parents had gone, and where my brother before me went. Also, I ended up graduating [high school] a year early just due to circumstances, not because I was a particularly bright student, but because my parents were moving, my dad got transferred. I didn’t want to move to a new town in eastern Ohio for my last year in school. I just met the senior requirements in the spring of my junior year and the summer after my junior year. I got it in mind I would go to Indiana. It felt like a default. But then with those circumstances, I definitely did.
MJC: You stayed back in Indiana and the rest of them went to Ohio. Then you went to Indiana University. What did you study there?
AC: English Literature is what I got my major in. The last year of school, I decided to add enough education classes so I could teach because I started thinking about, “Well, what the hell am I going to do now when I get out of school?” I have to say that education was the fallback position for women at that time. People said, “Well, be sure and get an education degree so when you get married, you’ll be able to either keep working or…” Marriage, of course, being the assumption. That always made me mad, which is why I postponed the decision to make what indeed was a practical decision given that I decided to be an English major.
MJC: This is the ’60s. Were you involved in any political organizations or social feminist organizations in college?
AC: I wasn’t involved in any feminist organizations. My introduction to a political life really was the movement against the Vietnam War. I was in college from ’66 to ’70. I have to say, I was buried in my studies. I loved school and I took lots of different things. It was the first time I’d been away from small-town Indiana. It was still small-town Indiana, but it was a 27,000-student body. It was a grand new world for me. I wasn’t very aware of the women’s movement during that time but I was very involved in the anti-war movement.
MJC: What kind of things did you do at the anti-war movement?
AC: Mostly, I went to various sit-ins and educational sessions and marches and things like that. I wasn’t an organizer. I wasn’t a leader, but I was a participant.
MJC: What was your intention when you graduated? Were you intending to stay in Indiana?
AC: No, I definitely didn’t want to stay in Indiana, but I was going to teach until I figured out what else I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t go outside of the Midwest, but I applied to some high schools and various cities in the Midwest. I ended up coming to Chicago, went to a job fair there with the educators where I ended up getting a job. It was in Oak Park, actually, which is a suburb and I worked there for three years.
MJC: Were you teaching high school?
AC: I was teaching junior high, actually. My certification was 7th grade through 12th grade. That was the job I took.
MJC: How was that? Were there any politics in Oak Park that you were part of?
AC: I’m sure there were politics in Oak Park but none that I was really part of. I have to confess that I didn’t really get politically active other than my college experience until the late ’70s. I’m not sure I should be even part of your enterprise here, because I’m not really second wave. I got involved in the late ’70s, so a little corner of second wave.
MJC: Well, we define our project from the ’60s through ’82, so you’re right in the middle, or at least within the parameters of what we’re doing. Plus, the bookstore is huge. Anyway, you’re teaching in Oak Park. What else is notable there in terms of feminism or anything?
AC: Actually, here’s one small action I took when I was teaching at the suburban school. There was still a dress code for women, I mean probably for everybody. I dared to be the first woman to wear slacks to school. Small thing, but it did open the conversation in my junior high school.
MJC: And you didn’t get fired?
AC: No, I didn’t get fired. Oak Park is enlightened enough. It didn’t occur to me that I could get fired. Now, being a lesbian was the kind of thing that I don’t know for sure would have gotten me fired, but I was definitely concerned.
MJC: Were you out to yourself? When did you come out to yourself?
AC: I didn’t really come out to myself, even though I’d had several relationships. I also had a serious relationship with a man, too, in the ’70s. I have to say, I didn’t really come out myself for real. I mean, I’d come out to my parents once in the ’70s.
MJC: Oh, you did?
AC: Yes. But I still wasn’t convinced myself. It was just I’d had a serious relationship and a very painful parting of ways. But the parting of ways was because I didn’t think I could be a lesbian, and again, live as a lesbian. I didn’t know other lesbians. That wasn’t my experience yet. I was still in many ways that small-town Indiana, in my 20’s. I have to say it was probably maybe as late as 1978 before I actually said it to myself, “Ann, you are a lesbian.” I don’t know that I said it out loud, but it felt like it was a moment of acceptance.
MJC: When did you get active or when did you get involved in the bookstore? When did you meet Linda?
AC: Linda and I met in graduate school.
MJC: You want to talk about that? When was graduate school?
AC: That was in the mid-’70s. We were both studying, getting our MAs in English Literature, and planning on getting PhDs, or at least I was. I can’t remember if Linda was or not, but I think she was. We had a tight cohort of friends in college, both women and men.
