An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Atlanta's Charis Books and More: Histories of a Feminist Space

Saralyn Chesnut, Amanda C. Gable, and Elizabeth Anderson, Atlanta, Georgia

Published: 
3 November 2009
Overview: 

Saralyn Chesnut, Amanda C. Gable, and Elizabeth Anderson explore the history of Charis Books and More, Atlanta's feminist bookstore.

Introduction:

Atlanta's feminist bookstore, Charis Books and More, founded in November 1974, remains a central fixture of Atlanta's Little Five Points, a revitalized inner-city business district that spills over into the residential neighborhoods of Candler Park, Inman Park, and Lake Claire. Charis is now one of the oldest feminist bookstores in the country, and its history is intertwined with the histories not only of the feminist and lesbian feminist movements, but also of its place and its people—those who have worked there as partners or staff, those who have shopped there, and those who have given their time to support the store. The first decade of Charis's existence provides a clear example of how politics and people, brought together in a particular place and time, can both affect and be affected by one another—or as the feminist saying goes, "the personal is political"—and vice versa.1

Photographer unknown, Charis Books and More, Atlanta, Georgia, 2006.
Photographer unknown, Charis Books and More, Atlanta, Georgia, 2006.

During the 1970s, members of a lesbian-feminist community centered in Little Five Points/Candler Park patronized Charis because, as one respondent put it, "it was in the neighborhood, and women ran it."2 The "woman-identified" philosophy that this statement describes, along with the importance of written texts to the lesbian-feminist movement, led Atlanta's lesbian feminists to visit Charis often to shop and to talk to the store's owners, and eventually to work there as volunteers.3 Charis's owners, as we will see, welcomed this type of involvement. Over time the store itself, founded as a community bookstore with an emphasis on theology, women's fiction, and a large selection of nonsexist and nonracist children's books, was absorbed into the local lesbian-feminist community and developed into a feminist bookstore featuring lesbian-feminist books and run predominantly by lesbians. The store-community relationship was reciprocal and dialectical, with each entity both supporting and being supported by the other.

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"Little Five Points Was Just Crawling with Lesbians"

Atlanta's 1970s lesbian-feminist community was both a physical place—the Little Five Points neighborhood, ten minutes from downtown Atlanta—and a group of people who shared a set of values and a way of life: primarily young, white, middle-class lesbians.4 This group was in many ways remarkably similar to lesbian-feminist communities in other parts of the United States; its emergence can be traced to at least as early as 1971, and its politics and lifestyle owed as much to 1960s-style radical political and countercultural influences as to feminist and lesbian-feminist ideology.5 Members concentrated their time and commitment on political causes rather than on jobs (much less careers), were downwardly mobile, lived communally, and formed businesses and organizations with collective or cooperative, rather than hierarchical structures. The Little Five Points neighborhood accommodated this style of living: the "white flight" phenomenon of the 1960s in Atlanta had left it, like many in-town neighborhoods, in transition, and there were few established businesses, mainstream organizations or tradition-minded civic leaders around. There were, however, plenty of cheap rental properties available and an "anything is possible" view of the future.6

First one, then two, and eventually close to a dozen communal households of lesbians formed in Little Five Points, each consisting of five to seven residents and a stream of more or less transitory friends, lovers, and guests. Jane, a lesbian-feminist activist in Little Five Points during this period, recalled her mid-1970s lifestyle: "Most of [us] were young and jobless or just lived hand-to-mouth, so [we] had no ties to any establishment . . . . In every women's household there were different women who did different activities and then reported on them to the rest of the household members . . . . Everyone always went to any kind of demonstration".7 The rapid development of this community parallels the growth of the lesbian feminist movement nationwide, as women who found the gay liberation movement too sexist and the women's liberation movement too homophobic began to define themselves as lesbians and feminists.

In Atlanta, this story began with the founding of Atlanta's Gay Liberation Front (GLF) [in 1971] and then the emergence of all-lesbian communal households in Little Five Points. Gay men and lesbians became public and even political figures for the first time in Atlanta's history.8 This new visibility, along with political activities sponsored by the GLF and other organizations, soon captured the attention of young activists such as Anne, a Cuban-born woman living in Little Five Points, who describes how she first became involved in lesbian-feminist activities:

I was a student at Georgia State University in 1972, where I become involved in antiwar activity and hung out with people who were sort of hippie-politicos . . . . At the same time I was dealing with this sexuality thing . . . . A friend who'd been in a Venceremos Brigade introduced me to some gay people and I ended up going to [a] gay march . . . and there I met a woman who really excited me. It turned out she lived in a women's commune in Little Five Points. . . . I had heard that Little Five Points was just crawling with lesbians and there was a lesbian press there and everything. So this woman invited me to her house and there I met all these women.9

