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AN ANCHOR OF ANDERSONVILLE: WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST BOOKSTORE

The northeast corner of Clark Street and Farragut Avenue in Andersonville bears the street sign, Honorary Women & Children First Way. Women & Children First (5233 N. Clark Street) has been a dynamic force in the Chicago literary scene for 38 years. The list of legendary women authors who have read here include Gloria Steinem, Maya Angelou, Hillary Clinton, Alice Walker, Eve Ensler, Amy Tan, Sandra Cisneros, Allison Bechdel, Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Chicago author Sara Paretsky.

 

In August of 2014, Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck assumed ownership of the legendary independent bookstore and LGBTQ community anchor from longtime owners Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon. Lynn Mooney chatted about the store’s heritage, the importance of supporting independent businesses, and the joys of Andersonville.

 Women and Children First Bookstore - Lynn Mooney

Your store has been around for decades. Can you give me a quick history lesson of Women and Children First?

Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon opened W&CF in 1979. They met in graduate school and were, for a time, lovers. While studying literature in grad school, time and again they found that works by the women writers they wanted to study were nearly impossible to find. Writers like Virginia Wolff, such a staple of the canon now, were considered obscure, and most bookstores and libraries just didn’t carry her. In those days, before the Internet, if your local bookstore or library didn’t have something, you likely would never encounter it. So they decided to open a feminist bookstore and make it their life’s work to make sure women’s voices could be heard — and to grow a safe place where real connection and support could happen.

Ann and Linda were part of a larger phenomenon — during the second wave of feminism, probably hundreds of feminist presses and feminist bookstores were launched around the country. In fact, at one point Chicago had two feminist books stores! So it’s not surprising that from the beginning, our unofficial slogan has been “As political as we are literary.”

 

When you took over the business, what did you want to keep about the existing operation and what things were you looking forward to expanding or changing?

Women and Children First Bookstore

We are proud of W&CF’s decades-long legacy of feminism and support of the LGBTQ community. Ann and Linda were so smart, worked so hard, and did so many things right. But after 35 years, some updates were needed. One of the first things we did was a physical renovation of the store, changing the layout and updating fixtures and colors. But it wasn’t just cosmetic — one of the key goals was to turn even more of the store over to community space, with special tables that were designed for our particular needs by a local carpenter.

 Also we wanted to update our vision of feminism. Feminism is intersectional now. We are working harder than ever to embrace the issues of gender and sexuality, race, culture, and ability.

We are also amping up our events offerings. In addition to Wednesday morning kids’ story time and two to three author readings per week, which were our long-time mainstays, we now also host community programming, kids’ events, eight book groups, and two salons, including Sappho's Salon, a monthly performance salon featuring expressions of queerness, gender and feminism with entertainments ranging from music and dance parties to burlesque and comedy. One of our most popular community events is our new Activism series, which showcases a different Chicago-based social justice organization each month. For this event, representatives from organizations like Chicago Women's Health Center and Assata's Daughters come to the bookstore and give presentations on their history and mission and how our customers can get involved. This event series, along with other programming such as our new Feminist Craft Circle, recently earned us publicity in the New York Times as being a "hub of resistance."

 

Why is it more important than ever to support independent bookstores?

It’s so important for all of us to keep informed, to seek out credible sources of information, and the widest range of voices and points of view possible. Indie bookstores are more likely to carry books representing a diverse range of opinions, ideas, and experiences. They are also more likely to stock books about topics before they become mainstream — to specifically seek those voices out and put in the extra work of setting up accounts with the tiny start-up, nonprofit, mission-driven or academic publishers that are often the only source of that kind of work. We also work hard to represent writers at all stages of their careers. Often, a debut novelist published by one of the big five had a previous book — often a short story collection published by a university press. Does B&N carry those early, academic collections? Not usually. But we do. This all comes down to discovery. Shop in an indie store, and you will find things you’d never encounter anywhere else.

 

You are located in one of the most vibrant neighborhoods for LGBTQ folks. What makes Andersonville such a terrific neighborhood?

We were one of the early seeds from which the Localism movement in the U.S. grew! Students today still study the Andersonville data set, which provided the first evidence that dollars spent in locally owned business continue to circulate and enrich the community at a more significant rate than dollars spent in chain stores. In other words, they proved that Localism is more than just a “feel good” movement but is, more importantly, a economically sound way to grow the kind of vibrant, livable communities people want to live in. Despite rising taxes and rents, most of the businesses in Andersonville are still locally owned, unique businesses—including shelter/décor stores like Scout (5221 N. Clark Street) and Brimfield (5219 N. Clark Street), coffee shops like Kopi (5317 N. Clark Street) and True North (5507 N. Clark Street), and a wide range of restaurants, including fine dining establishments like Vincent (1475 W. Balmoral Avenue), Anteprima (5316 N. Clark Street), and Hopleaf (5148 N. Clark Street).

My current favorites: the quirky retail market Galleria (5247 N. Clark Street), garden center, greenhouse, and gift shop Gethsemane (5739 N. Clark Street), and framing gallery Four Sided (5061 N. Clark Street). I recently bought lovely blue and white herb pots for kitchen my windowsill at Gethsemane, and a one-of-a kind bias top at the Galleria.

 

What is your favorite place to take a friend for lunch or coffee?

I have a tremendous sweet tooth, so two of my neighborhood favorites are George’s Ice Cream and Sweets (5306 N. Clark Street) and First Slice Pie Café. On a hot summer day, there’s just nothing better than an ice cream cone from George’s! But I also duck in when the weather’s turned cold--or I just need a quick dose of comfort--for their excellent hot chocolate.

I also love First Slice Pie Café (5357 N. Ashland Avenue). Not only does it have terrific coffee, a constantly changing selection of homemade pies, and--for those who insist on being virtuous--salads, but it’s also a self-funded charity that feeds the needy and homeless. You can even become a subscriber (it’s sort of like joining a CSA, but with pies and salads instead of kale and squash) to help support their work.

And then there’s Candyality (5225 N. Clark Street) just across the street from us! It’s a local, woman-owned business that helps you figure out your candy personality. (I’m definitely chocolate.)

 

Where is your favorite place for a romantic dinner for two?

There’s nothing better than slurping garlicky mussels together at Vincent (1475 W. Balmoral Avenue), just a half block east of Clark on Balmoral. But the back room at Lady Gregory’s (5260 N. Clark Street) , with its library and fireplace, is pretty great, too!

 

Best establishment for a cocktail at the end of a hard day.

I prefer a good glass (or two) of a mineraly Sancerre to a cocktail any day, so my pick is the bar at Appellation (5212 N. Clark Street). Appellation is an intimate bistro attached to the cheese shop, Pastoral, and has a wonderful selection of wines by the glass. Taken together, Pastoral and Appellation are a terrific cheese shop-restaurant one-two punch, and because they’re only steps away from our store, I also often pick up a salad or sandwich for lunch there, too.

 

For more about what’s happening at Women and Children First visit their website, womenandchildrenfirst.com.

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