Sunday, January 18, 2015

In Other Words: Committed, Activist, Non-Profit, Feminist

At 14 NE Killingsworth Street in Portland, Oregon, I visited a rare bookstore called In Other Words. 

In point of fact, In Other Words is not exclusively a bookstore, for the books on their central stacks are a lending library. Doesn't this undermine the business model? Not exactly, because In Other Words is a non-profit organization, a Feminist Community Center.

In Other Words is near my daughter's house. When I was visiting, Upper Hand Press had just published Louise Farmer Smith's One Hundred Years of Marriage, a novel deep in its observations about the history of women in domestic unions, so I thought I'd pay them a call.

I have watched the television show Portlandia only twice, and In Other Words turned out to be the setting for the feminist bookstore in which Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen have made many a broad and silly jest about feminists and feminist culture. It was that bookstore.

But it turned out to be "that" bookstore not at all. Not. At. All. 

Portlandia's comedy is made by grotesquely exaggerating their targets—making feminism seem like a disease of the deranged, feeble-minded, and un-beautiful. Their send-up bears no relation to the broad-mindedness that I found displayed on the store's shelves and in discussion with Allison Specter, the woman minding the store. 

Among the books they carry one can find something for women of every sort in every life situation. There are philosophical writings about the bases for feminist thought; there are books on political theory and action. There are books about maternity and childcare, aging, and women's health from many perspectives. In Other Words carries books aimed at straight, lesbian, and trans women, and for the people who care about them. There are books for girls of every age, to encourage them to be happy and strong in their bodies and attitudes. This is  a broad-minded specialist bookstore, not a bastion of exclusive doctrine.

In Other Words needs to sell more books than it does to keep its doors open for its community activities. They tell us on their website:

"When we opened in 1993 there were over 200 feminist bookstores in the United States and today there are fewer than 30. In Other Words is the only feminist bookstore in the United States that also functions as a nonprofit organization, which has allowed us to serve a unique role in our communities."

That's gutsy, and optimistic, and it's also frightening. They drive with the needle on empty most of the time, doing business with the prospect of having to close ever present. There's some extra income from the television show, but it's balanced by the upsurge in male curiosity-seekers to be jettisoned and of t.v. tourists with no interest in buying.

Contributions are warmly welcome by this unique, determined, important feminist bookstore. When you watch Portlandia, think of the real women serving and served at Portland's In Other Words.

Upper Hand Press is sending an in-kind contribution of our books for them to sell and profit from, hoping the money will go farther than our admiration.

Monday, January 12, 2015

"One Hundred Years Of Marriage" Launched at Upshur Street Books

Cover by Natalee Michelle Brown
The District of Columbia's new Upshur Street Books hosted the launch of Louise Farmer Smith's novel, One Hundred Years of Marriage, on January 8th. Enough listeners braved the arctic cold to occupy every seat with which Anna Thorn had filled her store. Smith drew her audience at full speed directly into knowledge of the Brady family secret that protagonist Patricia would die rather than reveal. Patricia's narration in the first chapter is a catapult into the  novel's poignant stream of secrets kept and revealed throughout the passage of four generations.

Louise Farmer Smith is a long-time resident of Capitol Hill. Both she and Upper Hand Press wanted her first reading to be at a District book store. We could not have found one more suitable and congenial than Upshur Street in the northwest neighborhood of Petworth.

If you find Upshur Street's Facebook page, you can follow their progress all the way back to their beginnings, not so long ago, in June 2014, when they arose from a $17,000 Kickstarter campaign.
From a June, 2014 Facebook post for Upshur Street Books

Barely six months old, they have already become Washington tastemakers. Earlier this month, Anna Thorn was the go-to person for books when the Washington Post needed expert predictions about 2015 trends. 

Louise Farmer Smith reads from One Hundred Years of Marriage
Upper Hand Press was delighted to partner with Upshur Street Books for the launch of One Hundred Years of Marriage because of the affinity we feel with a hard-working, positive young business. It takes a lot of vision and commitment to open an independent bookstore in the days of bookselling behemoths. It takes some nerve to open an independent publishing house. 2014 was the founding year for Upper Hand and Upshur Street both.

2014 was also the publication year for One Hundred Years of Marriage, and this was another big "first," for this is Louise Farmer Smith's first novel. Though she has published many short stories and earned two Pushcart nominations, Smith went through the legendary years of struggle and rejection by countless agents and publishing houses until Upper Hand Press leapt at the chance to bring this book out. We will celebrate her 75th birthday with a royalty check!

A new bookstore; a new press; a first novel. January 8th's reading was a celebration not only of Smith's remarkable novel, but of a dedicated author, a bookstore built on heart, and of this new press, which is happy to be joining hands with people persisting in doing what they dream of.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

First Loves: Independent Bookstores Close to the Upper Hand Heart. PART 2.

Ann Starr's first reading tour for Sounding Our Depths: The Music of Morgan Powell during the fall of 2014 introduced her to several more outstanding independent bookstores, lengthening the list begun in our first post by Mac's Backs, Jane Addams, and Buffalo Street Books. 

Krista Long and Ann Starr at MindFair Books
A bookstore that smiles is in Oberlin, one of Ohio's great college towns. MINDFAIR ("The Book Lovers' Book Store") nestles inside the local Ben Franklin store. I thought that's where one goes to get tube socks and pet turtles. Krista Long's version lacks ephemeral pets, but it offers lots of old-fashioned, hand- or wind-powered toys, fabrics and notions, and day-to-day essentials like those snuggy socks and stacks and stacks of books——all with very nice young staff to help you out. Ann's reading turned into something more personal and fun——chats with Krista's customers who may have been shopping for specific items, but were happily led astray. Long has made of the whole store a neighborly zone where people express their curiosity, socialize, chat, and philosophize. What better place to talk about books than at the Oberlin five and dime?
Room at Loganberry set up for Starr's reading

Nothing of the pickle-barrel, warm familiarity at LOGANBERRY BOOKS in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Here it's more the coziness of Edwardian garden chairs, oriental rugs, and high tea in the library. And what a library! This exquisitely decorated store boasts floor-to-ceiling shelves in every one of its long line of rooms. The solicitous staff makes an author feel like she has a home in a bookstore——in every imaginable sense. Loganberry celebrated its twentieth anniversary in December. So many years have to testify to the strength of Loganberry's bonds with its neighbors. But an itinerant author could sense that without knowing the history.

Starr is introduced at New England
Mobile Book Fair, Newton, MA
Starr lived many years in Wellesley, Massachusetts. When she did, she took her children book shopping at the legendary NEW ENGLAND MOBILE BOOK FAIR in Newton, the next town east. No, it's not as big as Powell's or Strand or Seminary Bookstore: But it's big enough to occupy an industrial warehouse space and to make even an adult feel like she's gone to another country when she's gone to purchase a title (NEMBF motto: "I Only Came for One Book!"). The courtesy of a prepared introduction only added to the pleasure of presenting in the most magical of all spaces——where the author had enjoyed at one small remove the primal freedom and joy of childhood book-buying.