MJC: Where did you go for grad school?
AC: University of Illinois, Chicago. We worked together, got to know each other, then had a lesbian relationship for a while. And in casting about when virtually all of us decided we weren’t going to get PhDs because you couldn’t get a job anywhere. All our advisors said that you’d have to get your PhD in Rhetoric if you want to teach and research. A lot of us just didn’t want that. A few went that route. The rest of us were casting about for what we wanted to do with our lives and our careers.
To make a long story short, Linda and I batted around the idea of opening a feminist bookstore. The feminist bookstore came more from graduate school academic experience. That was kind of an awakening for both of us. We joined a literary criticism group called The Newberry Library Feminist Literary Criticism Group. It was academic women at various universities around Chicago who had started this group, but feminist literary criticism was fairly new.
We joined that and participated in that for a few years while we were in graduate school, and that got a certain level of feminist juices flowing. Barking about women in the canon and how many women were denied, who couldn’t participate or hadn’t been accepted into the old boy’s club, literarily speaking. Linda, I know, joined NOW sometime in graduate school. I think it was a few years later that I joined NOW.
But back to the bookstore. The questions we were trying to answer for ourselves were: We wanted a form of employment where we could not be vulnerable to other people’s decisions. Where I, as a lesbian, where Linda, as a bisexual woman, could, unlike in public schools at the time, or probably lots of other places, could, at whim, with exposure, be kicked out.
MJC: In some way this was part of the reasoning for getting to the idea of the bookstore.
AC: Right. Obviously, because both of us pursued an academic career in English Literature, books were an obvious thing to think of. Really, our thinking was along the lines to some extent of, we really need to be a specialty store, because in Chicago at the time, many of the stores were general bookstores which, in our minds, translated to men’s bookstores because of what they carried. We thought, you know what? Let’s start a women’s bookstore with a feminist mission. That idea grew, and then as we further talked about it and came to define it, and eventually began after a year and a half, two years conversation, became Women & Children First.
MJC: How did you think of yourselves as businesswomen as well as entrepreneurs at the start? Can you talk about that a little bit? How you came to that?
AC: Actually, we came to that totally by the seat of our pants. Neither of us had worked in business. Linda had made her living most of her years until then during graduate school, waiting as a waitstaff. After I graduated from graduate school, I worked as a lecturer at University of Illinois at Chicago in English until a couple of years after we opened the bookstore, because we weren’t making any money on the bookstore.
We talked to people, is essentially what we did. I went up and visited a feminist bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin which had been in business for five years and was run by a very smart businesswoman who’s been a friend of mine since. She was just here last week, actually. She and the owner of, it was part of a co-op at the time, but eventual owner of Amazon Books, which was in Minneapolis. She and Sandy from A Room of One’s Own in Madison, where I still get together to go bike riding a couple times seasonally, fall and spring every year. Used to be cross-country skiing, but we’re too old for that, at least a couple of us feel like we are. Too brittle.
Anyway, I got a job actually not knowing any better. When I look at it in retrospect, it wasn’t the best idea. There was a B. Dalton’s that was opening in Chicago the summer before we wanted to open the bookstore. I took a job there thinking that opening a bookstore would be good experience since we were going to. The problem was opening a chain store isn’t a lot like opening a small independent store, but I still learned lots of lessons there. I made contacts with people who were very helpful.
One guy in particular, who was a gay man, had worked in bookselling in all kinds of settings for 45 years, so he was a great help in many ways. Then we got resources. Linda went to bookselling school, which was the American Booksellers Association offered schools to learn how to be a bookseller. We did a variety. We talked to people in the neighborhood that we planned to open in to find out what professionals they used, like what accountant or what lawyer.
We learned by talking with people who knew things that we identified just as things unfolded, and we thought of things we needed to know. We visited lots of bookstores to get a sense of bookstore design because we built all our own shelves. We did everything by ourselves, with considerable help from friends, of course. But we put the bookstore together from scratch. All we had invested in were the materials to build things and in our opening stock of books.
MJC: How did you raise the money? You had to have some cash, right?
AC: We had some cash. Linda took out a loan from her parents. A modest loan for $5,000, I think. I had been given a modest amount of stock, and I sold my stock. I came up with about $5,000, too. Our opening cash was really just $10,000. But it was 1979. It was something you could not do today, obviously, and probably couldn’t have done for many years after we did it.