The "gay march" Anne remembers was the 1972 Gay Pride march. Although lesbians obviously participated in this march, many of them were fed up with the male domination of the GLF, symbolized by the omission of the word lesbian from the name of the group and the celebration. That year, a group of women including, according to Anne, "lesbians from Atlanta's Women's Liberation and Gay Liberation [GLF], and some women who were middle-class lesbians who were interested, and some from the Socialist Workers' Party" met and decided to form a new, specifically lesbian-feminist organization: the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance, or ALFA. ALFA eventually rented a house on McLendon Avenue in Little Five Points that served as the base of its operations and those of a number of other groups and activities.10 Once the basic institutions of ALFA and the communal households were in place, lesbians not only from Atlanta but from other parts of the Southeast and elsewhere in the United States moved into the area or began to participate in some of the wide range of activities happening there. For the first time in the history of the US South, there were social spaces outside the bars where lesbians could meet other lesbians. There were public activities in which they could participate as open lesbians, without fear of persecution by police and with the knowledge that if they did encounter harassment or persecution from anyone, they had a community of strong, activist women to support and defend them.

Lorraine Fontana, ALFA members marching in the Atlanta Gay Pride Parade, Atlanta, Georgia, 1973.
Lorraine Fontana (photographer), ALFA members marching in the Atlanta Gay Pride Parade, Atlanta, Georgia, 1973.

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Early History of Charis Books and More: 1974–1981

Photographer unknown, former owner Sherry Emory, founder Linda Bryant, and volunteer Liz Hill, Atlanta, Georgia, 1979.
Photographer unknown, former owner Sherry Emory, founder Linda Bryant, and volunteer Liz Hill, Atlanta, Georgia, 1979.

Interestingly, the women who opened Charis Books on November 4, 1974, Linda Bryant and Barbara Borgman, initially did not identify the store as part of the feminist movement. Yet by 1979, and perhaps as early as 1977, it can be argued that Charis had an explicit lesbian-feminist ideology. Like many women who started feminist bookstores, Linda and Barbara were activists involved in a social-change movement, but at the time they opened the store, their social-change work was focused on community work through a radical enclave of the nondenominational Christian youth group called Young Life.11 Although Barbara remembers thinking of the store as a "radical social alternative bookstore," Linda remembers envisioning a store with a focus on women's books as well as children's books (Barbara's expertise) and radical theology books.12 In a 1977 column in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, local writer Carol Ashkinaze describes Linda's and Barbara's memories of the store's beginnings after it had been operating for almost three years: "[Linda and Barbara] envisioned a bookshop that would offer a full complement of Christian and Eastern religious literature, 'non-stereotypical, non-racist, non-sexist' children's books, books by and about women, books by local authors, plus a community bulletin board and a toy-laden loft/playpen to keep toddlers amused while their parents browsed. It would be a store where a woman with a budding interest in feminism or theology could drop by for advice on what to read first."

The name of the store, Charis (pronounced KA-riss), comes from Greek and means "grace" or "gift." Both women felt the name fit their philosophy of wanting the store to be a gift to the local community, as well as acknowledging that their ability to open the store was a gift to them—a friend of Linda's from Young Life had donated the funds to open the store. Barbara explains that they also "picked the name because it [Charis] was a feminine aspect of God."13 At first Charis Books was set up as a nonprofit organization under the umbrella of an inner-city education project, Exodus, which involved many former Young Life staff members.14 The decision to organize as a nonprofit was motivated, in part, by Linda's friend's desire to donate rather than lend money for the project.15 Barbara and Linda followed people's advice and set aside some of the donated money to live on while their friends helped them renovate the space they had rented for the store. When they opened the store, the shelves were stocked with approximately two thousand dollars' worth of books. Linda worked full time and Barbara worked part time. As she made decisions about the everyday operation of the store, Linda drew on her experience with her consciousness-raising group, while both women drew on their experience doing "contact work." Linda explains that to do "contact work" means to "be around, be available to the community you are interested in working with, and when they're ready they'll talk to you. That's what we started doing in Little Five Points. . . . We wanted to create an atmosphere of openness that would be healing. The books were just part of that."

Photographer unknown, Charis sign at 419 Moreland Avenue store, Atlanta, Georgia, 1980-1994.
Photographer unknown, Charis sign at 419 Moreland Avenue store, Atlanta, Georgia, 1980–1994.

