It takes a lot for a bookstore, especially a small one, to endure. Lurking around every corner is always some calamity—global pandemics, property taxes, overwhelming competition from a massive online retailer offering same-day shipping. And yet not every small bookstore can say that feminist writer and theorist bell hooks has stood atop its checkout counter as if it were a soapbox. BookWoman, Austin’s nearly fifty-year-old feminist bookstore, can.
BookWoman started its life on Guadalupe Street in 1975 under the name the Common Woman Bookstore. It then migrated to current owner Susan Post’s house, which was near the University of Texas campus; then to Sixth Street; then to Twelfth and Lamar; and finally, in 2008, to 5501 N. Lamar Boulevard, where it’s currently nestled between a plant store and a bridal shop (I like to imagine a one-two punch: buying a wedding dress and going next door to grab hooks’s All About Love). Painted on BookWoman’s window is an angel reading a book between two Venus symbols, one encompassing a sun, the other a moon. The shop itself is the size of a studio apartment and adorned with Pride flags, feminist posters, strings of lights, and stickers and signs exhorting patrons to “buy local.” Many of the books face out from the shelves, inviting a closer look.
After speaking with manager Audrey Kohler and patrons of BookWoman, it became clear to me how personal an experience it is to shop there. There’s a sense that you’re working with a matchmaker—one with a font of literary and feminist knowledge who wants you to find your new favorite book. (Post, unfortunately, was ill and unable to speak with me for this article.)
Early in the COVID pandemic, a customer called looking for an out-of-print book, and Kohler, who is nonbinary, instead recommended We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, a gay trans man who wrote from age eleven until his death from AIDS complications in 1991.
“And then I got a call two months later and they were in the Kind Clinic getting their first testosterone injection while reading about Lou Sullivan getting his,” Kohler said. It was 2020, and the pandemic meant patients could not bring along friends or family for support. “So I gave this person a friend in the waiting room—through this book.”
The initial pandemic years were a surprisingly fruitful time for BookWoman, as “everyone was home reading,” according to Kohler. Though the store only allowed a few masked customers in at a time, the employees were working busily behind the scenes to take requests online and over the phone for pickup—and continuing to give personal recommendations. When all the big-name anti-racism titles sold out after the murder of George Floyd, BookWoman employees did research to find books that were less well-known but would still provide context for the historic moment.
“People have this urge to purchase things when they’re worried about something,” Kohler said. “So I think being a safe space where people can productively purchase books is really important.”
But providing books for sale isn’t the end of it. “I do think that’s what we provide as people—a place to process. That’s what’s important about a feminist bookstore—having someone behind the counter who cares.”
Fiction writer Elizabeth McCracken, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, would agree. A few years ago, she decided to give a book to each student in her undergraduate class. While most books came from her personal shelves, she said a few students had more particular interests. “I went into BookWoman and talked to Audrey, and they sold me five or six books. And the students would go, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly the kind of book I want.’ ” There was one student who asked for a book that was similar to a “trans vampire romance,” and Kohler gave McCracken exactly that.
In early October, wearing a Halloween cardigan festooned with embroidered, beaded pumpkins, Kohler gave me a tour of the various categories spread throughout the store. We started at lesbian pulp—which includes “herstorical” fiction about lesbians as well as other used books from defunct presses. Next we passed through queer fiction, queer nonfiction, queer young adult books, psychology and self-help, memoirs, feminist thought, true crime, religion and spirituality (“mostly witchcraft things”), sex and sexuality (“a lot of it’s polyamory stuff—everybody’s asking for that”), tarot, a special section for Hispanic History Month, banned books, and a table of titles that “wouldn’t sell otherwise” if relegated to the shelves (McCracken says she’s discovered a number of books there that she ended up loving). And that’s only half the store. Browsers will also find current events, disability justice, pop feminism, journals and art books, graphic novels, cookbooks, kids’ books, and a whole host of puzzles.
One of the books on display is McCracken’s own The Hero of This Book, the paperback release of which she’ll be celebrating at BookWoman on October 18. Masks are required, as they have been in the store since the beginning of the pandemic. I asked about this in the context of the store’s values.
“What Susan likes to say, and which is something that I’ve kind of adopted and twisted, is that the feminist umbrella has grown,” Kohler said. While the store started as a place for, as they explained, “lesbian feminists and women leaving housewifedom for the first time,” many of whom were white, it’s since widened its focus to women of color, trans and nonbinary folks, and people with disabilities, which means masking—especially since everyone on staff has a disability or is immunocompromised.
“We just try to protect everyone,” Kohler said.
Perhaps it’s this deep sense of care for the community that’s kept BookWoman afloat for all these years. And the community provides care in return. “There’s been quite a few times where BookWoman, previous to me working here, has been on the precipice of dying,” Kohler said. “And it’s just been community fundraisers, community stepping up and purchasing things.”
The longer BookWoman endures, the more precious it becomes.
“I like to patronize all of our independent bookstores,” McCracken said. “But that bookstore has a special place in my heart—and also my wallet—because it has survived for so long, and I want to make sure to the best of my ability it doesn’t disappear.”