In their printing presses and bookshops, women once owned the means of production—in their literature, at least.
by Lucy Uprichard
Sep 25 2018
A largely forgotten footnote in Amazon’s history is the time that the online retail giant sat down with the owners of a feminist bookstore and asked them: “Are you gay?” and “Have you had any interest in promoting lesbian ideals in the community?” These bizarre questions were part of a strange and awkward legal battle between Amazon.com and the tiny Amazon Bookstore Cooperative in Minneapolis, which sued the larger company for trademark infringement in 1999.
The feminists, who had been in business for decades, were sick of dealing with calls from confused customers and initiated a legal suit after attempts to resolve the issue informally went ignored. During the deposition, lawyers for Amazon.com repeatedly asked the owners about their sexualities, arguing that Amazon Bookstore Cooperative was a lesbian business catering to a lesbian audience and in a fundamentally different market to Amazon. Eventually they settled out of court, with the bookstore retaining use of the name but assigning its common-law rights to use the name to Amazon.
Amazon Bookstore Cooperative closed down in 2012, but its legacy in feminist circles goes far beyond its spat with the online retailer. Established in 1970, it was a scrappy little operation that persevered through poor building conditions and frequent moves to become one of the first of over one hundred feminist bookstores to spring up in North America by the mid-90s. Like others, it was vital to its local community’s feminist education, operating as a friendly and accessible entry point to a vast political network. Many of these spaces have disappeared over time, but they remain part of an important literary heritage that feminists and queer people can still draw from today.
The affinity between print and feminism stretches back to the earliest days of movement, but feminist bookstores are very much a product of the second wave. Invigorated by the blossoming feminist and gay rights movements of the early 1970s, a rapid emergence of feminist spaces and infrastructure that could offer tangible support to women’s creative efforts emerged across North America. It was a phenomenon that became known as “women’s culture”, or the Women in Print movement, and it laid the foundations for a revolution in feminist literary projects.
It was also extremely queer. Elvis B., co-founder of NYC Feminist Zine Fest and coordinator at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, is the author of a zine called Where Have All the Feminist Bookstores Gone?, which looks at the history of the women’s print movement and its heavy LGBTQ influence, particularly when it came to the management of feminist bookstores.
“It was basically led by lesbians,” they told me in an interview. (Elvis uses they/them pronouns.) “Different places have different histories, but to call feminist bookstores just ‘women’s spaces’ is bizarre.” Their zine details how mainstream publishers scoffed at the work of women and LGBTQ people, propelling them to create their own printing presses, publishing houses, distribution networks, and bookstores, culminating in a feminist literary culture that felt like an unstoppable force. As Carol Seajay, owner of a San Francisco feminist bookstore and founder of the influential Feminist Bookstore Network newsletter, reflected in 1997: “There was a sense then that if we wanted to turn over patriarchy, we could… it was a dyke thing to do everything ourselves.”