The Feminist Bookstore Movement

The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability

The main thrust of the book is that the feminist bookstore movement was driven by lesbians who were focused on being anti-racist allies to women of color and holding each other accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, the book is a drudgery of leaden, overly-serious prose that makes it drag and at times approaches flat out boring. This is horribly disappointing, because the topic is so interesting! I feel like an editor’s scalpel could have been used to trim away the hyper-academic feel to this work, where she seems to intone the same phrases over and over to drill them into our heads: “accountable to the community,” “transnational community,” “lesbian antiracist feminist practice.”

Kristen Hogan’s well researched book took many years to complete, her interviews with bookwomen conducted between 2003-2008, she finally begins transcribing tapes in 2014. At the heart of the book is the importance of Feminist Bookstore News, a publication Carol Seajay guided from the Bay Area to collect voices and foment conversation among the bookstores. It contained a list of feminist bookstores that was leveraged for collective bargaining with publishers. They would band together to badger publishers to keep certain books in print, and by making an impressively large order, show the significance of the works they were ordering.

Feminist bookstores played an important role in the community providing a space for women to gather and share ideas, shelves filled with information and a supportive network. Oakland-based ICI (Information Center Incorporate: A Woman’s Place) was one of the first, laying out their belief that they stocked their store full of material they thought women should see in one place all together rather than caring how well the books sold. Seajay worked at the Oakland store and got tired of her long commute from SF, opening up Old Wives’ Tales at 532 Valencia Street in San Francisco in 1976 (moving to 1009 Valencia in 1979).

From the start, the bookwomen were square pegs in the round hole of the book industry. Traditional publishers expected to receive some percentage of the books back as returns, and for that they got a bigger piece of the revenue. Feminist bookstores had no interest in how well a book sold, wanting to keep their shelves stocked with the titles that were important. Not needing the return service, they felt they deserved a better percentage of the split of list price.

Feminist bookstores also gave a percentage of the book sales for remainders back to the author; usually remaindered books generate zero royalties for the author, but the bookstores felt this was unfair.

There was a conscious effort to be inclusive from the very start. Old Wives’ Tales hired new staff and reported that they “chose to interview women who were disabled, third world and/or had bookstore experience.” This is where Pell gets hired, a black craftwoman from the Northeast who worked at the Bay Area Federal Feminist Credit Union (??!) before joining the store. Their other hire, Jesse Miller had worked with the SF Women’s Switchboard “sharing information across the lines” and with Mothertongue Feminist Theatre Collective.

Some of the books on the list are still around: Bloodroot (Bridgeport, Connecticut), BookWoman (Austin), Charis (Atlanta), Herland Sister Resources (Oklahoma City), In Other Words (Portland OR), Room of One’s Own (Madison, WI), Wild Iris (Gainsville, FL), and Women & Children First (Chicago).

When the Austin feminist bookstore tried to move to Sixth Street, the landlord “would only agree to the lease on the condition that the bookwomen change the Common Woman name.” This because he found their name offensive “I don’t want just any old common, you know.

Chain stores spelled the doom of the independents, with illegal discounts granted to those chains from the publishers, which were fought in court in the 1990s.

Differences in how the stores dealt with race also tore some stores apart, with Oakland’s ICI locking out four of its troublesome members who were trying to address racism. This lockout led to the removal of those who did the locking out, and the store closed two years later in 1985 (was located on Broadway at College).

In 1999, Minneapolis-based feminist bookstore Amazon (founded 1970) sued Amazon.com for trademark infringement, a lawsuit that lasted over a year and drained the independent bookstore’s coffers. The feminists were asked questions on the stand by Amazon.com lawyers about their sexual orientation. They settle out of court, but the feminists end up on the losing end, not able to sustain the lengthy battle and giving up the rights to be called Amazon alone. Hogan goes on to describe how Amazon.com has eviscerated the publishing industry, specifically holding small presses hostage for enormous discounts.

