Purpose and profit in Feminist Bookselling

Reflections on 'A Bookshop of One's Own'

Last summer I took some time away from the day-to-day running of The Feminist Bookshop to think about the bigger picture. What is our purpose? Our mission? Our reason for being? Are we achieving what we set out to do, and how can we do it better?

At the same time, I wrestled with our accounts. Could we keep the lights on, pay the living wage and bring enough income in to continue to operate? What would this mean for the attainment of our mission?

In the age of B-corps, “impact investing”, sustainability kite marks and “good business” charters, there appears to be a narrative circulating that businesses can do it all - combine purpose and profit, make money doing good, increase production whilst saving the planet - everyone’s happy.

But, just like the myth of the super-efficient multitasker, or the fabled woman who ‘has it all’, the reality - in my experience - is very different. We are forced to make decisions every day, playing off our needs and our values against one another to find a solution that just about works.

I am also certainly not the first - nor will I be the last - to face these struggles. There is a long line of feminist booksellers, publishers and activist-entrepreneurs before me who have wrestled with these decisions, each coming to their own compromises. Reading their stories, in history books, articles and charted in the Business of Women’s Words Project (BOWW) has been a fascinating, exasperating but also galvanising experience.

Over five years ago, when I was first thinking about opening a feminist bookshop, I was put in contact with Jane Cholmeley, who founded and ran Silver Moon Women’s Bookshop for 17 years. I remember being taken aback by her generosity, travelling to Brighton to meet me, bringing several pages of notes of advice and sharing personal, and sometimes painful, experiences and learnings. She was also unafraid to ask the difficult questions, provided clear warning of the challenges ahead and the importance of perspective, noting her partner Sue’s all-important adage ‘are we having fun yet?’

Now, as The Feminist Bookshop heads towards its five-year milestone, I am delighted that Jane has included us in her bookshop tour as she releases A Bookshop of One’s Own - her story of how a group of women set out to change the world in their feminist bookshop on the Charing Cross Road.

Her story speaks to the joy and the pain of putting your heart, soul and house on the line for a business you believe in. Her book provides a vital (and entertaining) record of the history of Silver Moon and its role in the Women’s Liberation Movement. But also, in sharing her experiences, openly and vulnerably, she provides a much-needed model of decision making in the face of uncertainty and complexity. As we witness either/or thinking pervading activist movements - particularly on social media - it can be important for us to take a step back and recognise that balancing, compromise and learning from mistakes can be essential for a movement to survive and even thrive.

A Bookshop of One’s Own also speaks to the necessity of maintaining our humanity, a sense of humour and compassion for our co-workers and, sometimes most importantly, ourselves. As Margaretta Jolly observes in her introduction to the special issue of Women: a cultural review for the BOWW project, ‘In its contradictions and enduring idealism, we’re back to the love of words and women at the heart of all the ventures described’.* For me, it is this love that propels us to take on the challenge of reconciling the demands of purpose and profit in feminist bookselling. Questions that we will continue to face every day at the bookshop and beyond.

I remain immensely grateful to the writers, publishers, agents and booksellers that have come before us and who continue to share their hard-won wisdom. As we approach International Women’s Day celebrations in 2024, it feels time that we take a moment to celebrate their achievements and the ongoing work of so many feminist organisations in our community.

So, if you, like me, want to learn more from those who have lived, studied and continue to support the fight against gender-based oppression, join us on Saturday 9th March to celebrate the publication of A Bookshop of One’s Own, discuss the quandary of purpose versus profit and raise a glass to those who have gone before us.

Saturday 9th March
Purpose and profit in the feminist book trade

Join us for a very special evening in conversation with Jane Cholmeley, Lesley Wood and Margaretta Jolly.

* Margaretta Jolly (2021) Purpose, Power and Profit in Feminist Publishing: An Introduction, Women: A Cultural Review, 32:3-4,227-247, DOI: 10.1080/09574042.2021.1973698

Purpose and Profit in Feminist Bookselling

Thank you so much for reading.

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