by Alex Poppe
Women and Children First (WCF) is much more than a book store, it is a force for social change. In 2019, after forty years of being open, the store closed for a full day retreat and wrote their mission statement declaring that books are tools, and literature can be transformative. WCF recognizes that who is underrepresented evolves, so it focuses on centering the most oppressed voices to make sure everyone is at the table, and are curated on the front table, greeting customers as they walk into the store. Trans writers, Black female trans writers, and indigenous writers are represented in fiction, poetry, memoirs, the children’s section and as well as in non-fiction, their books’ front covers visibly facing out. Customers come into the store, see these covers, see writers or characters that look like them, and think, “Their voices matter…My voice matter.” Books are the catalyst for these watershed moments.
I asked Sarah what she thought about the latest legislative rulings which block trans teens from participating in high school sports. As a trans inclusive book store in the trans inclusive neighborhood of Andersonville on the northside of Chicago, Sarah is figuring out how the store can be a resource to fight back. She is aware that she embodies a unique dichotomy: perceived as not having power as a disabled woman while having power as a white woman and small business owner. (When Sarah commented on how white women have misused power, she shifted my perspective.) As political as it is literary, WCF aims to leverage their power in the community to make substantive change which is not easily eroded. She believes in acknowledging the past harm done and works towards repairing that harm (WCF was not always trans inclusive). Her efforts were acknowledged when WCF was used as the set for an episode of season two of Showtime’s Work in Progress, which was created by two of WCF’s favorite customers, Abby McEnany and Lily Wachowski. Work in Progress captures the conversation and tension within the feminist movement right now in terms of trans inclusion and trans visibility. It is no wonder that WCF’s avatar is a gender fluid person with purple (a feminist color) hair.
WCF’s creation story starts with co-founders, Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon, who met as graduate students at the University of Illinois at Chicago while studying English Literature. Time and time again, they would come across a woman writer they wanted to study, such as Virginia Woolf, Kate Millet, or Edith Wharton, only to discover their books were not readily available. At the time, second-wave feminism was in full force, and activists around the country were starting collectives and businesses of all kinds, including feminist presses and bookstores. It was against this backdrop that Ann and Linda decided that how they would support themselves would also be their contribution to the women’s movement. 1n 1979, they opened WCF in a modest storefront on Armitage Avenue. Over the years, WCF has been located in several locations on Chicago’s northside. In 1990, WCF moved to the Andersonville neighborhood after being recruited by a committee of Edgewater business owners. The feminist bookstore has been evolving and growing with the neighborhood ever since.
Sarah was thirty years old when she and Lynn Mooney finalized the paperwork to co-own the bookstore. Overnight, Sarah went from being a part-time WCF bookseller to being a primary caretaker. The bookstore itself and most of its staff at the time were older than she. Beyond her youth, Sarah is a disabled woman, which means she always has to work twice as hard to be heard and earn mere scraps of credibility. Although Sarah initially approached Lynn about throwing their shared hat in the ring to buy the store, it never really felt like a decision. Women & Children First was a place that Sarah loved and wanted to survive. Having been raised by parents who were invested in community, Sarah understood the need to support small businesses from a young age. Her mother was the best customer at a tiny feminist bookstore in Sarah’s hometown of Toledo, Ohio. That store has since closed, and so the calling to own WCF was very close to her heart.
Alex Poppe is the author of Girl, World, which was named a 35 Over 35 Debut Book Award winner, First Horizon Award finalist, Montaigne Medal finalist, was short-listed for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize, was awarded an Honorable Mention in General Fiction from the Eric Hoffer Awards and was recommended by the US Review of Books. Alex’s novella Duende will be published by Regal House Publishing in the summer of 2022.