The Evolution of a Community Bookstore

Mary Ellen Kavanaugh

In 1987 when I opened a feminist bookstore in Syracuse, My Sisters' Words, the book industry was on the cusp of change. With a bit of business sense and a love of literature, one could open and successfully run an independent bookstore.

Since then, much has changed. The early '90s saw the advent of the superstore, with its wall to wall books and the subsequent fall of small independent presses and bookstores. The middle of the decade brought continued decline in independent presses and bookstores, accompanied by the purchase of larger publishers by yet larger media conglomerates, so that at the turn of the century, most books published in this country are published by about six major media conglomerates. Add to this, the new concept of online selling, and it is clear these were challenging times.

What keeps a given small press or bookstore alive in such a climate?

While an owner's skills, vision and dedication are mandatory, they mean nothing without a supportive community. Syracuse has been just that for My Sisters' Words. In 1994, when the big box stores came to town, I sent a letter to the 2800 people on the store's mailing list, outlining the state of the industry and asking if the community still wanted this bookstore. The response was reaffirming. A group came together to act as an advisory council and helped with a fundraising campaign that saw My Sisters' Words through the toughest years of expansion in the industry.

In 1997, we held a huge 10th anniversary which was about reminiscing. Musicians and authors who had performed or read in the store, early in its life, when it was barely filled with books, came back and performed in celebration of what this community had built.

In contrast, the recent 15th anniversary was celebrated, not by looking back, but by looking forward. In a change echoing those being made in other feminist bookstores around the country, the store has been transformed into a business meeting larger community needs than it once did.

For most of the store's herstory, feminist and l/g/b/t (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered) titles constituted the majority of sales. However, the past few years have been especially challenging in terms of the production and sales of feminist and l/g/b/t titles. A great deal of feminist work has been relegated to the academy with fewer titles being published for the lay person. As visibility has changed in many respects for l/g/b/t people, fewer turn to books for reflections of their lives as was the case in the last quarter of the 20th century. And, it must be noted, most of the small l/g and feminist presses are now gone. As the century turned, it was time to look around and really explore how people's reading habits were changing.

A serious study of sales and special orders indicated that there were very distinct areas of interest which clearly were not being met by other bookstores in town, despite the thousands of books on their shelves. To that end, our stock has been expanding in these categories: children's, poetry, social change issues, environment, sexuality, and global understandings, while still maintaining the largest selection of feminist and l/g/b/t titles in town. When you think about it, all our expanded categories really have been transformed by feminism over the past 20 years, so it still really is all about feminism! Additionally, we are stocking more bestsellers which were being ordered in increasing numbers.

And so, the store had become a more general lefty kind of place all on its own, and as any good feminist would do, I merely named what I saw and put it out there for all to see. While it was most important not to lose the essential feminist nature of the store and continue to use a name which has found a warm place in many people's hearts, it was necessary to have a name that would indicate that the store is something more than one might expect from a "feminist bookstore." The new name, My Sisters' Words/The Next Wave, keeps that essential identity and indicates that we are moving forward _ the new part of the name refers both to third wave feminism as well as waves of change. The tagline, which follows the name, A Bookstore For All Progressive Minds, makes clearer still the wide range of people who will find books they want here. The logo itself is a revisioning of the original logo _ all the elements of the original have been transformed and appear in the new logo.

With both a new name and logo, and the tried and true service, knowledge and community activism the store has always exhibited, we move jubilantly forward with every intention of continuing to be a safe space — where those who question the dominant culture can explore new

areas of thought and build community.

Mary Ellen is the owner/founder of My Sisters' Words, 304 N. McBride St.