Exterior of ICI: A Woman’s Place in Oakland on Broadway @ College
1970 announcement of ICI: A Woman’s Place (Oakland, CA)
SCUM Manifesto on the top shelf at ICI: A Woman’s Place
Inside Old Wives’ Tales on Valencia
Outside Old Wives Tales on Valencia (1009 Valencia location)
Womanbooks in NYC, early 1980s, photo by Joan E. Biren
National Feminist Bookstore Week: May 13-20 (1995)

ABC of Reading

ABC of Reading (New Directions Paperbook)

Ezra Pound pontificating in 1934, frothing at the mouth about the state of intellectual development in America and England, groaning about the idiocy of people who dared to question his earlier pamphlet, How To Read, which I daresay was nearly unreadable based on his savage railing against the complaints.

And yet Pound is someone we must pet into our pocket and humor, keep with us through the ages. His wit and wisdom do sometimes shine forth, once you wipe off his stray spittle and overlook his use of ALL CAPS for emphasis throughout. “Good writers are those who keep the language efficient…. accurate, clear.” “The fogged language of swindling classes serves only a temporary purpose.” Later in Chapter 8, “Incompetence will show in the use of too many words… One definition of beauty is: aptness to purpose.”

Above all, he exhorts us to read good work and to think about it, to be informed by the examples he lays out at the end (which are strangely pro-Chaucer and neutral on Shakespeare, or as he calls him Jacques Père.) Naturally the list is 100% male, with a sneer at Jane Austen. “If you can read only English, start on Fielding… After which I suppose one should recommend Miss Jane Austen.” (You can hear his reluctance. Get over it, Pound.) Tom Jones is his Fielding rec, then Tristam Shandy and the Sentimental Journey by Sterne.

But he is on our side, after all, fighting the battle to preserve the health and sanity of our nations.

The man of understanding can no more sit quiet and resigned while his country lets its literature decay, and lets good writing meet with contempt, than a good doctor could sit quiet and contented while some ignorant child was infecting itself with tuberculosis under the impression that it was merely eating jam tarts.

It is very difficult to make people understand the impersonal indignation that a decay of writing can cause men who understand what it implies, and the end whereto it leads. It is almost impossible to express any degree of such indignation without being called embittered or something of that sort.

“Dante called words ‘buttered’ and ‘shaggy’ because of the different noises they make. Or pexa et hirsuta, combed and unkempt.”

Here he is complaining about and taunting his readers:

You have been promised a text-book, and I perhaps ramble on as if we had been taken outdoors to study botany from the trees instead of from engravings in classroom. That is partly the fault of people who complained that I gave them lists without saying why I had chosen such-and-such authors.

YOU WILL NEVER KNOW either why I chose them, or why they were worth choosing, or why you approve or disapprove my choice, until you go to the TEXTS, the originals.

And once you get to the actual TEXTS, the originals, he challenges you not to read his footnotes but to guess who wrote the passage and why it was included. Fun guy!

He thumbs his nose at sacred Goethe, “My own belief is that Goethe and Stefan George at their lyric best are doing nothing that hadn’t already been done better or as well… a lot of subject matter of no great present interest has been stuffed into German verse that is not very skillful. I can see no reason why a foreign writer would study it.” Burn!

Exasperated at those of us who cannot read Greek, Latin, Italian, French, “For those who read only English, I have done what I can. I have translated the TA HIO so that they can learn where to start THINKING. And I have translated the Seafarer; so that they can see more or less where English poetry starts.”

“A man who really knows can tell all that is transmissible in a very few words. The economic problem of the teacher (of violin or of language or of anything else) is how to string it out so as to be paid for more lessons.”

“There is no reason why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and at forty-eight.”

He sums Shakespeare (“Jacques Père, spelling it Shaxpear because J is either pronounced hard or confused with I”) up as writing 16th c plays out of 15th c Italian news.

“The chief cause of false writing is economic. Many writers need or want money. These writers could be cured by an application of banknotes.”