Gradually, as residents of Little Five Points/Candler Park began to frequent Charis, their interests and needs began to affect the store's focus and the books it offered for sale. Linda and Barbara's politics of inclusiveness, as well as their backgrounds as activists working in education and social justice causes, gave them common ground with other neighborhood residents, including the local lesbian feminists. Barbara Borgman describes their approach: "we'd say, 'Welcome. We want to meet you, we want you to come in here and sit down and have a cup of coffee, talk, and have a neighborhood meeting place. . . . What kind of books are you interested in?' . . . So it became quickly a place where people talked books and talked ideas."16 For instance, Barbara remembers two gay men coming to the store and asking if Charis could carry particular gay-themed books. "Well, Linda had not come out as a lesbian at that time . . . this must have been 1975. . . .But we looked at each other and I can remember saying, 'We've gotta do this. This goes with it.' We were unanimous on it. . . . We got quite a bit of conversation from [our] conservative friends [for stocking these books]. 'What in the world are you doing? Do you know what you're doing?'"17 Barbara felt they knew exactly what they were doing: they were providing books for people who wanted to be treated with dignity. Ultimately, however, the lesbian feminists in the neighborhood affected the store's overall direction more significantly than did any other group.

Former members of ALFA all recalled being aware of the store from the time it opened. Jane and Anne, who were already living in Little Five Points, remember going to the store's opening "very cautiously. We were excited that there was a place where there were women's books . . . but then we got there and there were religious books . . . But . . . it was something that was in the community, something that had potential. . . . The women in there seemed very subdued . . . not at all like the women we had been around. But on the other side we felt it was nice to be giving money to women."18 Jo Hartsoe remembers Charis before it had a women's section as "kind of a peace-and-happiness bookstore where you could get things like about antiwar stuff. . . . My memory is there was a lot of religious stuff too."19 Anne remembers the first book she bought there, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, and the second, Margaret Randall's Women in Cuba. "We had a lot of study groups then, and we did a lot of reading," she said. "Charis was a good supplier of the material we wanted, and they weren't shocked when you came in and asked for material, whether it was lesbian or leftist or whatever. . . . Also if they didn't have a book you wanted, they'd order it and then they'd stock it."20 All these women, when asked what they remember reading during the 1970s, said they read virtually anything and everything that had to do with feminism and lesbianism—in fact, they remembered being "hungry" for this material. Chris Carroll said she thinks this was because woman- and lesbian-oriented writings were "sort of a reflection of ourselves that was very concrete . . . like to just get beyond the denial that's everywhere else . . . like we don't exist and we have no reality . . . and also there was a lot of testing of new ideas in these books, and we were interested in that."21

When Charis first opened, neither Linda nor Barbara knew about ALFA or the lesbian-feminist communal households in the Little Five Points area. Neither woman had been formally involved in the feminist movement in the early 1970s, although they were acquainted with feminist ideas through their studies in feminist theology and the influence of women's consciousness-raising groups. Linda said in a 1990 interview, "When the idea of the bookstore came to me I knew already that I wanted to be involved in women's literature. I had been in my first women's group in 1971 [with wives of other Young Life staff members]. . . . We met every week for four years—met for three to four hours every time we met—and that was going on during the whole Young Life time and my teaching school time, that I was in this women's group and sorting things out and becoming a feminist really."22 Soon after the store opened, Linda and Barbara began meeting the lesbians in the area. Linda remembers Chris Carroll and Karen Gold as the first self-identified lesbians from the Little Five Points area that she met; Chris was distributing Olivia Records, and Charis began selling women's music early on. Linda also fondly recalls going to the favorite bar of the Little Five Points lesbians, the Tower, around 1975 to hear Olivia recording artists Cris Williamson and June Millington. Even though she identified as heterosexual at the time, she was thrilled by the experience. Around the time of this concert, Linda remembers becoming aware of ALFA. Meanwhile, the lesbian feminists who frequented Charis in the early years found the store a welcoming place, even though they had little money to spend. Charis soon began to be a place where women could find out about ALFA-related activities, from softball games to poetry readings—people posted flyers there for all the different events. Charis also sold tickets to Lucina's Music concerts; they kept a list of apartments or houses for rent in the neighborhood; and then, of course, people would run into one another there.

In 1977, Maya Smith put capital into the store and joined as a partner. Maya identified as bisexual, and brought to Charis an expertise in lesbian-feminist literature. In 1979, Julia Strong began working at Charis and became the first woman who was out as a lesbian when she joined the staff. (At that time, Linda had been out for about a year.) Julia had come out in 1977, during her first job after college in rural Tennessee, and had moved to Little Five Points after coming to Atlanta in 1978 to attend the Third Annual Southeastern Conference of Gay Men and Lesbians.23 Maya Smith was a close friend of Julia's lover, and through her, Julia heard that the collective of three at Charis had decided to expand. Julia describes Charis in those days as a place where women "were trying to create alternatives to the mainstream." She describes her relationship to Charis and the store's relationship to neighborhood-based activism:

Charis was my major community activity. . . . It was [a] hub of communication for so many individuals and groups. People would come in and say, "I have this idea for something and can I talk to you about it?" And Linda or one of us would spend two and a half hours helping someone think through whether this business or this idea that they had was a good thing for them to go ahead and pursue. So I think that we played a lot of different roles—providing published material was just another facet of that. Lots of intangible interaction and support [was] going on there too.24

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Lesbian Feminism and Evolution of the Store's Identity

The history and dynamics of the staff as they negotiated the day-to-day operation of Charis Books and More reveals the realities—and difficulties—of trying to put feminist ideas into practice, especially how to function effectively as a collective. At first, with only Linda and Barbara running the store, decisions were made with relative ease. However, as women were added to the staff and as the identity of the store began to evolve, it became more difficult for the staff to come to a consensus on the direction of the store.25 The individual women on the staff in this early period, from 1974 to 1981, though all white and college educated, did represent a range of other differences—some had children and some did not; some were straight, others were bisexual, and others were lesbian. These differences among the women, along with their differing individual understandings of how a collective should function, produced both strengths and conflicts.