We had to pay for material for the interior of the store, but we could buy books on credit once we figured out how to do that, which was essentially somebody, I think this guy from B. Dalton who had worked all kinds of places, told me, “Just get credit with one sales rep. If he or she can get you credit from,” this guy worked for Doubleday, “then you could use Doubleday as a reference, and other publishers would extend.”
Then there was what was Harper & Row at the time. The Harper & Row representative was a very strong feminist and a lesbian. She gave us all kinds of help, including getting us authors. If you don’t know the industry, the way bookstores get most of the authors that come into the store is through their sales rep, because the sales rep has all the connections up the way. It’s their job to decide where an author best belonged. Pat helped us get significant authors early on, because Harper was a big publisher.
MJC: What was the address of the first location?
AC: 922 West Armitage. The rent, I think, was $400 a month.
MJC: When did you open? Do you remember your opening date and year?
AC: November 10, 1979. It took us a little while to get on the map. It wasn’t instantaneous for sure. But the way we started was we understood that publicity was important, getting authors that would generate publicity was essential, and creating activities. We were going to do this anyway. It’s a very intertwined situation. Because we had a written mission, we had all kinds of things we wanted to use the bookstore for.
We envisioned it as a place for gathering, feminists, lesbians, feminist gatherings. We viewed it as a place that would provide literature for the movement and education. We talked about it as, in a sense, our way of also having an ongoing education and learning more about feminism, the movement, bringing people, women, largely, together to talk about feminist issues. Some of our very earliest work was putting together panels at the store to talk about what was a new field at the time, which was feminist psychology. Another panel we put together was one on incest. The book was starting to come out about incest.
We weren’t established in a way where publishers would send authors to us yet. In fact, there were a whole lot of books that were just then starting to come out on some of these subjects. I still remember vividly the panel on incest. I remember the look in one of the panelist’s eyes when she talked about the way in which she’d been violated and traumatized.
MJC: These were topics that weren’t discussed as part of the women’s movement, right? I mean, basically.
AC: It wasn’t like we went into it knowing a lot of these things. We were certainly aware of issues that we wanted to address and get people who knew something, either were professionals like the feminist psychologists or were survivors to get in to talk about their experiences. So we did a lot of panels like that, and we promoted them. We had a newsletter that Linda and I did with letterpress. We made a t-shirt the same way, that had women writers’ names all over it, but we made it.
It worked, and we started publishing a monthly newsletter that we distributed to women’s centers and asked them to post. We got a lot of support. A lot of people were interested in having us on the North Side as a bookstore and as a resource, as part of the women’s community. Always part of the store was promoting information and other women’s feminist organizations. We were just part of that community and wanted to contribute to that.
MJC: Do you think women came to the bookstore not only for the books but to find organizations and support and information?
AC: Yes. That was something that didn’t happen right away either, although once organizations started sending us information, we could post it. As we grew, as people, women in particular, became more aware of us, we were called all the time for resources. Someone, a woman getting divorced, might call and say, “Do you know any feminist lawyers?” Or, “My neighbor is a battered woman. Do you know resources here?” We had very much a role supporting individual women in any way we could that we were really able to. We weren’t psychologists. Our role was not to provide things we weren’t knowledgeable about, except for resources for them.
MJC: What was the best about it, and what were the challenges?
AC: It’s almost in a sense, the best and worst, were sort of flip sides of the same issue. It was really exciting to be a part of creating a space for women that was books, periodicals and other printed material. Our Bodies, Ourselves, things like that, books and other printed material that were important to women and to the movement. We were also very literary.
I’m digressing now, but that was our background. We were also interested in promoting the work of women writers, both locally and nationally. We have a strong relationship with the Chicago area women writers and worked to promote their work, but also, we were interested in the national scene and making books by women more available. We were also very active in what was a very important movement at the time that was part of the women’s movement, which was the Women in Print movement because there were small presses growing up that published things that mainstream presses weren’t touching, were not aware of or thinking about, were rejecting.
MJC: Could you give us some examples?
AC: Early lesbian fiction. Since the ’50s, certain publishers had always published pocket books, really sensationalized lesbian writings.
MJC: Pulp fiction, kind of?
AC: Pulp fiction. But there wasn’t very much political publishing by and about women of color. And that was a very important subject that a Black feminist press took on. It’s really the network of feminist bookstores across the country and some libraries and the academy, some universities that made these books available. So white feminist bookstores, I think, played such a key role in the women’s movement because it was a part of making us aware of issues that we may or may not have thought about before.
