Bookseller Fears Buyers Will Be Bound in Chains

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The following profile of independent bookselling in Chicago, and of ABA’s new president, Ann Christophersen of Women & Children First, originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.

By Lee Copeland

Ann Christophersen has been battling a turf war with Borders for the last two years.

The bookselling giant wants to open a 20,000-square-foot store in Uptown, about a mile from her Andersonville shop -- Women & Children First Bookstore.

The proposed Borders makes Women & Children look puny in comparison at 3,500 square feet. To stall the planned megastore, Christophersen, 53, has rallied residents and fellow business owners alike to oppose the development at City Hall. So far, the Borders plan is winning.

ABA President Ann Christophersen

Christophersen, the newly elected board president of the American Booksellers Association -- the first Chicago bookseller to serve as president -- knows more such skirmishes lie ahead.

"We fear that chains will significantly limit the availability of a range of voices to just the most popular ones," she said.

Christophersen, a 23-year bookselling veteran and gutsy businesswoman, is glad to lead the charge. It's as much about politics as it is about business.

"What independents bring is diversity, and we're not driven solely by profit," she said, adding that independent stores promote bestsellers as well as emerging and offbeat authors.

ABA provides marketing and legal support to about 2,000 independent bookstore members. That backing has helped independents to stand their ground against retail chains, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, and from superstores, such as Target and Wal-Mart, that sell books by the truckload. According to ABA, while a number of independent booksellers have gone out of business in the last four years, their market share has remained about 15 percent, indicating a solid base of book buyers who are determined to patronize independents, no matter what.

But fending off retail chains isn't the only objective of ABA.

Christophersen wants to expand marketing programs, such as Book Sense, adding another arrow to ABA's quiver. Book Sense allows independent booksellers to share advertising money, book promotions, and gift certificates. The Book Sense 76 newsletter, for example, allows member stores to submit top book picks to ABA, which in turn produces a monthly marketing newsletter of 76 featured books. Almost two-thirds of ABA's member bookstores participate in the program.

But knowing the books is just one aspect of the business; creating a niche is another.

Christophersen became a successful bookseller by doing something radical in the world of books: seeking out and selling feminist authors and literature about women's issues.

In 1979, for example, Christophersen, a lesbian, couldn't find much to read on that topic. Christophersen and her business partner, Linda Bubon, set out trying to "make a contribution to the women's movement" and "find books that [we] wanted to read," Christophersen said.

Three years after opening the store, Christophersen stumbled across an unknown mystery writer. The novel, Indemnity Only, focused on the exploits of V.I. Warshawski, a tough female detective with a fondness for high heels.

Christophersen loved the theme. "It sounded right up our alley: a Chicago writer and a feminist character," she said. "We had other women writers but not any characters like V.I. Warshawski."

Author Sara Paretsky

Christophersen contacted Dial Press, the publisher, and scheduled an in-store reading with the author, Sara Paretsky. A top-selling author, Paretsky receives publisher-paid book tours today. But in 1982, she was glad to get the gig. It was the first time Paretsky met with readers to discuss her new novel.

"Publishers don't put out money like that for new writers," Paretsky said. "A writer like me wouldn't be as successful a writer today if independent bookstores hadn't held my hand and helped me to step through."

Paretsky said she starts each new book tour at Women & Children First. And while book chains make up a big part of her book sales, she still values independent outlets. When Paretsky strayed from the popular V.I. Warshawski series with Ghost Country, about the plight of homeless women on the streets of Chicago, centered not on the glamorous V.I. but on Madeline, a woman living in a box on lower Wacker, Paretsky read from her book to a packed house at Women & Children.

"It was like Colonel Sanders doing steak instead of chicken," she quipped. "A lot of the big chains didn't order it. The independents did, allowing me to do something different."

Putting feminist writers and readers together was just one of the goals when Christophersen and Bubon opened the bookstore in November 1979. It has moved twice and gotten four times as big as the first store. Women & Children First now carries more than 30,000 titles, ranging from murder mysteries to books on domestic violence, plus handmade greeting cards by local artists and other stationery items.


Lee Copeland, lcopeland@ameritech.net, is a Chicago-area business writer.