The structure of decision making at the store shifted as the staff changed and grew. Overall, however, in keeping with feminist values, hierarchy was avoided, choice assignments or responsibilities were rotated, and decisions were made by consensus. After Maya Smith joined as a partner and more women worked at the store, an advisory board, which functioned much like a collective, was formed. Initially, only the women working at the store constituted the board. By 1980, however, the membership of the advisory board/collective, who made decisions about store policy, included women who were no longer working at the store on a regular basis. This created an imbalance of power that Maya reported they had previously avoided, between new employees and "veterans."26 In theory, members of a collective have equal say in decisions, but inevitably, some members are more articulate and therefore more persuasive than others, and some may have more knowledge or abilities pertaining to the matter at hand. Among other things, a balance of power and commitment among members is necessary for the collective to work. The women of Charis worked to deal with issues of power and allocate responsibility fairly. However, making collective decisions was never easy or straightforward. Ongoing conflicts intensified, and a new one emerged when Linda's lover, Kay Hagan, applied to work at the store. Several in the collective opposed her hiring on the grounds that the dynamics of lovers working together would be disruptive. Although the collective ultimately did hire Kay, not long afterward another conflict erupted over the mission and identity of the store, resulting in the 1981 resignation of two collective members, Maya Smith and Julia Strong.

The conflicts at Charis resulted in part from the influence of lesbian feminism, particularly on Linda Bryant. As Charis evolved more as a women's bookstore and was integrated into the ALFA community, it became a place where lesbians could work without trying to hide their identities as lesbians. In this type of setting, however, as Kathleen Weston and Lisa Rofel point out, the public and private sphere merge more than in a typical work setting.27 Although this merging is positive in that it allows for the expression of lesbian (or bisexual) identities, it also makes it difficult to distinguish between personal decisions and business decisions. As a result, romantic and sexual involvements can have a complicating effect on work relationships, particularly in terms of expectations and roles.28 In their excitement at being able to work with other women who share their ideals or at being able to be out at work, many women may not think through the consequences of conflict within in such an environment. As the boundaries between public (work) and private (personal life) become blurred, conflicts that appear in one area also closely affect the other area, complicating possible solutions.

This proved to be the case with Charis. Shortly after Kay was hired over the objections of some women, the collective began to struggle over the store's evolving identity. At this time, the workforce of the bookstore included four regular workers, two of whom were lovers. As might be expected in a bookstore, lesbian-feminist ideas and literature figured prominently in the struggle over the identity of the store. For example, although there is no clear cause-and-effect relationship, Linda and Kay had been seriously reading and discussing Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology around the time the advisory board/collective began to draw up bylaws and a mission statement for the store. Maya remembers that Linda constantly quoted Mary Daly to her, and at the time she was put off by Linda's fervor. Perhaps tensions were still high from the debate about whether lovers would be allowed to be hired. In hindsight, Maya said she felt this was Linda's radicalizing period. It also seems possible that Maya felt her position as the store "expert" on lesbian feminism was being challenged as Linda developed a stronger lesbian-feminist stance. In part as a result of this conflict among the collective, the store was evolving from a women's bookstore into a specifically feminist and lesbian-feminist one.

After several difficult meetings of the board/collective, facilitated by a therapist to maintain the goal of collective decision making, the group reluctantly (in Linda's opinion) agreed that feminism was a concept informing the values of the store.29 Upset with the collective's hesitancy to define the store as feminist, Linda wrote them a letter in which she articulated her idea of the store's driving principles. In her letter she makes a case for giving more power to the women who actually worked there, making it clear that these women (Linda, Judy, and Kay) agreed to strong feminist principles and a feminist identity for their workplace:

We spent hours at the last meeting articulating our values. . . . When I walked away, I realized that we had only reluctantly agreed on a concept—feminism—as the informing voice of our values, and then could not/would not use that word. What I need to agree on with people with whom I work intimately—and the bookstore is, we've learned, intimate work—is the basic underlying frame/purpose/direction/focus of values.

