By: Camille Jackson, Loyola Senior; Charlotte Gascoigne, Loyola Junior; William Baranda, Loyola Freshman; Sarah Ansong Loyola Senior
As Women’s History Month comes to an end, the Women and Children First bookstore continues to showcase and publish diverse literature from women and other marginalized genders, ensuring their achievements in society are recognized all year round.
Women and Children First, located in Andersonville on Clark St., was founded in 1979 with a mission to amplify the voices of both women and the LGBTQIA+ Community. They offer seminars to discuss, reflect, and work to provide an equitable environment for all, no matter your background.
We spoke to Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner and events coordinator of the Women and Children’s First, about the bookstore’s role within the community, the importance of diverse literature, and her hopes for the future of the bookstore in creating an equitable future.
The Women and Children First bookstore heavily relied on in-person community building as a means of customer acquisition and retention before the onset of the pandemic. It was the differentiating characteristic that set them apart from big-box booksellers, and navigating the process of reinventing their community was a struggle the store endured during the pandemic.
Hollenbeck said, “In addition to sales, we had to figure out how to create a community or replicate the community experience online that we have worked so hard to build here in the bookstore.” In order to continue to support their community, all of the book group meetings were transitioned to virtual Zoom meetings. While Zoom does not create the same sense of togetherness as an in-person meeting would Hollenbeck described these meetings as a “lifeline” for people dealing with the mental repercussions during the pandemic.
Despite the effects of COVID-19, the bookstore has continued its mission of honoring and remembering women who are not often recognized in mainstream society.
For Women’s History month, Hollenbeck said, “We’ve been celebrating mostly by our in-store displays [which] have been focused on women’s history, indigenous women, disabled women, and specifically women who have been left out of the conversation. We also had a display in our front window about the loss of women in the workplace during the pandemic. That display was spearheaded by our booksellers who wanted to highlight the fact that Women’s History month is often about the extraordinary women but we also need to celebrate the everyday women all around us, who have been significantly impacted by this past year and had their lives affected.”
Recognizing the ongoing fight for gender equality, Women and Children’s First bookstore is fighting to make sure that the transgender community is a part of the conversation, and that their humanity is fully recognized. In October 2019, the bookstore was vandalized with transphobic messages. Not wanting the event to tear them down, the bookstore decided to work with the community to combat the hateful backlash.
Hollenbeck said, “Our response was to do a community activism event. We reached out to the media and we bought all these art supplies, so chalk, other painting supplies, poster boards, all this stuff, and we had a rally right outside the bookstore. We all gathered our art supplies and wrote trans-affirming messages up and down Clark St which is almost 10 blocks! So it was a direct response to them that if they were going to show up again, they would be confronted by all of this love for the trans people in our community. We have a huge transgender population in Andersonville who all shop at the bookstore. We’re here to uplift their existence, to validate that trans people exist and that their lives matter.”
Despite the hardships Women and Children’s First has encountered, Hollenbeck still holds out hope for an even bigger and brighter future for the store. The pandemic has enabled Hollenbeck and her co-owner, Lynn, to see the bigger picture of their mission and how they can enact that change within the community.
Hollenbeck said, “Just thinking about all the other ways that you can fight systemic injustice as a bookstore, not feed into it or contribute to it. I think the pandemic has really opened our eyes that nothing is off the table.”
To find more information about Women and Children’s First bookstore, visit their website at www.womenandchildrenfirst.com