The triumphant return of the feminist bookshop

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Women’s bookshops were a vital part of the British feminist movement in the Seventies and Eighties. Now, they’re making a comeback. Stylist’s Moya Crockett reports

In a stamp-sized square down a narrow alleyway in one of the busiest parts of Soho, London, you’ll find a tiny bookshop. Its façade is painted a rich pink that looks fuchsia in some lights, dark rose in others. Propped in the window are rare editions of books by women including Zadie Smith, English cookery writer Elizabeth David and African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Inside, vintage portraits of women hang on the walls, which are covered in a marbled print inspired by the swirling endpapers of antiquarian hardbacks.

Mostly, though, the walls are lined with books. Some are cloth-bound, gilt-edged tomes, hundreds of years old and worth tens of thousands of pounds. Poke around and you’ll find a second edition of Sense and Sensibility – once owned by Jane Austen’s best friend Martha Lloyd – and a book by the 17th century French writer Jacquette Guillame, in which she argues for the moral superiority of women over men. Elsewhere, there are shelves dedicated to vintage Penguin paperbacks, with their satisfyingly neat orange and white covers (yours for around £6 a pop); first editions of modern fiction by writers including Olivia Laing, Helen Oyeyemi and Rachel Cusk; and rare versions of books on art, fashion and photography.

This is The Second Shelf, the UK’s first rare and antiquarian bookshop dedicated to titles by female authors. Opened by arts journalist AN Devers in November 2018, it’s already one of the most high-profile women’s bookshops in London. 

Admittedly, that isn’t a difficult category to dominate. As far as I can tell, there is currently only one other permanent shop devoted to books by women in the whole of the UK, and it’s less than two miles away: Persephone Books in Bloomsbury, a small independent publisher and bookshop that reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by 20th century women authors. But all the signs suggest that, before too long, both The Second Shelf and Persephone Books will have plenty of friendly competition.

AN Devers, the founder of The Second Shelf 

That’s because feminist bookshops – a vital part of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the Seventies and Eighties – are about to enjoy a major renaissance. The simply-named Feminist Bookshop is due to open in Brighton later in 2019 (with an accompanying vegan café, naturally). Preparations are also being made for a black feminist bookshop to launch in London next year, following a series of pop-ups throughout 2019. And after months of closure and a major relocation, London’s famous Feminist Library – and its adjoining Feminist Library Bookshop – is set to reopen in Peckham later this spring. 

In May, independent bookshops from Edinburgh to the Isle of Man will also be taking part in the second annual Feminist Book Fortnight, highlighting feminist literature through special displays and events. And the last 12 months have seen both Penguin and gal-dem magazine host wildly successful pop-up shops selling books by female and non-binary authors. Clearly, there is a growing appetite in the UK for spaces that celebrate women’s writing.

The relationship between feminism and bookselling stretches back for over a century. The suffragettes were famously savvy marketers, and would set up early versions of pop-up bookshops to spread the word about their campaign. “They would take premises during an election or another significant period and promote suffrage through those bookshops,” says Dr Lucy Delap, a lecturer in modern British and gender history at the University of Cambridge. Records show that the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) took over a shop in Tunbridge Wells in 1912, where they sold books and pamphlets about the struggle for the vote, as well as Votes for Women merchandise.

But it was at the height of second-wave feminism in the Seventies and Eighties that women’s bookshops really came into their own. In a foreshadowing of how mainstream bookshops would evolve in the early 21st century, many of these feminist stores also served as cafés and events spaces. Sisterwrite opened in Islington in 1978, and soon expanded to include a women-only café called Sisterbite. The Women’s Bookshop and Café Collective launched in Manchester a couple of years later. WomanZone in Edinburgh opened in 1983, a year before Silver Moon on London’s Charing Cross Road. As well as a bookshop, Silver Moon also served as an important resource centre for vulnerable women: the staff would hand out information on domestic violence shelters and recommend texts for victims of childhood sexual abuse. Tellingly, the shop was refused an alcohol license for its café because it didn’t have men’s toilets.