My focus is clear to me. I am committed to a definite, recognizable stance over against the patriarchy. My form of that stance, specifically, is keeping alive and en-couraging independent feminist voices. For me, that extends to writers, publishers, booksellers, and readers, customers, myself. I want to expedite the flow of cash among these people so that the support is tangible enough to realize the aim of not only survival, but also the infusion of courage. I want these independent feminist voices to speak/write and be heard and spoken again in many fields besides specifically-designated feminist thought or fiction by women. I want to en-courage the men who want to free themselves from the patriarchy. I want to offer an open path to out children, I want us to approach the earth and healing and systems holistically—and in all these fields (and more) I want to keep alive the voices that are not in submission to the white male system; voices that continually ask questions and un-think assumptions.30

Struggles at the store were a working-out of feminist principles: The women were strongly committed to a collective model and, perhaps more important, to creating a workspace that was woman-centered and open to lesbians. Although such a space blurred public and private boundaries and increased the potential for conflict, it provided an unprecedented opportunity for lesbian-feminist ideas to be circulated and further developed. The various conflicts at Charis (as in other feminist organizations) helped the store owners/workers develop new ways of running a feminist business as they put feminist theory into practice.

Photographer unknown, bell hooks and Byllye Avery at Charis, Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1985.
Photographer unknown, bell hooks and Byllye Avery at Charis, Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1985.

After Maya and Julia left, the women of Charis rethought the structure of the store's ownership and the makeup of the advisory board. Although and advisory board/collective structure was retained, the board's membership henceforth had to be active in the work of the store. A partnership model of ownership emerged again, and a series of documents were written to define more clearly the responsibilities of board members. Also at this time, Exodus decided Charis should no longer be under their nonprofit umbrella, and the board/collective began tackling the logistics of becoming a for-profit enterprise. During the next period of Charis's history, not only did the store become for-profit, but it also took on the projects of sponsoring multi-media feminist artist Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" exhibit in Atlanta and opening a temporary branch store next to the location of the exhibit. Charis's identity as a feminist and lesbian-feminist bookstore became increasingly known throughout the Southeast. By 1981, Charis, having survived a series of conflicts and struggles, emerged as a specifically feminist bookstore, operated by lesbian feminists and enjoying a mutually supportive relationship with Little Five Points's lesbian-feminist community.

Charis Books still occupies a central place in the lives and activities of feminists, lesbians, and lesbian feminists in Atlanta. Whereas the long-standing lesbian-feminist organization in the community, ALFA (Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance), disbanded in 1994, Charis bought a house, renovated it, and, despite threats from chain store competition, has continued to thrive.31 When ALFA closed her doors in 1994, she donated a significant portion of her money (from the sale of the house and archives) to Charis Books. With this act, ALFA women acknowledged Charis's importance as a sister lesbian-feminist organization in the community and continued to support the store as they had when Linda and Barbara first opened in 1974.

Photographer unknown, Charis's "new" building at 1189 Euclid Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia, 1994.
Photographer unknown, Charis's "new" building at 1189 Euclid Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia, 1994.

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Epilogue

Charis has changed as much, if not more, in the years since the publication of "Women Ran it" than it did in its first twenty years, 1974–1994. Gable and Chesnut wrote this essay shortly after the apex of the North American feminist bookstore movement. In 1995 there were more than 120 feminist bookstores in the United States and Canada;32 in 2009 there are approximately fourteen remaining.33 Charis Books and More is one of the oldest and largest continuously operating feminist bookstores in North America. The reasons behind both the dramatic loss of feminist bookstores nationally, and Charis's longevity are inevitably intertwined.

"Feminism" as a word and as a concept has shifted dramatically in the thirty-five years since Charis began: moving from an understanding of feminism as men's oppression of women as articulated by a mostly white, middle class, female group of activists and scholars to an understanding that there are, in fact, many feminisms articulated by people of all genders, races, and bodies. Charis Books, as a feminist institution has come to understand that any monolithic, singular definition of "feminism" is inherently exclusionary. Whereas the women of ALFA and other lesbian-feminists originally patronized Charis because it was an explicitly women's space, customers now patronize Charis because it is a space which operates out of a feminist belief system that seeks to free all people from an oppressive and patriarchal gender binary.

Little Five Points, the neighborhood which Linda Bryant chose because it was so under-resourced, remains an eclectic and artistic business district.34 However, today the neighborhood is far different. Due to massive gentrification of the surrounding residential areas, Little Five Points has become a quirky, yet innocuous, tourist destination. The demographic shift of the neighborhood has not affected the store's clientele as much as one might immediately think. Instead of losing lesbian customers as the rest of the city became more hospitable to a visible gay and lesbian presence in other neighborhoods, Charis became more of a "destination store," one to which people would be willing to drive if they sought lesbian fiction, queer theory, anti-racist and anti-sexist children's books, and other store specialties. It also became an important destination for participants in weekly programs on topics ranging from the prison industrial complex to lesbian cinema.

