The front window of Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood has signs that proclaim: “Opened 1979/Open Today/Open Forever.” If that doesn’t capture the spirit of The Distance, I don’t know what does!
Our latest episode of The Distance about this 37-year-old feminist bookstore has many other elements of a great business survival story: Risk-taking, creativity, adaptability and a sense of purpose. Women & Children First, founded by two women in 1979 and sold in 2014 to two staff members, is a reminder that even as so much of our political and cultural commentary has moved online in the form of essays and hot takes and tweets, there is still an important place for physical spaces where people can connect in person over the ideas and literature that move them.
(Sound of children talking)
LINDA BUBON: Yay, good morning, everybody! Good morning. Good morning. Welcome to story time! Good morning!
WAILIN: Once upon a time in Chicago, there were two friends named Ann and Linda. They dreamed of opening a special store filled with all kinds of books written by women and about women.
LINDA: Ann and I thought about creating a feminist bookstore in a neighborhood, street level, with a storefront and programming and a real children’s section and we started envisioning this store, and we spent most of a year going around to every independent bookstore in Chicago studying their shelving, the layouts of their stores, how they bought their books. We would get advice from anybody who would give it.
WAILIN: Ann and Linda called their store Women & Children First. Now in different parts of the country, far away from Chicago, lived two girls named Lynn and Sarah. Lynn grew up in Pennsylvania, where she spent Saturdays driving with her parents to different libraries in search of the next book in their favorite mystery series.
LYNN MOONEY: You know, it wasn’t good enough that they knew in our county which library had the best mystery selection, but no, they had to do inter-library loan, and if they couldn’t wait that long for the book to come, they actually had to drive to that library and borrow the book from there.
WAILIN: Sarah grew up in Ohio, the youngest of four daughters raised by a professional storyteller and an architect. Her favorite book was one that her father read to her, called The Big Orange Splot.
SARAH HOLLENBECK: This book is about how we need to create houses that reflect our dreams, and it’s about a neighborhood where everyone on the street creates a house that shows what they dream about at night. That book sparked my love of reading because it was how my dad and I connected even before I learned to read.
WAILIN: The lives of these four women would come together at Women & Children First, the bookstore that Ann Christopherson and Linda Bubon founded in 1979 and sold two years ago to staff members Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck. Their story is about risk-taking, friendship and imagination — all elements of a good fairy tale, but you won’t find any damsels in distress here. This is a true story about smart, capable women who created a sustainable independent business. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.
LINDA: We were like two kids. We were 28 and 30, and we were like building the dollhouse, you know, from the ground up, we built all the shelving ourselves with help from our friends.
WAILIN: Ann and Linda had met in graduate school, where they studied English and participated in a feminist discussion group with their professors. At the time they opened their bookstore, Lynn was a teenager, coming of age in a household where her mom subscribed to Ms. magazine. Years later, she attended rallies in support of the National Endowment for the Arts during a tumultuous period in the agency’s history. It was around this time that Sarah Hollenbeck was wearing anti-Bush t-shirts to grade school — that’s George Bush senior — and going with her mother to their local feminist bookstore in Toledo, Ohio.
SARAH: It was called People Called Women. It’s still there and Gina is the owner, and she, you know, sometimes said that my mom was why she was still in business because she sometimes she was the only person to shop there that day.
WAILIN: Ann and Linda hired Lynn part-time eight years ago and eventually promoted her to store manager. Sarah started working at the store in 2013.
SARAH: Ann and Linda graciously hired me and then almost immediately put the store up for sale, and took us all aside and told us they were going to retire.
WAILIN: A year earlier, Ann and Linda had asked Lynn and the store’s publicist at the time about taking over the business, but the timing hadn’t worked out. They were ready to restart their search for new owners. Sarah was only about a month into her new job at the store, but she jumped at the opportunity and asked Lynn if she wanted to team up on a proposal. Ann and Linda entertained about seven bids that they narrowed to three. In the end, they picked Lynn and Sarah.
LINDA: I knew them. I knew their principles. I knew how they interpreted feminism and lived feminism in their lives. I saw how they behaved towards customers.
WAILIN: Ann and Linda were looking for qualities beyond the cold numbers of a business plan.
LYNN: It became not just about the money. Yes, they were selling a business. It had tremendous value and they’ve worked very hard to build it up, so of course they needed to get something out of it, but it also indicated that they weren’t just going to chase whoever had the deepest pockets, that there was a lot of room for the personal, the relationships, and a vision for how to um bring Women & Children First into the future, update its relevance, update its connections to women and women writers in the Chicago area, and I think that’s part of what Sarah and I were able to do, is present a real passion for those things and a real interest in updating the store in a way that young women in Chicago would think of it as their bookstore.
WAILIN: A major component of Lynn and Sarah’s business proposal was continuing to hold events, something that had been part of the store’s mission from its earliest days. Women & Children First has long hosted readings by emerging and established authors, children’s story time, panels and book groups. The programs, which are partially funded by a nonprofit arm Ann and Linda set up years ago, give customers a reason to visit the store instead of buying books online. Even as so much of the conversation around feminism and politics has moved to the digital realm via op-eds and essays and tweets, the bookstore serves as a place where readers can connect face to face with writers they admire.
