Feminist Bookstore Archives Document a Movement

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

As of October 6, New Words Bookstore, a 28-year-old feminist institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is closed, but its legacy is assured for the future. All of the store's papers and records have been acquired by the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, for its permanent collection.

Furthermore, New Words' staff members and others, some of whom were founders of the store, have created a new, nonprofit organization named the Center for New Words (CNW), which will open next year. A primary motivation for archiving the store's records and creating CNW, according to Gilda Bruckman, New Words co-founder and CNW co-director, is to preserve the history of this hub of three decades of feminist political and cultural activism and to chronicle a movement much larger than any one bookstore.

"We don't want to be thought of as a small independent bookstore that had a good run, and now it's over," Bruckman told BTW. "We -- and many other bookstores -- have been an integral part of women's history and the activist feminist movement. Stores like ours enabled many women's voices to be heard for the first time. Years ago, materials we carried here were unavailable in other places. Now many small presses have disappeared. As things become more consolidated, the need for alternative opinions is greater. We want to bring our experiences forward to the next generation."

Preserving and documenting this kind of history is the mission of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute. The vast collections of personal and professional papers, photographs, recordings, and writings range from those of writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Joy of Cooking legend, Marion Rombauer Becker, to fashion model, writer, and widow of Alger Hiss, Isabel Dowden Johnson Hiss. Other organizations are included among the archived materials, but Anne Engelhart, associate curator of manuscripts for the Schlesinger Library, could only recall one other bookstore in the collection, New York City's The Corner Bookshop in New York City, which was owned by Eleanor Lowenstein.

Engelhart underscored the importance of the work of New Words. "The rise of independent feminist bookstores was a reflection of what was happening in the 1970s," she said. "Many people who supported New Words also supported the Boston Women's Health Collective [the organization that created the groundbreaking Our Bodies, Ourselves] and the Women's Community Health Center. They all began in Cambridge at the same time. These organizations became very prominent on national and international levels. New Words really was one of the leaders making works by and about women available. This collection documents both them and that time."

The materials acquired by the library amounted to a total of 30 linear feet. Much of that, including financial records and order forms, are of limited interest and will be saved "in aggregate," according to Engelhart. Of significant interest are flyers, posters, publicity materials, and inventory lists. "If a researcher is interested in what books were on the shelf in 1975 or which authors gave readings in 1983, she can access that information," Engelhart said.

Critical to the archival process is the development of a "finding aid." Each collection is identified with a brief history, a description of the scope and content of the materials, and an explanation of how the collection is arranged. The contents of each box and the folders within are identified. The finding aids are accessible through limited databases, and, while no materials circulate, they are available to the public free of charge.

Bruckman and CNW co-founder Joni Seager acknowledge a sense of loss at the closing of the store, but the future is filled with plans for the Center for New Words. "After three years of study [which was assisted by funding from the Ford Foundation], we have developed a program-based model geared to women's words and empowerment," Bruckman said. "We have a commitment to literacy, to activism, and programs to support the production and distribution of writing. As planned, the Center will be a larger, more accessible space than the current bookstore site. It will include multifunctional performance and meeting spaces, as well as workshop and computer facilities. A new New Words bookstore will be CNW's physical anchor."

Not all programs will be on hiatus or in development until the projected fall 2002 reopening date: New Words Live will continue to offer its Author Reading Series and performances all year, primarily in the original bookstore's Reading Room. Events scheduled include authors Amy Bloom, Patricia Henley, and Phyllis Chesler; "K'Vetsh – Queer Cabaret"; and monthly literary open mic nights. -- Nomi Schwartz