Two factors, one geographic, the other technological, brought some of the largest challenges to Charis's success from the mid-1990s to the present. The first was the opening in 1993 of Atlanta's first exclusively lesbian and gay bookstore, Outwrite.35 Outwrite, originally located in a tiny space in the Midtown Promenade shopping center, moved in 1996 to a refurbished disco on the corner of Piedmont Road and 10th Street at the heart of what was rapidly becoming Atlanta's "gay ghetto." Outwrite quickly attracted gay men who had previously bought gay literature at Charis, both because of the new store's focus on men, as well as for its proximity to Piedmont Park and other gay nightlife. Outwrite's coffee shop and prime location also made it a popular spot for lesbians looking for a place to meet other women. Over time Charis and Outwrite have evolved in separate, but friendly directions, with Outwrite hosting many celebrity and men's events and Charis hosting more queer and social justice-related programming.

Photographer unknown, Members of Charis's Young Writers group with founder Linda Bryant (back row left), publisher and Charis Circle co-director Kelley Alexander (back row second from left), and writer Merrill Mushroom (back row second from right), Atlanta, Georgia, 2003.
Photographer unknown, Members of Charis's Young Writers group with founder Linda Bryant (back row left), publisher and Charis Circle co-director Kelley Alexander (back row second from left), and writer Merrill Mushroom (back row second from right), Atlanta, Georgia, 2003.

The second major agent of change was the increased popularity of the Internet as both a social tool and as a bookselling venue. Prior to the mid-1990s, Charis was one of the only places in Atlanta for queer women to meet outside of the bar scene. With the creation and widespread adoption of LGBT-themed message boards and chat rooms, lesbians suddenly had opportunities to meet other women without even leaving their homes. The role of Charis as a place to meet, or even simply see, other queer women was somewhat diminished. Online booksellers like Amazon.com changed the marketplace for all booksellers, but especially for independent and feminist booksellers such as Charis. While it is empowering that marginalized people in all parts of the country now have access to books that reflect their experiences and lives, that very accessibility of previously difficult to find feminist and LGBT books endangered Charis and other independents.

Interestingly, "big box" bookstores and the online book boom have made Charis and other independents even more politically relevant. As the major bookstore chains like Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Amazon.com and, increasingly, major retail outlets in general, like Wal-Mart and Target, compete for their share of the market, they order books in larger and larger quantities to allow for deeper and deeper discounts. This market strategy means that it is not cost effective to buy books in low quantities from small or independent presses. It also means that even major publishers are increasingly unwilling to take a chance on new writers or different voices when they know they can bank on Amazon and Barnes and Noble to make a select few commercial titles into blockbusters. The economics behind these choices mean that now the major commercial outlets are dictating not only which books make it to their own store's shelves, but also which books make it to any reader's shelf at all. Independent bookstores like Charis are the correction to this dangerous shift in the way books are chosen for publication, marketed, and consumed, because independents order in small quantities, allowing them to support small presses and self-published authors whose books might not otherwise ever see the light of day. A big part of how Charis continues to live its feminism is through the books it carries, seeking to bring the marginalized or forgotten voices to the center and to places of prominence on its shelves.

Despite the challenges of a changing marketplace and increased competition, Charis remains a vital part of the Atlanta and southeastern feminist, queer, progressive, and radical communities. In the mid-1990s Charis again entertained the idea of becoming a nonprofit like so many other feminist bookstores. In 1996, after much discussion with Charis constituents, Charis Books and More created Charis Circle, a 501c3 nonprofit which took fiscal and programmatic responsibility for all of the events, readings, and workshops that occurred at for-profit Charis Books. These "sister" organizations live and work symbiotically, with Charis Circle hosting book groups, writing groups, and author readings, as well as an ever-increasing number of social justice programs focusing on topics as wide-ranging as trans-health, lesbians and aging, urban farming, disability activism, queer parenting, "stories for free children" story hour, anti-racist discussion groups and much more. Charis Circle's mission, "to foster sustainable feminist communities, to work for social justice, and to encourage the expression of diverse and marginalized voices," reflects an appreciation of many of the founding principles of Charis Books and More, rearticulated for current and future generations.

Photographer unknown, Charis Circle board meeting, Atlanta, Georgia, mid 1990s.
Photographer unknown, Charis Circle board meeting, Atlanta, Georgia, mid 1990s.

