What does it take to turn a burst of student activism into an enduring retail business? "You constantly have to change," said Sandi Torkildson.
"We were young, and we decided Madison could use a feminist bookstore," she said of the 1975 opening of A Room of One's Own Bookstore by five University of Wisconsin classmates. "We just kind of did it by the seat of our pants."
That seat-of-their-pants mentality -- and $5,000 in start-up capital -- didn't keep the founders from taking a professional approach to their business. After visiting other Midwest feminist bookstores, "the first thing I did was join ABA," said Torkildson, the only founder still involved with the store. She also went back to class to fill in the gaps in her financial knowledge, taking advantage of the university's extension courses for small businesses.
Although the feminist ethos has remained at the center of the business, the bookstore is no longer defined by that label. "We did the radical thing in taking 'feminist' off our awning," said Torkildson. "We still have a very strong feminist emphasis," she said, but "it didn't really explain what we were anymore."
As nearby general bookstores have closed, A Room of One's Own has expanded its fiction, history, and poetry sections to meet the needs of a wider customer base. But many potential customers saw the sign for a feminist bookstore and assumed the inventory was limited, Torkildson said. "People really weren't making that transition." But changing the sign "has really helped."
The store's efforts to serve a more diverse readership continue: "This summer we're going to expand our children's section quite a bit," said Torkildson.
She has one other expansion planned for the store's 35th anniversary: A Mother's Day tea will celebrate the latest additions to the gallery of notable Madison women that decorates the store's entrance. "This year we are going to honor a couple of university professors, along with some local politicians," she said, calling them "women we feel are important not to be forgotten."
That harmony with the Madison community has been key to the success of A Room of One's Own. "It's just easy to be a central location" for things like fundraising for organizations with similar missions, Torkildson said, or being the driving force behind a citywide response to an anti-gay protest. "In another community, we might not have gotten away with that," she said, but the store fits well into its liberal university town. --Sarah Rettger