My Bookstore: Pearl Cleage on Charis Books & More

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In the following excerpt from the updated trade paperback edition of My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop (Black Dog and Leventhal, April 11), bestselling author Pearl Cleage pays tribute to her hometown bookstore, Charis Books & More in Atlanta, Georgia. Watch for more excerpts from My Bookstore in the coming weeks.

Pearl Cleage

Charis Books & More, Atlanta, Georgia

charis logoI’ve been blessed to have had several amazing long-term love affairs with several amazing bookstores. But with bookstores, as with the flesh-and-blood objects of my affection, there is one that stands out as a passionate, life-changing encounter against which all others must forever be judged and found wanting. For me, that bookstore is and always will be Charis Books & More. Charis opened its doors 40-plus years ago, nestled in the heart of a gloriously and perpetually funky Atlanta neighborhood that continues to resist all attempts to gentrify or justify it. Opening an unapologetically feminist bookstore in Scarlett O’Hara’s hometown may have seemed at the time like some kind of weird post-Nixonian fever dream, but Charis’s founders were visionary women. They knew that those of us who were searching for information about the movement that was already changing our lives needed a place to get our hands on all things feminist.

We were desperate for theory, hungry for fiction, and longing for poetry by women who understood that revolution and romance can sometimes go hand in hand. We needed Simone de Beauvoir and Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin and Alice Walker and Audre Lorde and Anaïs Nin and Octavia Butler and Marian Zimmer Bradley and Ntozake Shange. We needed writers who could provide a context for our anger as we discovered what sexism really was and recognized the ways gender oppression proscribed our lives from the cradle to the grave. We were enraged and outraged, but we were ignorant. We had no context. We had no vocabulary with which to explore our newfound feminism. We needed a language to express our rapidly emerging realities. We needed narratives, real and imagined, that allowed us to explore our sexuality without the judgment of the male gaze or the tyranny of somebody else’s idea of what sin looks like. We needed ways to think about Spirit that allowed us to affirm our own magic and claim our own power without depending on patriarchal models. We needed a way to see what it felt like to place ourselves at the center of the universe without apology.

We found all that and more as Charis offered shelves crowded with the world’s best feminist writers and thinkers and poets and playwrights and organizers and activists. But that’s only part of what Charis was offering. The aforementioned visionary founders also knew that the community to which they were giving a voice needed a gathering place, a safe zone, a freedom house, that was unequivocally for and about women. So in that cozy little space where we found the stories of our inspirational foremothers and our brave pioneers and our Super Sheros, we also found each other, in all our complicated, passionate, work-in-progress messiness.

To our great delight, Charis’s amazing staff welcomed us with open arms and open hearts and a play area full of books and toys in case you brought a kid with you. At Charis, we realized we were part of a community, a tribe, a sisterhood of seekers, bound together one to one and each to each in a way that made us stronger and happier and ultimately more whole. It was that place where, to paraphrase Ntozake Shange, we found God in ourselves and we loved her fiercely.

It is still that place. During its 40-year history, I have been a part of many programs at Charis, alone and in the company of other writers I admire, including a few enlightened men. I have celebrated the publication of each of my books with a reading at the bookstore that always feels like coming home. These days, I sometimes greet grandmothers who are bringing their granddaughters to Charis for the first time, or share a laugh with women who tell me they were there at my very first reading, when the bookstore was less than a month old and poet Kay Leigh Hagan and I sat together in a small back room, listening to the murmurs of the women gathering to hear us share our work, and knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were part of a once-in-a-lifetime moment when women worldwide were finding our power and our voices and our joy. It sounds kind of corny to say it that way now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true — because it is. And I ought to know. I was there.

PEARL CLEAGE is the author of eight novels, four books of poetry, a memoir, and more than a dozen plays. Her book What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day was an Oprah Book Club pick and a New York Times bestseller. Her memoir, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons and Love Affairs, was published in 2014. She is currently the Mellon Playwright in Residence at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.

From the book MY BOOKSTORE: WRITERS CELEBRATE THEIR FAVORITE PLACES TO BROWSE, READ, AND SHOP, edited by Ron Rice and Booksellers Across North America. Copyright 2017 by Hachette Book Group, Inc. Reprinted by Permission of Black Dog & Leventhal, an imprint of Hachette Books, New York, NY. All rights reserved.