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  • 1. This essay is adapted from Saralyn Chesnut and Amanda C. Gable's "'Women Ran It': Charis Books and More and Atlanta's Lesbian-Feminist Community, 1971–1981" in John Howard, (ed.) Carryin' On in the Lesbian and Gay South (New York: New York University Press, 1997): 241–284. Elizabeth Anderson contributed the epilogue to this updated version.
  • 2. Jane and Anne [pseud.], interviewed by Saralyn Chesnut, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, March 22, 1990.
  • 3. The term is taken from what is arguably the most-cited manifesto of lesbian feminism, "Women Identified Woman," written by the Radicalesbians, first distributed as a "position paper" at the second Congress to Unite Women in May 1970, and first published in the Ladder 11/12 (August/September 1970).
  • 4. A few members of this community were women of color or women from non-middle-class backgrounds. However, as Faderman notes with regard to young lesbians of this period who had been born into poor or working-class families, "the democratization of higher education in the 1960s meant that they might get an education (and the verbal and analytical skills that went with it) such as only women of middle-class backgrounds might have had earlier" (Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America [New York: Columbia University Press, 1991]: 197). This was the case in the Little Five Points lesbian-feminist community; most of the young women who were part of it, even if they had been raised poor or working-class, had been to college by the time they joined the community. Some were students at the time, most at nearby Emory University or Georgia State University.

    We might note also here the sense in which we use the term community: Susan Krieger notes that "some lesbian communities are geographically specific . . . ; some exist within institutions (e.g., prisons); some exist only in spirit; some are ideological (e.g., lesbian feminist); some primarily social. All are groups in which an individual may share her distinctively lesbian way of being with other lesbians" (Susan Krieger, "Review Essay: Lesbian Identity and Community: Recent Social Science Literature" in Estelle B. Freedman, Barbara C. Gelpi, Susan L. Johnson, and Kathleen M. Weston, (eds.) The Lesbian Issue: Essays from Signs [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985]: 224.) Using Krieger's typology, Atlanta's Little Five Points lesbian community was, during the 1970s, at once geographical, ideological, and social.