Women at a demonstration for gender equality on International Women’s Day in London, 1971

The success of these bookshops was intimately related to the rise of radical feminist publishing houses and magazines like Virago, The Women’s Press and Spare Rib. (Women campaigning for the vote in the 19th and early 20th centuries deployed the power of print in a similar way, publishing successful newspapers like The Suffragette, edited by Christabel Pankhurst.) And for many women in the Seventies and Eighties, feminist bookshops served as an entry point to learning about the campaign for gender equality. Even women who were daunted by the era’s notoriously fierce feminism could feel comfortable browsing for books.

“There were hordes of women out there who wanted to know what feminism was about, but maybe felt too intimidated to go along to a women’s group,” says Delap. Such groups “could feel exclusionary and cliquey, particularly for working-class women, immigrant women or black or Asian women,” she explains.

As a result, bookshops became a kind of secondary feminist space, accessible to women who weren’t sure where (or whether) they fit within the movement. Delap recalls walking through the doors of a feminist bookshop as a teenager. “It was intensely exciting to see all those books. Even if you didn’t have the courage to talk to a single person, you felt as though the shelves were talking to you.”

A £10 note bearing the image of Jane Austen, displayed on the wall in The Second Shelf 

But from the mid-Eighties onwards, the UK’s feminist bookshops began to struggle. The Women’s Bookshop in Manchester and WomanZone in Edinburgh both closed for good in 1986. Sisterwrite lasted until 1993. Silver Moon hung on until 2001. Bucking the trend, Libertas – which focused specifically on lesbian feminist writing – opened in York in 1998, but finally shuttered in 2004.

It would be easy to chalk these closures up to a waning public interest in feminism. The Nineties, after all, were widely touted as a ‘post-feminist’ age: the prevailing female culture of the decade was defined by ladettes and Girl Power, not serious discussions about gender inequality. But Delap attributes the bookshops’ failure to more straightforward economic forces. “The pressures on retail spaces became much more intense in the Nineties,” she says. “Britain was booming, and landlords were putting the prices up.”

State support that had been available to radical booksellers in the Eighties, such as Arts Council loans, dried up. Next, big bookshop chains began opening branches on the doorstep of independent stores, squeezing them out of business. The rise of internet shopping – including the launch of Amazon, which began life as an online bookstore in 1994 – was “the final straw”, says Delap. It wasn’t just feminist bookshops that suffered in the Nineties and Noughties: between 1995 and 2000, almost 200 small bookshops folded across the UK.

But now, the tide is turning. After over 20 years of decline, the number of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland is rising slowly but steadily, with the Booksellers Association reporting that 12 new shops opened in 2018 alone. This, combined with the re-entry of feminism into mainstream discourse, suggests that the stage is set for the return of women’s bookshops. 

The current and incoming crop of feminist bookshops aren’t exactly the same as those that existed in the Seventies and Eighties. Whereas Silver Moon, Sisterwrite et al were explicitly radical spaces, The Second Shelf and Persephone Books stock a broad range of work by female writers – not all of which is specifically concerned with women’s rights. But these modern bookshops still have a strikingly feminist ethos and mission.

“In some ways, the definition of a feminist book store brings to mind something different from my shop,” says AN Devers, the founder of The Second Shelf. “But I am a feminist, and the act of having my books is feminist.” She was inspired to launch her bookshop after noticing the discrepancy in the prices of rare books by male and female authors. Works by female writers have not, generally and historically, been treated with much reverence in the male-dominated rare books trade, and research has shown that new books by men also tend to be priced higher than those by women. Devers sees herself as a bookseller, not a campaigner, but feels that championing literature that has been overlooked is its own form of activism. 

“The canon is a patriarchal one, and that is where my passion lies – in pointing this out and redirecting readers to places they might be missing,” she says. She is determined to make The Second Shelf’s stock as expansive as possible, including work by LGBTQ+ women, women from outside Europe and North America, and women of colour. “If I can guide people towards experiences of reading some great women writers, then I consider that balancing the bookshelf.”