Orphan Island

Orphan Island

Although I’ve been unable to read Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond despite two attempts, I was able to speed through this silly book. The premise is that a woman (Miss Smith), her nurse, a doctor, and a group of orphans were shipwrecked in 1855 on an island in the Pacific. Seventy years later, a descendant of one of the treacherous crew members who deserted them and who leaves behind a map when he dies, steams off into the Pacific with his three children in tow. Mr. Thinkwell, the descendant, is a sociologist and greedy to discover what type of community has sprung up on the island, cut off from all contact. Disappointingly, it’s got an upper class (the Smiths) and lower class (the Orphans) who slaves away for them. Shells function as money, and despite not having a copy of the Bible (they do have Wuthering Heights), the island observes Sundays religiously. The Thinkwells are dropped off for a few months and when the boat returns to fetch them, the old Miss Smith (still alive in her 90s) tells some of the prisoners to row out to the boat and overtake it, sail it away. Thus the Thinkwells are marooned, and happily ever after.

The Lottery and Other Stories

The Lottery and Other Stories (FSG Classics)

Another book with the word “sullen” for those keeping count of the back-to-back similarities. A dark collection of twisty tales from the 1940s, the formula is almost too plain, it’s obvious that each will end with a thud, a whimper, a shiver. The writing is decent enough, and the ideas behind the stories are good. Drunk party guest meets daughter of the house doing her homework in the kitchen. Woman tidying up her room after a night with her husband-to-be is stood up by him for the actual wedding so she goes in search. Man lives alone but is fastidious about his home, invites neighbor over for dinner who then pretends that his apartment is her own when a friend from work arrives — he slinks off to sleep in her dirty hovel down the hallway. Woman goes to buy furniture from a couple leaving town and pretends to be them when they aren’t there, is caught in a dancing pose by someone else coming to look at the furniture. Etc. etc. etc.

Honey on the Moon

Maude Hutchins’ weird and dark book dives into the honeymoon world, the immediate post-marriage era between young Sigourney Logan and forty-year-old Derek Wagstaff, who for some reason has married Sigourney because she resembles his gay lover, Peter. The tale follows Sigourney’s loss of identity, gradual descent into madness imagining she has a gun and it shooting it at Derek. She laughs off all the obvious signs of Peter/Derek’s relationship (matching bracelets, Peter’s key to the house), ignores Derek’s odd makeout session with sixty-five year old Marie.

Skating to Antarctica

Skating to Antarctica: A Journey to the End of the World

I stumbled onto this recommendation by way of Hermione Lee’s description of it as “a typically uncategorizable mixture of travel journal, childhood memoir, and Melvillean meditation on whiteness and oblivion” in her review of another of Jenny Diski’s books. How can one resist immediately reading something so categorized?

It was as stunning as expected, Jenny keeping three plot lines cool in her hands as she plays out the rope, letting them tug at their fish. This was her first foray into memoir, non-fiction, and I hope to find the rest of her works as compelling. My favorite parts were the meditations during the sea voyage to Antarctica in quest of white nothingness.

Indolence has always been my most essential quality… I know that during such periods when I have experienced free-running, obligationless time, the boredom and restlessness that occasionally comes over me is curiously part of the pleasure, and not detrimental to my feeling of well-being at all… As things stand at present a phone call initiating activity is never so welcome as the one cancelling it… When I am alone, at home, I get up, work, eat, sleep, work, sleep, eat in a pleasurable round dictated by my physical needs… It is the external appointments, those made by people on other schedules that I find trying.

While on the cruise with 70 other people, she rails against the holier-than-thou attitude of today’s modern eco-warrior who details the grim reality of ancient whaling amid boos from the audience:

I like a whale as much as the next person. I’m entirely in favor of animals as well as people being let alone if at all possible… But we had a boatload of rich folk booing at their wicked forebears for killing something dramatically large. No one mentioned the cruelty of fishing for cod. We were people who could afford to buy free-range chickens so that their brief lives will be a little more comfortable than their battery cousins that only the poor can afford. Most of the commerce in whale products had been in oil, used for lighting and heating before paraffin became available. We no longer need whale bones for our underwear or for any of the things which plastic makes far better. Take away our electricity and petroleum by-products and we would be in the dark and very much inconvenienced. The self-righteousness of those who could afford to do without whale products, who had the time and technology to appreciate the beauty of whales in a state of nature, and who had benefited from the wealth of previously unreconstructed commerce, rendered me sullen.