  • 5. Information about other communities is to be found in Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967–1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989); Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); and Becki Ross, The House That Jill Built: A Lesbian Nation in Formation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995). Informal communications with lesbians who later moved to Atlanta from other parts of the country confirm these written sources with regard to the dates of emergence and the political and lifestyle characteristics of lesbian-feminist communities in other urban centers in the United States. It is worth noting that this information contradicts received wisdom about the South, which holds that "things happen later" here than in other parts of the country and often differ markedly in character.
  • 6. According to Tina McElroy Ansa, Little Five Points's decline had been caused by a combination of factors, including "the city's growth and suburban flight" as well as the "razing" of a number of houses "to prepare for expressways in that part of east Atlanta" (Tina McElroy Ansa, "Reborn: Shops and Businesses Popping Up" Atlanta Journal and Constitution, August 23, 1978, B1, B4.)
  • 7. Jane and Anne [pseud.], interviewed by Saralyn Chesnut, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, March 22, 1990.
  • 8. Atlanta's first Gay Pride march was held in June 1970, even before the GLF was founded; 125 people, mostly gay men, marched, and the Atlanta Journal and Constitution refused to cover the event. The GLF did organize 1971's Gay Pride celebration.
  • 9. Jane and Anne [pseud.], interviewed by Saralyn Chesnut, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, March 22, 1990.
  • 10. Information about ALFA and related groups and activities is based on the ALFA Newsletter, renamed the Atalanta (ALFA Newsletter/Atalanta, newsletter of the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance, vols. 1–8, Durham, NC: Duke University Library Special Collection, 1973–1980.), as well as on interviews with Anne, Jane, Chris Carroll, Lorraine Fontana, Jo Angela Hartsoe, Sonya Jones, and Elizabeth Knowlton. Jane and Anne [pseud.], interviewed by Saralyn Chesnut, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, March, 22 1990; Chris Carroll, interviewed by Saralyn Chesnut and Amanda Gable, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, May 24, 1990; Lorraine Fontana, interviewed by Saralyn Chesnut, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, January 10, 1995; Jo Angela Hartsoe, interviewed by Amanda Gable, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, May 10, 1990; Sonya Jones, interviewed by Saralyn Chesnut and Amanda Gable, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, March 22, 1996; Elizabeth Knowlton, interview by Saralyn Chesnut, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, January 14, 1995. The personal recollections of one of the authors, Saralyn Chesnut, also figure into this account. See also Vicki Gabriner and Susan Wells, "Nurturing a Lesbian Organization" in Ginny Vida, ed., Our Right to Love: A Lesbian Resource Book (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1978): 134–39. At its height ALFA had about 125 members; women who never joined the organization but participated in its activities and attended lesbian-feminist events numbered an additional two hundred to three hundred.
  • 11. Mev Miller, A Labor of Love: A Tribute to Twenty-five Years of Feminist and Lesbian Publishers and Bookstores, radio documentary (Minneapolis: Radio Studios of KFAI-FM, 1995). Although at first we found Charis's initial ties to a religious group surprising, it makes sense historically: religious groups and churches have often played important roles in social movements in the United States, perhaps more so in the South than in other regions. As Sara Evans documents (1979), the roots of women's liberation and New Left movements were in the civil rights movement, and the civil rights movement, for both blacks and whites, had deep roots in the southern church. Looked at in this light, Charis provides an unexpected but crucial continuity among social movements in the South—from civil rights to feminism to lesbian/gay/bisexual rights. For instance, Evans points out that white southern Protestantism provided a space for a radical critique of segregation in the 1950s and that in her interviews and research, every white southern women who joined the civil rights movement did so through her involvement I the church (Sara Evans,Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left [New York: Vintage Books, 1979]: 29–35). Linda's life fits this paradigm: She gained an analysis of racial oppression from a high school Young Life leader in Gainesville, Florida; was introduced to feminism through a Young Life feminist theology class; and became part of a consciousness-raising group started by her Young Life woman friends in Atlanta. Later, she came out as a lesbian. Barbara Borgman's life has also combined religion and social activism. In 1995, when we interviewed her, she had recently returned to the United States from teaching in Africa with her husband and children and was living in the Jubilee Partners community, a Christian-based community in Comer, Georgia, that in part helps refugees from countries such as Bosnia enter the United States, learn English, and find work (Barbara Borgman, interviewed by Amanda Gable and Saralyn Chesnut, tape recording, Comer, GA, February 2, 1995.)
  • 12. Linda remembers carrying Charis Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch Gospels and books by Thomas Merton as well as women's novels by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Tillie Olsen, and Rosellen Brown.
  • 13. Later, in 1979, when Womanspirit Rising (edited by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow) was published, Linda and Barbara were pleased to discover that Charis was an early designation of the mother goddess recognized by the Gnostics.
  • 14. Barbara's husband worked with an arm of this group, Project Propinquity.
  • 15. The relationship with Exodus and the store's nonprofit status remained until 1980/81, when Exodus decided it was too difficult (even unwieldy) to maintain the necessary financial records for Charis's separate operation.
  • 16. Barbara Borgman, interviewed by Amanda Gable and Saralyn Chesnut, tape recording, Comer, GA, February 2, 1995.
  • 17. Ibid. Barbara couldn't remember the titles of the two gay books they stocked after the men requested them. She added in the interview that at that time that she didn't know very much about what to order for gay men or lesbians.
  • 18. Jane and Anne [pseud.], interviewed by Saralyn Chesnut, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, March 22, 1990.
  • 19. Jo Angela Hartsoe, interviewed by Amanda Gable, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, May 10, 1990
  • 20. Jane and Anne [pseud.], interviewed by Saralyn Chesnut, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, March 22, 1990.
  • 21. Chris Carroll, interviewed by Saralyn Chesnut and Amanda Gable, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, May 24, 1990
  • 22. Linda Bryant, interviewed by Saralyn Chesnut and Amanda Gable, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, May 10, 1990.
  • 23. ALFA members were among the primary organizers of this conference. See Third Annual Southeastern Conference of Gay Men and Lesbians program, in possession of the authors.
  • 24. Julia Strong, interviewed by Amanda Gable and Saralyn Chesnut, tape recording, Atlanta, GA, June 22, 1995.
  • 25. Obviously, conflict is inevitable in all groups, although in hierarchical groups, those in authority typically decide how the conflict will be settled and enforce their views on the others involved. In a nonhierarchical group, the process to resolve a conflict can often be more creative but also more exhausting.
  • 26. In Lynette Eastland's 1991 study of a Utah feminist bookstore, serious conflict was created by the fact that women in the collective worked differing numbers of hours but retained equal say in the operation of the store (Lynette Eastland, Communication, Organization, and Change Within a Feminist Context: An Observation of a Feminist Collective [Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991].)
  • 27. Kathleen M. Weston and Lisa B. Rofel, "Sexuality, Class and Conflict in a Lesbian Workplace," in Estelle B. Freedman, Barbara C. Gelpi, Susan L. Johnson, and Kathleen M. Weston, eds., The Lesbian Issue: Essays from Signs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984): 199–222.
  • 28. Carol Seajay (founder, with her lover Paula Wallace, of Old Wives' Tales bookstore in San Francisco) commented at the 1993 Outwrite Conferece that someone should study how attractions and relationships have affected feminist projects.
  • 29. The collective consisted of Linda Bryant, Barbara Borgman, Julia Strong, Maya Smith, and Judy Sanderson.
  • 30. Linda Bryant, letter to the advisory board/collective of Charis Books and More, July 4, 1981, from store records in Linda Bryant's possession.
  • 31. When ALFA closed her doors in 1994, she was the oldest continuously operating lesbian organization in the country.
  • 32. This information comes from the Feminist Bookstore Network Newsletter.
  • 33. This is from Elizabeth Anderson's recent research, calling and emailing booksellers.
  • 34. Though she remains involved in numerous ways, Linda Bryant sold her share of Charis in 2006. The current owners are Sara Look and Angela Gabriel.
  • 35. Another small upstart gay bookstore, Christopher's Kind, opened, but it closed after a relatively short period of time.