Zainab Juma, creative manager at Penguin Random House, agrees that a bookshop shouldn’t have to only sell feminist texts to be considered a feminist space. Last March, she organised a pop-up bookshop with Penguin called Like A Woman, which only sold titles by female writers – including novels, children’s literature, biographies and books on food and business. Juma was more interested in capturing “that Woolfian idea of having a room of one’s own” than restricting the pop-up’s focus to feminist writing. “A woman choosing creativity and demanding recompense for it,” she says, “is to an extent a feminist act.”

Perhaps unexpectedly, the internet – which played such a significant role in the demise of independent bookshops in the Nineties and Noughties – is now helping new feminist bookshops get off the ground. The Second Shelf was able to launch thanks largely to a successful Kickstarter campaign started by Devers in early 2018, which has raised over £32,000 to date. When The Feminist Library and Bookshop was threatened with closure last year, supporters donated over £35,000 on Crowdfunder – allowing it to move to bigger, better premises and hire a team of female and non-binary architects, designers and engineers to kit out the interior.

Similarly, a Crowdfunder campaign for London’s first black feminist bookshop has raised almost £5,400 since it went public in January. The money will allow Dee Creative, the community organiser behind the initiative, to start preparing a series of pop-up bookshops to run throughout 2019.

Creative had the idea for a black feminist bookshop after she set up a reading group for black women at Housmans, a radical not-for-profit bookshop in King’s Cross. “It was such a powerful and nurturing space,” she says. She and the other women in the group “were all experiencing different things, but we were all experiencing some sort of discrimination or oppression or marginalisation as black women.” As a working class black woman, Creative says that “having access to black feminist literature has helped me to understand myself and my experiences in the world”.

The feedback Creative got from the reading group was so positive that she realised there was a hunger for something more permanent. “Being able to read literature that centres and reflects my lived experience has helped me to understand myself socially, culturally and politically, and I want other black women and girls to have that experience as well,” she says. While she is aiming the bookshop mainly at black women, she believes that “everybody would benefit from engaging with black feminist texts, because they offer an opportunity to become better informed about race, gender and inclusion”.

The first black feminist bookshop pop-up event will take place on 27 March at the South London Gallery. Creative hopes to raise enough money to open a physical space next year, stocking books by queer people of colour, women of colour and other historically marginalised identities as well as new and second-hand black feminist literature. This year, in addition to raising funds and looking for a permanent space for the bookshop, she wants to connect with publishers and distributors that are interested in supplying the pop-up – and eventually the bookshop – with black feminist books.  

Journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, the head of editorial at online and print magazine gal-dem, says there is immense value in bricks-and-mortar bookshops. Last autumn, gal-dem ran a week-long pop-up bookshop in Bloomsbury to celebrate the launch of Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming, while exclusively stocked work by women and non-binary people of colour. The benefits of having a “tangible space” was striking, she says. “We brought in people who are always looking for voices like their own to be given a platform. People came from far and wide to see us.” 

And like gal-dem itself, the pop-up made an impact in both the physical and digital realms. The space looked beautiful, decked out with plants and Michelle Obama bunting, and Brinkhurst-Cuff says she was asked to take countless Instagram photos of people with their books – creating a social media buzz that subsequently enticed more people to visit. The internet wasn’t harming the bookshop; it was helping it. Likewise, Devers has noticed social media drawing customers to The Second Shelf. “People shop the Instagram, even though it’s not officially a marketplace,” she says.

The UK’s feminist bookshops are still thin on the ground, and work needs to be done to bring such spaces to regions beyond the south-east of England. But if these early signs are to be trusted, we could be entering an exciting new era for women’s bookselling. 

“My customers find it so moving to come in and see a wall of books by women,” Devers says. “It’s poignant. And people just really like to hold books. I go into a bookshop and I might have an idea of wanting to see something by a certain writer, but then all of a sudden I look at the adjacent authors and it triggers memories and ideas. You can’t replace that with an algorithm.”

Ultimately, Devers hopes that women’s bookshops will no longer be seen as unusual. As she puts it: “We’re half the world. We’re not a niche.”

Images: Sarah K Marr / Getty Images 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, politics and psychology. Carrying a bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.