A feminist bookstore that opened shortly after Labor Day in New York’s Finger Lakes region is fast becoming a favorite hangout among the area’s young people.
With the motto “Feminism = Optimism,” Card Carrying Books & Gifts’ recipe is part Jane Austen, part Margaret Atwood, and part Hillary Clinton, with a hefty dollop of Harry Potter to appeal to its tween and teen customers.
Located on East Market Street in downtown Corning, Card Carrying has become an after-school destination for middle and high schoolers who come in to browse. If they can’t afford to buy a book every time, they’ll choose a button or sticker for $2 or less, said co-owner Randi Hewit.
“The teens of our community have embraced it so much,” Hewit said. “On Saturday mornings, you see regulars come in with their moms and buy a book. The moms get so teary-eyed at such a friendly and welcoming space. They get overwhelmed.”
Stickers with the message “Feminism Is Cool” and T-shirts proclaiming “Feminists Friends Are the Best” share space with a poster bearing the words of Leslie Knope, the fictional feminist icon from NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation: “I am big enough to admit that I am often inspired by myself.”
The store’s long and narrow space — just nine feet wide — has become a bit of a clubhouse for area teenagers, which was the goal from the start for Hewit and her business partner, Sarah Blagg.
“It was right after the election last year that we started talking about needing a feminist clubhouse, just a place for people to be together, where you knew the person nearby felt similarly to the way you were feeling,” Blagg said. “We joked about it for a couple of months, but realized this was a good idea and no one was going to do it for us.”
Blagg left her full-time job as a sexuality educator for Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes to manage the store during the week.
Hewit, who is president of the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes, splits Saturdays with Blagg and works in the store on Sundays with her husband.
Hewit’s 13-year-old daughter, Sydney, is an unofficial consultant and book reviewer whose posted recommendations in the store carry weight with her peers. She also co-hosts the store’s podcast, The Feminist Airhorn, with Blagg.
“My daughter reviewed [Jen Wilde’s] Queens of Geek for us, and we had to reorder several times,” Hewit said. “They see her review and think, ‘I want to read that, too.’”
Card Carrying has started a wish list program for the teenagers to fill out index cards with their requests for holidays and birthdays. “We can make it really, really easy for parents and grandparents to shop for those tough-to-shop-for teens,” Hewit said.
The teens themselves like to shop for friends’ birthday parties since much of the gift merchandise, such as jewelry and T-shirts, is under $20.
“You can get your friend a nice gift or book,” Hewit said. “It’s no fun when you go to a great place and you realize you can’t afford anything.”
Shopping has been fun as well for Blagg, who has been responsible for stocking the store’s 50/50 mix of books and gifts. “I really wanted to be able to support other small businesses and especially other women business owners,” Blagg said.
Much of the merchandise, whether it’s jewelry or mugs, has a message. “People really like the jewelry that has quotes on it, and that sort of thing,” she said. “It’s a mix of feminist products and book-themed products.”
Finding the right books to stock started with a Google search for “feminist books.”
“Feminism is about a lot of things. People walk in and say, ‘Oh, do you only have women authors?’ We say no. We have voices of women and others who you don’t get to hear in mainstream media. There’s a lot of nonfiction collections of essays and memoirs,” Blagg said.
The children’s and young adult books also share a feminist and progressive point of view.
Not All Princesses Dress in Pink by Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple and illustrated by Anne-Sophie Lanquetin (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers), which depicts a young girl enjoying various sports and other activities, is popular.
Also selling well is Piggy Bunny by Rachel Vail and illustrated by Jeremy Tankard (Feiwel & Friends), which gives the message that it’s OK to be different through the story of a pig who wants to be a bunny.
“Those have been really popular in the store because they are just really nice, relatable stories,” Blagg said.
While tourism is big business for Corning, home to the Corning Museum of Glass and neighbor to New York’s wine country, Blagg said Card Carrying’s popularity among students, including college kids from nearby Ithaca, inoculates the store from a seasonal slump.
“The young people Sydney’s age and the college students who come in are really the audience for this store,” she said. “We talk about how the future is feminist. If we want to make this a reality, we have to help them.”
The store’s feminist message also extends to its “Card Carrying Club,” which is $29.50 a month. Subscribers to the “Monthly Dose of Feminism” receive a book, a gift, and suggested activism materials. The most recent box included a prompt to drop off period products at the store for a shipment to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
While Corning is a more traditionally conservative area of New York State, the store has been embraced by the community, Blagg said.
“I think there were some preconceived notions about what it would be, and I think we’ve proven them false,” she said. “We’ve gotten a lot of support. We’re making it more OK for people to identify as feminists because we’re out there. We literally have a storefront for it.”