Describing the elephant seals sulking by the edge of the sea:

gravity bore down on their enormous bulk in the same way that large stones are piled up to squash pressed beef. A grey jellied mountain results, whose sides slope down to their inadequate-looking flippers. One more stone on the pile of gravity and the whole strained substance would rupture, exploding flesh and blubber through its skin for miles around.

Published in 1997, I enjoyed her diatribe on photography and wonder what she would say about this 20 years later.

Elephant seals being what they are, and modern travellers being what they are, the photography had begun in earnest. The debate about taking a camera with me on this trip raged for weeks. I’ve never owned a camera, never taken one on holiday… just about everyone insisted that I take a camera with me. How could I go so far, to such an out-of-the-way place with such out-of-the-way sights without taking photos? Easy, I say. I like looking at stuff. You have to stop looking in order to point a camera at something. And why peer through a lens which limits your vision? You can’t see if you’re always composing what’s in front of you into a fancy shot…

Everyone else, however, was snapping off film like there was no tomorrow, let alone two more weeks of touring… People were weighed down on each shoulder with spare lenses, light meters, and those lucky enough to have wives or husbands handy let them carry tripods one pace behind like native bearers. The most offensive person on the trip was a Scandinavian professional photographer… elbowing people out of his way…

The camcorder was much in evidence, so, added to the click and whirr of motorized snapping, was the monotonous murmuring of voices, not people in conversation with each other, but individuals talking into their machines, adding commentary to their motion pictures. Every time I heard what I thought was someone talking behind me and politely turned around to listen, I saw a Cyclops with video camera replacing the missing eye, pacing deliberately about, moving the machine and their head up and down and around, as if eyes no longer swivelled in their sockets, muttering into their chests. To anyone not aware of the purpose of the camcorder, we would have been mistaken for an outing of the deranged… The present experience was already in the past for them, they had skipped over time, and were seeing the world through their video lenses, as it would look when the current moment was dead and gone.

A few pages later, she’s delved into reminisces about her mother, but returns to the theme:

I wondered, too, whether it was possible to experience anything fresh any more. If there was a moment of marvelling, it was in the amazing closeness of the reality to what I had already seen in other media. Sometimes, looking out to sea, I had to shake away the films I had seen, the sense of remembering, without having ever actually experienced the event…

But the photography does more than push the present out of the way and possibly make memory even more unreliably your own than ever. It also captures a slice of the world, makes it private territory, deprives others of the right of access. Photography is a modern, miniature form of colonization.

In the final pages, she returns to the idea of photography:

But what, I wondered, was the point of witnessing this sublime empty landscape and then passing on? That question was one reason, I suppose, for the rate at which the cameras clicked away. The photograph was evidence for oneself, not others really, that you’d been there. The only proof that anything had once happened beyond an attack of imagination and fallible memory. It also caused there to be an event during the moment of experiencing, as if the moment of experiencing doesn’t feel like enough all by itself. If you merely looked and left, what, when you returned home, was the point of having been? It was not hard to imagine such a landscape, to build one in your head in the comfort of your own home, and spend unrestricted time there all alone. In real life, you look, you pass through, you leave—you take a photo to make the activity less absurd. It provides something to do with your hands while you are trying to experience yourself experiencing this experience.

They land in St. Andrew’s Bay, the breeding ground for 100,000 king penguins who all are lined up, staring out at the sea when they arrive:

To us, they seemed to be watching, but if we hadn’t been approaching the shore, they would still all be standing there looking out to sea. That’s what penguins do. Stand. For the penguins, it’s just another day of standing and staring. They were not even slightly interested at our approach… We were not part of their existence, presented no obvious danger and therefore were ignored, quite overlooked…

I was very taken with this timeless standing, unwitnessed, unwitnessing, that we were interrupting, though only barely. That was the point, for me, of Antarctica; that it was simply there, always had been, always would be, with great tracts of the continent unseen, unwitnessed, cycling through its two seasons, the ice rolling slowly from the centre to the edges where eventually it breaks off. A place that is and always had been unseen.

