A Place for Us

A radical idea with vision opened the doors to A Room of One's Own feminist bookstore over 33 years ago. Gretchen Treu chronicles how that vision has persevered, and the sanctuary Room's walls still offer

Anyone who has lived, worked, or shopped in the State Street area of downtown Madison knows that it’s a real struggle for businesses to stay afloat there. It seems that every month some small business gets crowded out by skyrocketing rent and low sales to be replaced by a chain restaurant, café, or boutique. There are very few places that have weathered these hardships, and A Room Of One’s Own Bookstore is certainly among the most tenacious and successful independent bookstores in Madison- indeed, in the country, having stayed open for 33 years.

It all started in 1975, when an idealistic and passionate quintet of young college feminists decided to open a feminist bookstore. The women were Maureen Doe, Sue Ketchum, Gail Straw, Sally Stevens, and Sandi Torkildson, students who met through an introductory women’s studies course offered through the UW Extension and, frustrated by the lack of comfortable spaces for women to congregate, fundraised $5,000 to open the store at 317 West Johnson St.

According to Torkildson, 1975 was a great year to open a feminist business, particularly a bookstore. Locally, the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison started up that year, and the women’s magazine Common Woman and the gay publication Among Friends were good omens of the warm welcome Madison gave the feisty new store. Local individuals and businesses donated money, advice, and skills to the new owners, and the local press covered the store’s inception with interest and warmth. Nationally, Ms. magazine was just taking off, and the number of small independent presses, publishers, and books was booming. Torkildson describes it as “a renaissance—there was an incredible amount of pent-up desire to read gay and lesbian and feminist books.” New technologies made it possible for people to purchase printing presses and make their own books affordably without having to go through the major publishing houses. Women were forming consciousness-raising groups and creating new networks

of communication and knowledge-sharing, which at the time was most efficiently done through books. The women’s movement was really taking off, having learned the lessons of activist organizing and leadership from the civil rights and antiwar movements of the previous few decades.

The bookstore has always considered itself to be more than just a business; it is also a great community space, from events like big name author events—in recent years, the store has hosted Leslie Feinberg, Alison Bechdel, and Dorothy Allison just to name a few—to local writing groups, book clubs, and knitting circles. It has also been an important community resource, providing information and networking for many local groups and services as well as giving space for political activist groups. The store’s bookmarks, provided free of charge, include a lengthy list of contact information for local and national support resources, ranging from healthy sexuality to AIDS testing and support to domestic violence and suicide prevention.

Room has always been a staunch and involved supporter of the LGBT community in Madison. On two occasions, in 1998 in response to anti-gay billboards put up by Monroe Reverend Ralph Ovadal, and again in 2001 in response to protests by virulent anti-gay Kansas bigot Fred Phelps, the bookstore provided yard signs paid for by Sandi, saying “Madison supports its gay and lesbian community!” The store requested donations in return for the signs and donated the proceeds to various lesbian and gay causes in the city, including OutReach’s library and the Madison Area School District for its appointment of a full-time staffmember to advocate for gay and lesbian youth in the schools. The yard sign campaign was successful, as the store worked with local churches who support its inclusive message and gaining some positive local news coverage. Sensitive to the evolving activist community, the yard signs were updated to include “bi” and “trans” for the second campaign. The store also maintains a comprehensive inventory of gay and lesbian studies, gay and lesbian fiction and nonfiction, poetry, sexuality, bisexuality, and transgendered titles.

It was a good time to open a feminist bookstore. Torkildson and her co-owners learned all they could about the business of bookselling and avidly soaked up the example and advice of established feminist bookstores, including Sisterhood in L.A., Jane Addams in Chicago, and Amazon in Minneapolis. Of these, Amazon is the only one still open, and it is the only feminist bookstore in the world older than Room. Torkildson attributes the store’s longevity to its adaptability and its commitment to sustainable business practices. According to Sandi, “We have always been able to get the important stuff done,” even when things looked grim. Room has always worked hard to support other local independent businesses, as Sandi was a founder of the Dane County Buy Local Initiative, a coalition of stores working to promote awareness of the importance of sustaining local businesses. According to Torkildson, 73 cents of every dollar you spend locally stays in your community, as opposed to 43 cents of each dollar spent at a national chain like Borders or Wal-Mart.

In the mid-90s, when the opportunity arose, Sandi took a risk and moved the bookstore a few doors down to 307 West Johnson, expanding the inventory to include more general interest stock and opening a coffeeshop. Sandi and her co-owner, Nancy Geary, keep a close watch on the reading interests of the liberal community. They carefully balance the store’s core emphasis on feminism, gay and lesbian rights, women’s fiction and health with more recently expanding sections like environmentalism and politics. Geary, who sometimes hosts the Her Infinite Variety women’s music program on WORT, also works hard to maintain a great selection of independent women’s music. When the numbers didn’t crunch, the bookstore leased the café to Two Degrees, a cooperative group which ran the coffee end of things until June of this year, when they decided not to renew their lease due to overwhelming coffee competition in the downtown area. Room made the best of this loss by installing a beautiful new checkout counter and increasing their stock of fair trade jewelry and gifts.

It’s no surprise to the people who work and shop there that this store has made it through some of the toughest years for bookselling. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, and love to help customers find that perfect book. It is clear if you spend ten minutes in the store that a great deal of love and care has gone into making this a successful business that can change with the times without letting go of any of its ideals. People often come in from out of town, reminiscing about the memories they made in this cozy store and making a point to stop in. In a time when independent bookstores, especially feminist ones, are closing their doors, Torkildson sighs and says, “It’s sad to see these unique stores go. It’s so important to have these ideals out there. We all struggle to stay alive, it’s not easy—we just have to hope that the support still continues.”