Bubon, 60, said the neighborhood had only 14 liquor stores and three retail shops when she opened the store 42 years ago. Since then, the North Shore neighborhood has been transformed into a vibrant, thriving shopping and residential area.
“I always think our stock is our No. 1 feature,” said Bubon. “Most of the people who come in here are book lovers. They find books that they don’t see elsewhere. And they find books on subjects that aren’t covered in general stores.”
The Andersonville neighborhood is a very liberal area – drawing many lesbians and gay men — and Bubon said this might have also contributed to the success of the bookstore. Stores such as Barnes and Noble and The Gap have tried to locate there, but Bubon said, “We’ve been able to keep big chain stores out.”
Meanwhile, the store draws citywide and national attention for its unique selection in literature as well as the weekly and monthly activities and programs it provides.
“We’ve had famous people here, we’ve had authors who have come here with their very first book and they go on to be famous and still love the store. We have a lot of writers that gather around the store,” Bubon said. “We’ve had a lot of people who would never come here, but they heard Jane Lynch was coming, and now they come back to visit.”
“I’ve had lots of people say to me ‘I don’t want to leave,’ or their children don’t want to leave,” said Bubon. “Its comfortable here. And that’s something we work on from the way we display things to how you can move around the store.”
Visitors of all ages and genders gathered at the store Wednesday for its weekly children story by Bubon.
Anne Heaps, 23, a freelance photographer, said although she’s not a parent, she enjoys the parenting section W&CF has to offer. “I think as far as their parenting section they have a lot of books for straight parents, gay parents, single parents, and then they have all these feminist books,” Heaps said.
Myra Salgato, 25, a recent grad from the University of Chicago’s women and gender studies program, said she was impressed duromg her first visit to the store.
“This is a great bookstore,” she said. “I pass by all the time on my way to work, so I decided to stop by but I’ll definitely be back.”
Mai Wagner, 44, said he brings his daughter to story time every Wednesday and never feels out of place.
“I feel like the bookstore is more about equality,” said Wagner. “The only thing I would say is, if I had a say in the stock I would broaden the inventory to have more philosophy and spirituality.”
“We come every week for story time; occasionally I’ll shop,” said Jason Martin, 32. He said he’s never felt uncomfortable about his gender at the feminist bookstore.
Bubon said there has been a dramatic decline in feminist concerns. Bubon said the 1990s were a ripe time for feminist books with abundant women studies textbooks and writings about colonialism, identity and women of color. In the mid 1990s, about 70 percent of privately owned bookstores, including feminist bookstores, were put out of business.
She said the big chain stores such as Borders as well as the Bush administration really “put a damper” on women’s studies and the prosperity of small bookstores in the U.S. More recently, online purchases have hurt all brick-and-mortar stores. “Amazon has been walloping all of us,” she said.
In 1990 there were 110 feminist bookstores in the U.S. and Canada and now there are only six. Bubon said these bookstores are surviving because they are in “mid-sized cities with strong university populations” or “liberal areas.”
Bubon said in many ways she has always been a feminist. She said she was raised in a house of equality. Her mother and father both worked outside of the home. They handled housework together and supported and valued her education although neither were formally educated. In high school Bubon said she had an interest in politics. She remembers campaigning for Bobby Kennedy and a consciousness-raising session held in her dorm at college that spurred her interest in feminist ideals.
“It was like this fresh air blew in,” she said. “There we were, all these young women talking about our bodies, our looks, the way we were objectified, how teachers harassed us, how boys harassed us and how we could stand together and claim our power.”
She said that was the meeting that sparked passion in her demand for female equality.
“I remember asking, ‘Do I have to stop shaving my legs?’” she said.
Bubon said she and her partner have been discussing passing the store on to new owners. “It’s more important that the store continues and grows and remains a place for women and children to get the books they need and women writers to get the support they need,” she said.
She said she wants to keep working at the bookstore because she loves it but doesn’t want to do all the hard labor that goes into nurturing her business.
“I don’t want to lay awake at night worrying if we’re going to meet pay-roll,” she said.
Although the two have considered expanding the store to multiple locations she said she doubts they would get more traffic in two or more stores.
“If we were in a bunch of locations we wouldn’t be as special,” she said. “I think we’re fortunate to have so many women travel to come see us from out of town.”
Bubon said although she wants to keep working she wants to pursue her interests in theatre and politics.
“Our mission is to help women and children lead fuller lives,” she said.
Similar Bookstores include:
Unabridged Bookstores www.unabridgedbookstore.com
Myopic Books myopicbookstore.com
Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark St. Chicago, IL 60640, (773) 769-9299