Of course, she brings along Moby Dick for the trip, and finds herself yearning to spend the day reading in her cabin.

Echo

You know you’re reading obscure shit when you can’t find an Amazon image to include in the post, and you have to send away to other libraries to get a copy. I’m continuing to explore Violet Trefusis’s work, this time with Echo, originally written in French but translated helpfully by Siân Miles in this 1988 edition. It’s a short volume, not quite 100 pages to detail the arrival of Parisian cousin Sauge to visit Scotland and stay with her mother’s sister, Aunt Agnes, and the two orphaned children she’s raising, twins Malcolm and Jean, a boy and a girl of indeterminate age, possibly youths in their late teens. The main plot follows the reluctance of the twins to accept the outsider, and then their both falling in love with Sauge, which ends badly as Jean kills herself when she hears Malcolm propose marriage. Interspersed, letters from Sauge’s husband (both drafts not sent and those actually sent) which show that he’s well aware that her interest in him is only piqued when she’s jealous. And Aunt Agnes (Lady Balquidder) has neighbors that play a minor part in showcasing how a somewhat middle class family is more normal than the one living in the grand castle next door.

Voyages and Discoveries

Voyages and Discoveries: Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries ofthe English Nat (Penguin Classics)

Reading collections of 16th century travel writing is guaranteed to send you down a few rabbit holes. Case in point, I just spent an hour researching the introduction of corn/maize into Europe, since I learned reading Guns, Germs, & Steel that this was an American export, but I saw such extensive mention of “corn” throughout the book that I had to fact-check Jared Diamond. The confusion arises from the fact that British English refers to “corn” as whatever is the most popular grain grown in a region, so it could be wheat or barley. Which explains why Anthony Jenkinson’s account of the Tartars growing “a certain corn called iegur” is really just referring to sorghum, another grain.

This Penguin edition is much abridged, pared down to 10% of the total, since the full Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation is a collection of 16th century documents totalling over 1,500,000 words. The introduction snidely sniffs that the “many volumes of the complete Hakluyt, usually unopened, were often enough to be found on private bookshelves years ago when England thought of herself as imperial.” The collection favors eyewitness accounts and real business correspondence over other more conflated tales, making the volumes useful to sailors. The third voyage of the East India fleet floundered off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607 and the captain sent for “The Book” (Hakluyt) that unearthed facts about the coast enabling him to find safe anchorage (and saving the East India Company £20,000).

One of my aha! moments reading this was the 1553 discovery of the kingdom of Moscovy… for some reason I hadn’t realized that Russia was not a known entity to the English prior to that. Hakluyt writes about Sir Hugh Willoughby’s financing and Richard Chancellor’s piloting the ship through the unknown north passage. “This country was called Russia, or Moscovy, and Ivan Vasilivich (which was at that time their King’s name) ruled and governed far and wide in those places.” What follows are business documents and personal recollections of that voyage, and after installing an ambassador, the attempt to reach China over land via Russia.

From a 1557 business letter: “Also we do understand that about the river of Pechora is great quantity of yew, which we be desirous to have knowledge of, because it is a special commodity for our realm. Therefore we have sent you a young man, whose name is Leonard Brian, that hath some knowledge in the wood: if there be none found that will serve for our purpose, then you may set the said Leonard Brian to any other business that you shall find most fittest for him, until the return of our ships the next year. For he is hired by the year only for that purpose… Also we have sent you one Anthony Jenkinson gentleman, a man well travelled, whom we mind to use in further travelling, according to a commission delivered him.”

Jenkinson, traveling with Richard Johnson and Robert Johnson, writes a highly readable account in 1558 of his voyage from Moscow to Bokhara, and later (1561) an explanation of his trip to Persia, a voyage fraught with thieves and zealous Moors looking to kill Christians. Arthur Edwards’ 1568 trip to Persia is also recounted, “to travel in this country is not only miserable and uncomfortable for lack of towns and villages to harbour in when night cometh, and to refresh men with wholesome victuals in time of need, but also such scarcity of water… besides the great danger we stand in for robbing by these infidels, who do account it remission of sins to wash their hands in the blood of one of us. Better it is therefore in my opinion to continue a beggar in England during life, than to remain a rich merchant seven years in this country…”

Melville includes bits of Hakluyt in Moby Dick, of course; I found the 1575 response to a man’s request for advice on killing a whale to be extensive and most likely perused by Herman whilst researching MD.

Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1577 is also covered with a first-hand account of someone on the trip, including my favorite line where they find a Spaniard lying asleep on the beach beside 13 bars of silver… “we took the silver, and left the man.”

****

Discovered via Virginia Woolf’s reminisces about her father lugging home volumes of Hakluyt from the library for her to read as a teenager (because women weren’t allowed). She mentions him at least 3 times in her diaries, and includes this from the Common Reader:

Part of their charm consists in the fact that Hakluyt is not so much a book as a great bundle of commodities loosely tied together, an emporium, a lumber room strewn with ancient sacks, obsolete nautical instruments, huge bales of wool, and little bags of rubies and emeralds. One is for ever untying this packet here, sampling that heap over there, wiping the dust off some vast map of the world, and sitting down in semi-darkness to snuff the strange smells of silks and leathers and ambergris, while outside tumble the huge waves of the uncharted Elizabethan sea.

Rejected books of the week

I finished fewer than normal books this week because I was bringing home armfuls of books that I just didn’t like. With such a huge quantity of rejects, I wanted to record my folly so I don’t repeat the mistake, like I frequently have in the past by picking up a previously rejected book to try to read.

#1 – Hillbilly Elegy. JD Vance’s memoir is the darling of the moment, pundits holding it aloft promising that it will unlock the secret of this year’s election. Balderdash. This is merely yet another book telling the tale of the plight of people in the Appalachians, and aren’t we so proud of JD for having escaped to go to Yale? Skip the hype, you will miss nothing.

#2 – The Chronology of Water. Add Yuknavitch’s book to the long list of failed book recommendations I’ve gotten from Lena Dunham’s somewhat useless newsletter, Lenny (or Lamey, as I used to call a misogynistic trust fund twit I shared an artist loft with years ago).

#3 & 4 – Pea Pickers (by Eve Langley) and her bio, The Importance of Being Eve Langley. Usually the Neglected Books site steers me well in choosing these obscure women authors, but nothing sat right with me about Eve and her conviction that she was Oscar Wilde reborn.

#5 – Book Thief. Sorry, Linnea, I couldn’t get past the first few pages and the stilted structure that tried its best to camouflage writing that clunked.

#6 – Buttered Side Down. I’m definitely over my Edna Ferber crush, I could barely eyeball her first book of short stories despite loving her later work.

#7 – These Low Grounds by Waters Turpin, who was the son of Ferber’s maid, Rebecca. There’s a reason that some books haven’t withstood history’s brutal forgetfulness.

#8 – Lesser Bourgeoisie, or the Middle Class by Balzac. Had a hard time finding a copy of this lesser known work which was rec’d via André Gide. My first exposure to Balzac, I’m hoping my ambivalence (I read 100 pages, then gave up) due more to the translation.

 

 

The Making of Donald Trump

The Making of Donald Trump

No one should read this book all at once unless they have a high tolerance for withstanding nausea. I had to take frequent sanity breaks, more than once questioning why I was continuing to read about this man whom I’d like to see punched in the face. David Cay Johnston is not the best writer, but he’s a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist who cranked out this book in time for the frenzy of election season. The only new thing I learned was that Trump is a germophobe and that a long suppressed documentary by Libby Handros has been released. Oh, and there was a prank by Spy magazine in 1990 to find out who was the cheapest rich New Yorker, sending $1.11 refund checks to 58 of the richest NY’ers. Those who cashed those checks got another check for half the amount, then half again, and again. Trump and Adnan Khashoggi (Saudi arms dealer) both cashed $0.13 checks.

He’s a petty tyrant focused on revenge, fraud, money, his fragile ego, and he had a $12k/month trust fund while in diapers, and he has called up journalists planting stories using a fake name for the past 30 years. He’s a loser.