SARAH: A lot of authors have spent a great deal of time connecting with fans through social media and developing that personality of the author and people love it. They love being able to have a conversation with the author, so independent bookstores take that one step further and have that conversation in real time, in real life and we’ve seen just a huge swell of interest, especially among young feminists who want to actually meet the author that they’ve talked to online, that they you know, had this Twitter relationship.
WAILIN: Lynn and Sarah’s plan called for something bold: a major renovation to make a separate event space in the back of the store, so that other people could still shop in the front during events, thus creating a dual revenue stream. But they had to get the money and close the store for a couple months to overhaul the space. Lynn and Sarah raised over $35,000 in an online campaign, tapping into the same spirit of generosity that had driven friends to build bookshelves for Ann and Linda decades earlier. And speaking of those shelves, many of them had been in the window, displaying books that faced the street.
SARAH: That was wonderful in that it showed what we had in stock right now, but it also meant that you couldn’t see inside. So Lynn and I were both pretty adamant that although it was risky, we needed to take the shelves down so that people could see inside and say “Oh, I can go inside.” You know, some people are a little wary about what a feminist bookstore is, especially one that’s called Women & Children First. And we just wanted you to feel invited, to feel welcome, to look inside and say, “Oh, there’s a man in there and I’m a man, I can walk inside.” That was a risky decision and it turned out really well. I think we have more foot traffic now than we’ve ever had.
LYNN: Those shelves in the windows as well as the front counter, had been built by longtime dedicated customers, so there were people who would come in and say, “I helped build this front counter.” It kind of tipped us off to the fact that every decision we made was important, that we had to think things through really carefully, and that we needed to be very mindful of our longtime legacy customers and their memories and their associations.
WAILIN: Other parts of the renovation left behind remnants of a less inclusive era.
LYNN: There were several LGBTQ sections of the store that had always been in the back room and we wanted them to be on the main floor. There was a time in the store’s history when having those books in a back room provided the customers with a kind of privacy that times may have warranted were desirable—maybe not for every customer, but for some customers, and that made tremendous sense for a very long time. But we’re living in a different time now, so that’s not the case so much. And so we wanted those sections, especially the queer fiction, queer memoir, we want them to get more attention.
WAILIN: From the start, Women & Children First has aspired to lift up the voices of people like women of color and survivors of abuse. The store has also been about women helping each other in different ways. In the early days, when the store was in its previous location, Linda and a staff member shared childcare, with one watching the kids while the other worked. The author Ann Patchett, a bookstore owner herself, once offered to overnight Lynn and Sarah a projector that they needed for an event. And of course, there’s the partnership between the two owners of Women & Children First, now in its second iteration.
LYNN: I think Sarah is the perfect business partner for me here. She has just so much creativity and energy for things like events and programming and how to market the store and I wish I was that person. I am not that person, but I sure know that you can’t run a successful business without that skill set.
SARAH: We’re very lucky and we know a lot of bookstore owners in Chicago who do it on their own and I don’t know—I literally do not know how they do it because we really need one another to do all the many, many things that need to be done in a day.
WAILIN: The number of feminist bookstores in North America has dwindled in the last few decades from a hundred to about a dozen, depending on who’s counting. Back in 1979, it was extremely difficult for a woman to get funding for her own business. It was a radical notion that Ann and Linda could start a venture—and not just any business, but one centered on elevating women’s voices. With all of the harassment that many women face online for expressing their opinion or simply existing, the role of Women & Children First looks as revolutionary as it did 37 years ago.
SARAH: For me as a woman, I think it’s very risky to comment in online platforms and the thing about having an event in real time is we really strive to create a safe space for commenting out loud with your voice and not with your fingers. I think that will never go away because unfortunately the Internet can be very dangerous for women to voice an opinion. This will never be an unsafe place for women to voice an opinion and I think that’s where we’ll always stay relevant.
WAILIN: At Women & Children First, there’s cause for optimism. Linda sees a lot more dads at story time than she used to. And Lynn and Sarah are encouraged by what they see too.
LYNN: It’s completely standard now in a book about fire trucks that some of the fire truck drivers will be women in children’s books, or in a book about outer space, that some of the astronauts shown in the children’s book will be women. So things like that give me hope.
SARAH: I have had a ton of emails every day from young feminists who want to propose an event to have here, a dialogue of some sort that is really exciting to me because they’re younger and younger. They know what feminism is, they are really upset about the patriarchy. They know it’s a force and they know they have to fight against it. There’s kind of an energy in the air around feminism that I find very exciting.
WAILIN: While Ann has fully retired, Linda still works part-time at the store. You’ll find her leading story time, straightening the shelves, and participating in discussion groups. The work is never quite done.
LINDA: I feel successful now, not because I made a lot of money in my life, but because I learned to live without needing a lot of money and to find my satisfaction and the happiness that comes and goes when you’re living a life of purpose. And that has made all the difference in the world.
LINDA: All right everybody, that’s it for today! Don’t forget April 9th coming up on a Saturday. We do ask a one dollar donation for story time and I hope you all have a great week. See you next week!
The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to Tracy Baim of the Windy City Times for her help with this story. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.