And there were several presses that focused on lesbian literature. And some were a little more academic, or had a more intellectual grounding as well as political grounding. And some were a little more, not pulp fiction, but in that direction. But all of a sudden there was the Feminist Press, which published things that have gone out of print by women, important books that have gone. There was a whole flourishing in the mid-’70s, but even more in the early ’80s, books by women on subjects that hadn’t been published very much and weren’t generally available. You needed a feminist bookstore to get them.
MJC: Right. You created the market, or the market was out there that nobody was addressing and you helped make that connection.
AC: Right. And all these feminist publishers and also there were issues even sometimes with getting books printed because printers wouldn’t touch them. There were feminist presses that started publishing rejected lesbian material. I started all of that to answer what I see as the two sides of the issue. The first was, that was the excitement, that things were happening. People were thrilled about it. So happy to get this material that hadn’t been available and talk with other people.
I suppose this is still true but to a much more limited extent, but if you were what was then called more readily victimized by incest or domestic abuse. A lot of women for a long time felt like they were alone in that experience and couldn’t talk about it. It was very exciting to play a role in making the invisible, visible, for women and enabling the process of starting to be able to get a grip on that. Starting with, no, you aren’t alone and here are resources and other people who speak about it. So that whole side of the bookstore felt important. I was so grateful to be part of that.
I forgot to talk about something earlier when talking about our mission or deciding to open the bookstore and deciding to open a feminist bookstore, is we saw it as a way to contribute to the women’s movement, and we saw it as a way to, well we were both very social justice oriented by then, even though I was still young and intellectually young in social justice. I was a kid during the civil rights movement. Anyway, I was conscious, let me say. And we wanted to do something that mattered.
When you came up in that time, one of its valuable social messages that lots of us had was there are more important things than making money, than just rising in a hierarchy, that old notion of hierarchy was being challenged by feminists. It was to do something useful, something that mattered. I guess the other side of it that I was thinking of, and we’ll see if this makes sense is that so much of what I learned and saw was just awful.
For example, learning about the extent of incest, learning about its impact on women’s lives, all the forms of sexual violence that limited, diminished, impaired, ruined, in some senses and to some extent, was just hard to learn. The antidote to that clearly was trying to be part of doing something about it. That’s always what’s useful about being engaged in progressive politics and feminist politics, civil rights politics, and environmental politics is that doing something always feels better than just thinking about how terrible it is. The knowledge often was hard to take. It was very painful.
MJC: How about struggles with the bookstore, just keeping it going. Was that a challenge?
AC: I guess in a sense it was always a challenge because we opened, you could say we were always under-capitalized from the get-go. And both of us had limited work experience up to that point. Neither of us, as I said, had any business experience. And even though I was 29, maybe even 30, and Linda was a few years younger than that, 27, 28, we were still very naïve about the way to run a business and didn’t have the skills in many respects to do that.
MJC: How did you compensate for that? How did you deal with that to keep it going?
AC: We were very active in participating in learning opportunities for book sellers. And over time, that grew to include more and more subjects, topics about business skills. So that was a source of some education. We decided just to abandon, not even try, to do things that required the kind of expertise that, A) was going to take a while to learn, and B) neither of us were interested in learning, even though we should have been and we needed to be. So, we hired professionals to do this kind of work.
We made a lot of good decisions that I don’t know if I could claim were particularly well-informed but turned out to be good. For example, because we started with so little capital, we decided we weren’t going to take anything. We weren’t even going to think about taking a salary out of the store. We’re just going to put everything back into the store and make our livings doing something else until the store was large enough.
MJC: You both had other jobs?
AC: Linda continued waiting tables. We structured our work schedules so she could be at the store when I was working at the University of Illinois and vice versa. But we had help from some of our graduate school friends who volunteered to help out and we didn’t have to pay anyone. One or the other was essentially there and both of us much of the time.
MJC: They were enjoying building the institution and being part of it too. That’s good.
AC: We rather quickly outgrew our first space, which was, I told you, $400 a month. But it was also only about 800 square feet. Probably only about 600 square feet of selling space. That’s small. I mean, there are bookstores today that still are that size. But anyway, we doubled our space five years after we started.
MJC: Tell us the new address.
