By Edward Nawotka
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Monday, November 26, 2007
In early November, on the same weekend Austin was celebrating two book festivals — the Texas Book Festival and the Austin Jewish Book Festival — Susan Post, the owner of Austin's BookWoman book store, quietly announced that she needed to raise $25,000 by last week if she hoped to pay off debt and keep the store open. The store would need another $25,000 by Christmas to pay for the down payment on a new lease and the installation of new store fixtures. The store, which has been located at West 12th Street and North Lamar Boulevard for the past 13 years, loses its lease Feb. 1.
Post's plea wasn't ignored. Well-wishers from across the country have donated money via the store's fundraising Web site, www.savebookwoman.com, and bought books via the store's Web site. Post says she's already raised some $20,000, $5,000 of which came from a small group of anonymous supporters.
"I'm optimistic that we'll make our goal," she says. "Little angels have always fallen out of the sky to help me along the way."
BookWoman is one of about 15 remaining feminist bookstores in the U.S. and the only one in Texas. Opened in 1975 by a dozen women who pooled $500 in seed money, the store was first opened in an abandoned storefront at 21st and Guadalupe streets, opposite the University of Texas, that had been firebombed in a drug feud. Originally called the Common Woman Bookstore Collective, the store's name derived from a famous feminist poem by Judy Grahan that reads, in part, "a common woman is as common as a common loaf of bread/and will rise."
Post, who was then working as a clerk at the Perry-Castañeda Library at UT, was recruited to work in the store because of her knowledge of books. She would rush from her job at UT at noon and open the doors at 12:15 and sell books until 6 p.m.
"After the first year, the separatist half of the collective left," recalls Post. Shortly thereafter, Post was virtually running the store single-handedly on a salary of $50 a week, donated by the remaining members of the collective; when money got tighter, she moved the store into her home at 1510 San Antonio St.
A native of New Jersey who spent her teen years in San Francisco, Post moved to Texas in 1964 and enrolled at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches to study painting. It was East Texas that radicalized her:
"I wanted to be a beatnik, but the people I met in college wore white bobby socks, black suede loafers, teased their hair and wanted to be Kilgore Rangerettes," she says. "At the time, Nacogdoches was still a segregated town, and it was easy to see all the prejudice that existed in the world."
Post still considers the late U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland a hero for his work to integrate Nacogdoches. A visit to Austin during her sophomore year of college convinced her that the capital better suited her disposition and politics.
The store made the transition from a nonprofit into a for-profit business in 1980, when Post moved the store from her home into a new location at 324 E. Sixth St. (now the Iron Cactus). The landlord rented the space on one condition: that Post and her new partner in the store, Karen Umminger, change the name.
"He said he didn't want to walk out of his own storefront across the street and see the original name, which offended him," Post says.
The first name they settled on was BookWomen: everywoman's book shop, but a linguist suggested that the use of the plural "women" was threatening, and it was later changed to "BookWoman."
Austin author Spike Gillespie discovered BookWoman in 1988, while on a cross-country trip.
"A feminist bookstore? I had no idea such a thing could exist," says Gillespie, "I have always said that having BookWoman here really factored into my decision to move to Austin permanently."
The first feminist bookstore in the U.S. was the Amazon Bookstore Collective in Minneapolis, Minn., which opened in 1970, and while the phenomenon might be considered primarily something of the 1970s and '80s, the number of stores peaked in 1993 with 124 women's bookstores across the country. The dissolution started soon thereafter.
"It didn't take long for women's books to get picked up by the mainstream," says Kristin Hogan, a professor at Louisiana State University who was inspired by a stint working at BookWoman in the late 1990s to write her doctoral thesis at UT on the history of the feminist bookstore movement. "Stores started closing as the titles were incorporated into bookstore superstore inventories; today, every Barnes & Noble and Borders has a big women's section."
Hogan, who later went on to manage the Toronto Women's Bookstore, says that as a graduate student lecturer at UT, she made it a point to bring her students to BookWoman to see writers in person. These ranged from Sharon Bridgforth to Alice Walker.
"Many of my students had never been to a literary reading, and it was really exciting for them to see how an author engages with an audience," says Hogan.
Writer Marion Winik praises BookWoman for supporting her from the beginning of her career and, in particular, for hosting some of her favorite events.
"When my book 'Telling' came out in 1994, we had a book party at the Acropolis nightclub downtown," recalls Winik. "They had a fabulous bathroom — all red velvet and couches — so Susan Post decided to sell books in the bathroom."
BookWoman moved to its present location in 1993, occupying a space previously held by Hill Country Weavers.
"This little mall held a lot of iconic Austin businesses, including Vulcan Video and Eclectic," says Post, "But the times are a-changin' and now we have high-end boutique clothing stores moving in."
The past few years haven't been easy on the store. Construction on North Lamar Boulevard reduced foot and driving traffic, while competition from the Internet proved fierce. As a consequence, BookWoman has struggled to attract a new generation of customers. Some potential customers still mistakenly believe the store is exclusively for feminists or lesbians, but a more common reaction is similar to that of Lindsay Franklin, a mother of two young children, who says "I'm reassured to know BookWoman is still there, but I'm also genuinely embarrassed to admit that I haven't shopped there in years. When I was a student it was important to me, but I don't live near downtown anymore, and with the demands on my time, I don't buy many books, and the few I do, I am ashamed to admit, I pick up while running errands at Target."
Franklin needn't be embarrassed: A majority of women spoken to for this article expressed much the same sentiment.
Ultimately BookWoman's greatest service to Austin is not as a bookstore, but as a lodestone for likeminded people. When Carol Petrucci moved to Austin three years ago from Madison, Wis. — a town that has its own women's bookstore, A Room of One's Own — she sensed that BookWoman would offer her kinship. Petrucci has since made the store a part of her life as a regular at its monthly book club.
"The women in the book group are really intelligent, diverse in age, sexual orientation, and read books that wouldn't insult me," says Petrucci. "I used to buy more books online, but after joining the group and making friends with Susan and realizing that's how she made her living, I changed my shopping habits. The store is the centerpiece of an important community of women here, and I would hate to see it go away."