Can We Thrive Without Our Bookstores? by Susan G. Cole
Submitted by Penni Mitchell on Tue, 07/12/2011 - 07:58
Many of us here in Toronto are in shock over the closing of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore in November. After 39 years and many different operating paradigms—collectives, partnerships, single owners, non-profit and for-profit arrangements—the store, one of the most influential of its kind in North America, could not compete with big box operations like Indigo and e-tailers such as Amazon.
The store’s bread and butter—university course books— began drying up as the industry landscape changed. Students can now buy used books online, the University of Toronto Bookstore now offers textbook rentals and some U.S. websites post complete books free of charge. The theory was, however, that regardless of online and big box competitors, a woman’s bookstore would survive, if only because it was a community hub. The TWB was always expert at programming events that attracted large audiences, but although book sales were good, especially at launches, they weren’t enough to keep the store afloat.
At their peak, there were over 150 women’s bookstores in North America. There are now fewer than a dozen, and exactly one is still functioning in Canada, the Northern Women’s Bookstore in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
On one hand, this news is profoundly distressing. Women’s bookstores were once beacons that shone a light on feminist ideas. Alongside rape crisis centres and women’s shelters, they were emblematic of feminist ingenuity, strength and creativity, and of the movement’s ability to organize. Unfortunately, violence and sexual assault are still very much alive, meaning that women’s services are not yet obsolete.
But feminist ideas are alive and well, too—it’s just the bookstore that’s lost its place. By that I mean that while I’m nostalgic for the days when feminists would coalesce around their book emporiums, I don’t believe their demise signifies the end of feminism.
It’s the venues that have changed, not the power of feminism. Witness last year, when right-wing U.S. commentator Rush Limbaugh called college student Sandra Fluke a slut for wanting her insurance company to cover her birth control. For it, he was made to look like a fool. I was gobsmacked when the right’s goon had to backtrack because of the overwhelmingly negative response to his comments. Yet Limbaugh’s been saying outrageous things for decades. What about this particular comment was different from any of his other inflammatory anti-feminist rhetoric?
The answer lies in exactly what sunk the women’s bookstores across the content: online action. In the Limbaugh case, it generated a quick and passionate response. I’d argue that Internet dialogue is doing for feminism today what bookstores did for women in the ’80s. It provides a forum and a sense of intellectual community.
It’s worth noting that three days after the behemoth American breast cancer foundation Komen for the Cure announced that it would de-fund Planned Parenthood in America—an amount representing about $600,000 in grants for cancer screening for low-income women— the organization was forced to reverse its decision when the online backlash became too big to handle.
Meanwhile, here in Toronto, a series of sexual assaults prompted a rally that attracted over 300 men and women and re-energized the movement to end violence against women.
We may have lost our bookstores, but the country’s prime minister won’t dare to introduce legislation in Parliament that would deny women’s right to control their reproduction.
As we acknowledge the bookstores that played such an important role in advancing feminism, I say this: Honour those stores and the women who ran them. Consider them a part of our valued history. Mourn them, if you’d like. But do not bury feminism. It’s not dead yet.