AC: The new address was 1967 North Halsted. That was in our same neighborhood. It was only about two blocks away so we knew we wouldn’t lose our customer base. Our third move felt riskier because we were totally out of the neighborhood. We had been in Lincoln Park for 11 years. For a variety of reasons, including the building we were renting at a reasonable rate being sold and the neighborhood being gentrified and we needed more space again. So, we went to North Clark.
MJC: What was the year that you started?
MJC: It’s 1979. So now you moved to Clark Street in 1990.
AC: We’ve been around in two different locations for around 11 years. But that 5233 North Clark Street was 30 blocks north of where we were, which in cities that are rather parochial in some respects, that’s far. But here was something that was clever, I thought, speaking of good decisions we made, we did an informal survey on the Halsted place of zip codes. So, we would ask everybody who came in just to put down their zip code.
And by that information, we could tell that the area that we were considering moving into at the time, that a lot of our customers were already there. We knew we’d lose some of the local business, but there were other businesses there and the new neighborhood had a lot going for it, including a great vocation. Some of the challenges, which is what you asked me were, I think, our lack of business knowledge. But still, somehow, we stayed, by just being alert adults.
MJC: Right, you learned as you went.
AC: Reading all the material about bookstores and bookselling and being active in our national trade organization and getting the education and all of that. My closest friend at the time who was in computer work, decided she wanted to develop an inventory point of sale (POS) inventory system for independent bookstores like ours. And the same friend, who is somebody I’m going to suggest you talk to, opened [a bookstore] in 1970, or even earlier.
She went to school on the West Coast and was very active earlier in the women’s movement, and opened a small feminist bookstore in San Diego, I think. Because Gene was doing this, she and I lived together at the time, actually. And I was very weary of our inventory system. I mean, a lot of people had used this kind of system. I had just gotten where I could hardly stand it. Using three by five file cards. I was really keen on computerizing. Linda, not so much at first but agreed to it. And we were one of the earliest stores to computerize POS’s. It wasn’t very sophisticated at the time, but it grew much more sophisticated. It’s still in use by Women & Children First now and Gene gave special deals to feminist bookstores around the country so it was affordable for them. She made a great contribution with that technology.
MJC: You played a role in some of the national booksellers’ organizations, I think?
AC: Yes. I played a role in the American Booksellers Association (ABA).
MJC: Talk about that a bit.
AC: My friend who owned A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wisconsin, which I mentioned earlier, helped to research sources and places and persons that were extremely important. Sandy was on the Board of the ABA prior to my being on the Board. She said, “You know, Ann, with all the things, all the Boards you’ve been on and organizations you participated in in Chicago, I think you would really like and have something to contribute to ABA.” She nominated me, which is how people get on the Board. If you get nominated, you essentially will be on the Board. It’s voted on nationally, but nobody votes no. It’s a perfunctory election.
I got on the Board that way and I really did love working with the Board. It was great to be with booksellers across the country. The ABA played a really important role actually starting about that time, totally reorganized how we did our work. It was a much smaller Board, so it was much easier to get things accomplished. The staff leadership was open to big ideas.
One of the big ideas that came out the first year I was on the Board, and in my letter to the nominating committee for the Board, I had written about how strongly I felt about the need to organize independent bookstores nationally to compete with national chains. I happened to be thinking along the same lines that some others were thinking.
Part of a perfect time at my second Board meeting, a guy from the West Coast who was head of the Regional Bookselling Association, their regional association had actually come up with a program that they recommended the Board consider, which was just that; a start of how to organize nationally so that we could compete. Bookstores had already started falling off left and right because of competition in bookstores that were coming everywhere. We had certainly suffered from that. Being part of that and working on that was good.
I was on the Board for two years. Then the third year, the nominating committee asked me if I’d be willing to serve as Vice President. I said yes to that. When you serve as Vice President, unless you either do a terrible job or there’s some compelling reason not to become President, you become President. I was on the Board from 1998 to 2004. There are Board limits. There are six-year terms, two three-year terms.
MJC: That was good.
AC: That was good. Yes, that was very helpful for our bookstore too because we were already significantly on the map nationally. Because we demonstrated in the ’80s that we could host authors and get sales.
MJC: You promoted some new sales ideas to the book industry?
AC: We did that as the ABA Board. But as a bookstore, you have to earn your place nationally to get national authors. You earn that by getting some people to trust you, and then developing your capacity and thereby developing your reputation. At first, we got some great authors because we were a feminist bookstore, and we were identified as a lesbian bookstore.
