Home' LOTL : August 2004 Contents As part of The Feminist Bookshop's 30th birthday celebrations performance poet Jenni Nixon
will read from her new collection Café Boogie on Saturday August 14 at 4pm,
refreshments provided. RSVP (02) 9810 2666.
MAIN PHOTO THE CURRENT BOOKSHOP TEAM L-R: LIBBY SILVA, SIRI MAY, GAIL HEWISON AND EMMA KERSEY. PHOTO TRACEY BECKLER.
INSET GAIL, JANE WADDY AND LIBBY, 1982.
workers have intermittently endured gangs of boys hurling eggs, vomit, verbal abuse
and physical threats. They have sur vived stalking, lost government contracts and the
occasional per ving man.
The sisters' commitment paid off. Through the eighties and nineties, the shop was
a de-facto lesbian community center where women went to come out and hang out.
They met lovers beside the fiction and found housemates on the notice boards. It was
first port of call for lesbian travellers and migrants. The sisters provided unofficial
counselling, networking and support to whoever walked in the door. When lesbian
writing was unacceptable to most publishers and retailers, the shop organised readings,
giving exposure to now famous writers including award-winning poets Jill Jones,
Dorothy Porter and international novelist Claire McNab. Rev Dorothy McRae
McMahon kept coming. "They created a wonderful peaceful atmosphere, with a very
fine selection. It's nicely set out and there is something for everyone -- a book to give
your granddaughter or a crime story for me."
San Franciscan Carol Seajay, former editor of Feminist Book News and a world
authority on feminist bookshops, adores the Sydney shop. "Fifty per cent of
independent booksellers in the US went under because of deliberate tactics from
superstores like Borders. Initially, feminist bookshops declined only by a third because
we had a community to back us up, but amazon.com was the last straw."
"The success of feminism has also been a problem," says Gail. "When we started,
nobody sold women's books but now you can buy them at Target." The
mainstreaming of feminism is a mixed blessing. Susan Hawthorn from Spinifex Press
thinks that bigger stores generally don't take risks in buying more original material,
which discourages their publication. The fashionable postmodern titles crowding
shelves create an impression of feminist abundance, but often they sound clever
without saying anything new, and they swamp the few books that do.
The shop sur vived by adapting to the times, according to Gail. "As feminism
changed to incorporate the growth movement, so did we. Last week, a group of school
counsellors came in to buy boxes of books, and they said that we were the only shop
where they could get everything they needed." Carol Seajay thinks the secret is the
sisters themselves. "They have long-term vision and tenacity. It helps that there are three
of them (although Jane retired for full-time motherhood six years ago)."
Gail thinks being a family business helped. "We could rely on the fact that we
wouldn't be getting a divorce. Even though there may have been moments when we
wanted it." Libby points out, though, that when their parents suffered long illnesses,
going to work was no escape from the distress. Now, current co-workers and young
feminists Siri May and Emma Kersey, who are not related to the sisters, provide a
counterbalance of perspective and fresh enthusiasm.
Sur vival has a cost. There have been months where the owners could not draw a
wage. The shop is "tiny business" as Libby calls it, but its very fragility is also its
strength. For Libby, tiny business has a warmth and personal touch you don't get
anywhere else. "When we ask how you are, we really want to know," she says.
Customers respond in extraordinary ways. There is the woman who came out at
sixty-five, with the shop's support, and the husband who courageously brought his wife
in when they both realised she might be a lesbian, softly crying as she hurried to the
lesbian shelves. "One bloke buys Facing the Fire, an anger management book, five copies
at a time to give to his male friends," says Gail. A heterosexual couple were regular
customers, when the woman was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Libby is moved that
they chose to spend some of their last precious hours together, browsing in the shop.
The shop's philosophical integration of political critique with psychological and
spiritual healing -- 'compassionate feminism' according to Libby -- has been a force in
creating Sydney's comparatively progressive welfare industry. "Feminists started the
first women's refuge and sexual assault centres and wrote the first books about
domestic violence and incest. We made them available to welfare workers who did not
know about those issues or that literature until they saw them on our shelves. By
accessing the books and directing therapists and welfare workers to them we were
exposing the secrets, as book after book went into every area of work. We have done
the same with regard to addictions," explains Gail.
Tiny business can change the world.
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