We got Mary Daly, for instance, early on. We got Rita Mae Brown early on, and got good audiences, had good book sales. Then we just continued to do that; be active in soliciting authors to come, but also demonstrating to publishers that we could get the audience turnout and the book sales to justify it. That was an important part of our bookstore economy. It would have been much harder, perhaps impossible to survive [without that].
MJC: That’s how you learned a little something about how to sell books?
AC: Yes, and how we needed to position ourselves. That’s been very important. We did Jimmy Carter’s last book event, for instance. It was on violence against women. We pretty routinely got any author we wanted. We always got Gloria Steinem. There were people we always got once we were established. Although we still focused on women, we had a couple of men who had written important books.
MJC: Would you say that the movement built the bookstore and the bookstore built the movement?
AC: Absolutely. It was symbiotic, no question about that.
MJC: In terms of you personally, when did you decide that the time in the bookstore was coming to an end? Is there anything we’ve missed that you want to talk about the bookstore before we go to that?
AC: Well, the bookstore is still going very strong.
MJC: I know the bookstore still exists. I do know that, yes, and has survived the pandemic, apparently, which was no small task.
AC: Also, it was the result of the capacity to sell books online, started back in 1998 with the development of this national independent bookstore collaboration, that over time, one of its important essential components, internet sales capacity that any independent bookstore could be part of for a very reasonable fee. Women & Children First in all the bookstores that did somewhere from staying alive to doing actually pretty good. That was all online sales.
MJC: Was that partly in response to Amazon coming into the world?
AC: Yes, that started as a response to, not just Amazon, but the big earlier players also had an online book presence. That was, certainly, in response to Amazon, but also just to be competitive, we needed to be able to do online sales.
MJC: The way people are buying merchandise is different.
AC: So that was essential to many bookstores, that they could sell books online when businesses were closed.
MJC: Are there other things that you participated in the women’s movement or the bookseller movement that we haven’t talked about yet?
AC: I participated in a number of organizations that weren’t directly women’s movement organizations. For me, maybe I always thought of it as the feminist movement and less as the women’s movement.
MJC: That’s an important distinction.
AC: Yes, but they were the same in my mind. I always have had a big umbrella approach, what today is called intersectional, anybody’s struggle, although the focus for me was on the feminist movement. This is true for Linda too, that any struggle for rights, liberation, equality, justice, et cetera, was part of this umbrella. We worked not only for women’s rights, but also worked intersectionally because they’re important causes, but also to build allies. I eventually had quite a lot of visibility as a lesbian. I was constantly in a lot of lesbian/gay organizations.
MJC: Tell us about that.
AC: Linda and I were both on the Mayor’s committee, that is Mayor Harold Washington’s committee on gay Muslims. That was one. I was in a political action group called Impact that supported candidates who had good politics on lesbian and gay issues, but also pro-choice. I worked through that to raise money to support candidates that way.
One group that was very important to me, and I was so happy when I was asked to join, was a group in Chicago called the Crossroads Fund. It was a public foundation that raises money to give to grassroots organizing groups across the city. It was all kinds of groups, all kinds of ethnic groups. It was all for equal rights and justice, lesbian gay women, but more actually on organization, people of color, essentially. I was on that committee for a good while. I thought the work was really important and I loved meeting people through that work and going on site visits to CHA housing and organizations that were trying to organize help.
MJC: That’s fantastic. Does that work continue, Ann? What are you up to these days?
AC: The work that I’m doing right now is, I’m on the Board of a private foundation that gives money to pro-choice organizations, and to women’s arts organizations, girls’ sports, an organization called Girls for Science. All programs that support girls and women. I’m on that Board. I’m also on the Board of a women’s theater company called Rivendell Theater. It’s been around for 25 years. We just celebrated our 25th anniversary last year. Well, actually it was two years ago, but there was COVID so there was not a whole lot of celebration. Last year was the main celebration.
The theater group focuses on new plays by women and women’s issues, the material that’s of particular interest to women. It’s got a very mixed audience. It’s a small theater, but a really good theater. They’re very talented members of the ensemble and the artistic director is magnificent, as well as being a great actor. I’ve really enjoyed that. It’s fun. It’s a hard-working Board.
MJC: This has been wonderful. I thank you so much for spending the time and thinking through all the life and all the contributions and to the bookstore, of which I was one of the patrons for years when I was in Chicago, so thank you very much, Ann.