Sisterwrite bookshop – Lynn Alderson. Lesbian History Group Event 8/10/2016
SETTING UP AND THE FIRST 3 YEARS
I was at Sisterwrite for its first 3 years – and I can’t answer for the whole 15 years of its life. I was one of the three founder members, but after leaving Sisterwrite I moved away from London for some years, and didn’t play a part in its subsequent development.
It all began for me in the summer of 1978 when Mary Coghill and Kay Stirling came to see me at Compendium Books, and said they wanted to start a women’s bookshop and did I want to join them?
I didn’t know Mary, but did know Kay a little. I was sceptical. I thought it would take a fair amount of money, capital to get premises, stock etc. and I certainly didn’t have it. But Mary had managed to accrue a bit, she was able to offer 5k plus 3 from her sister and that was a good beginning, We were clear from the beginning that it would be a loan and that the shop would pay it back when we could, and we did. We worked out that we needed about 16K, and set about fundraising. We also send around a letter of support and got a lot of different organisations and individual women to sign and give us a vote of confidence. Eventually, with some donations (i think Amanda, you gave us one), and low interest loans, we reached about 11k and felt we might be able to manage with that. Even then, it was a not a lot of money, and we worked without wages for some time.
They wanted my involvement because I was managing the Women’s Section at Compendium, and for those of you who don’t know of it, Compendium was the biggest and best of the alternative/radical bookshops in London then. It was on Camden High Street and got so big that at one point occupied 3 shops there. It was famous and a great centre for alternative culture – which, I have to say I sometimes clashed with. There was more than a little pornography around and things came to a head once when I ripped down a series of postcards I found offensive. But it was that kind of place, part of the libertarian, not to say libertine, culture of the time. I was allowed full say over my section, paid myself from the till, and I think it was the only interview for a job I ever had where they asked my starsign! Apparently Virgos were ok.
I had worked at Housemans, the Peace News Bookshop as it was known then, in Kings Cross, still there of course, where I’d managed all the radical periodicals. Anyway, the point being that I had the specialist knowledge and was a bookselling and to some extent publishing professional, and Kay had also worked in books, at Colletts and had bookshop skills too. From the beginning we wanted to be good booksellers, knew that in order to work that the bookshop would have to be well run and profitable.
I agreed to give it a try – it was exciting – the thought of being able to run the shop ourselves, to fully reflect our politics and do things our way, and to show that women could do it was very attractive. And perhaps its worth reminding ourselves – at this point that women were having to learn all sorts of new skills in order to live more autonomous lives, and to do our politics. And, just to prove that we could do whatever it was. Autonomy was the big word then – whether it was of our movement, or on a more personal level. Onlywomen (the original Women’s Press) had to go out and learn to print in order to get control of the whole process, in order to be able to publish what they wanted and how. We fitted closely into the existing radical, political alternative culture – ie Publications Distribution Coop and the networks for support that began to be formed and this was both a product of, and an enabler of the huge amount of radical writing that was taking place then. And, I think that’s important. Without that around us it would have been difficult to make a success of the shop.
Kay and I both lived in squats, that was a way of getting control of our housing so that instead of living in little isolated bedsits, we could live collectively, or at least, try to live collectively – I was living in the London Fields squats where we opened a number of houses, and which eventually led to a women’s (predominately lesbian) housing coop. Anyway, the other big thing about living in the squat was no rent, and that made it possible for us to live on the dole until the shop was beginning to make enough money to pay wages. We worked part time on the project from June to September and then full time, taking possession of the shop in November and opening early in December.
We decided on a structure that was essentially a workers’ coop. We did have a few other women technically members of the coop at first, since I think you had to have 7 at the time and we were only 3, but it was always in the hands of its workers and we replaced them with workers as the numbers of us grew. And that was another thing – cooperatives are non-profit making in that any profits go back into the business or are given away or whatever, but you do not as individuals privately own the business and its profits. It is non-profit-making in that sense. That was very much part of our politics and principals at the time.
There was a saying then that co-ops were ‘self-managed exploitation’, since so many paid rubbish wages and expected staff to give their all. We decided to try and give ourselves good conditions of work, even if we couldn’t pay a great deal. So for example, we had a 4 day week, six weeks holiday and we allowed provision for a worker to take a year off if she wanted, the thinking being that if it was a right to have time off for having a baby, we should allow women time off for doing something else, ie writing a book, studying, travelling, whatever.
But we were very much a collective, having meetings and taking decisions together – all operating on consensus largely, and although there may have been one or two differences of opinion, by and large we got on well together, respected one another and also respected our different skills and orientations. For example, Kay was very interested in non-sexist children’s literature and did a lot of work over the years to develop that. Mary was in the Matriarchy Study Group as I recall – incidentally the first group I ever heard of that was split over the demands of a transsexual for membership. And it was transsexual then rather than transgender. But all 3 of us were radical feminists, and we thought that significant in doing the project successfully together – that although we were very different people, there was a lot of agreement between us about important political principles and ways of working. And we were all very committed to the shop and each other.
We set the shop up with a lot of help from friends, Penny Collier came and helped build bookshelves, Jo Nesbitt the cartoonist came and helped and was later responsible for the wonderful nun/whales that could be seen swimming around the walls of Sisterbite – she had a bit of a thing for nuns…… but it seemed appropriate at the time, and funny. There’s one of her postcards in the file I’m passing round if you want to see one. And she also did our poster – in there too. (Take a look at the book titles in it). Lots of women dropped by and helped, clearing rubbish, building shelves, painting etc. Sandy Martin was working at a wood shop on Essex Road at the time, and she helped us to get the wood we needed at a cheap rate. I’m only sorry I cant remember all those who helped now.
We had identified the premises on Upper Street, I think in the summer of 1978. A friend of Mary’s who had some spare money, a man, (I think it was Mischa Wolf), bought it and we rented from him. He was not otherwise involved in the collective, it was always our bottom line that this would be a women-only venture. We couldn’t make the shop women-only and rumours to that effect, I have seen it written on the internet that men were not allowed, were false, – it wouldn’t have been legal at the time. And, indeed there was the need to deal with men in general, libraries, academics, suppliers etc. in no way were we separatist in that sense.
I do remember one man leaving the shop with a friend at one time, saying, ‘isn’t it a pity they are missing out half of the human race?’ The irony, the irony…
And, we did have some trouble with men occasionally, Kay was threatened at one point by an aggressive man in the shop, we had graffiti sprayed on the windows and once our locks were glued up. We did have a wire grill installed at the front of the building, shatter-proof glass and a buzzer inside to alert women upstairs, and, I think its important to remember the atmosphere of the times where one or two bookshops had been bombed. We did not see the police as our friend either, we had the odd one in plainclothes come in, very obviously listening to conversations and phone calls and noting down titles. We thought we were probably phone tapped, having once picked up the phone to find NAC (the National Abortion Campaign) on the other end, when neither of us had rung the other.
And, there were links between radicals and groups like the Bader Meinhoff, one of their women members (Astrid Proll) was living under another name in the Hackney squats. So their suspicions of us weren’t entirely unfounded.
But, having said that, it was a bookshop for women. And, most importantly a centre for the Women’s Liberation Movement. We were all very active in the movement and clear about that. I’d been involved with Onlywomen, at one time also on the coven of Earlham Street, where I’d met my first radical feminists in the shape of Lilian Mohin of Onlywomen fame, and Sheila Schulman (sadly no longer with us). So I was very much part of that wing of the movement. Kay was involved with the Women’s Arts Alliance and literature, Mary had a passion for history and healing, and I was keen on feminist science fiction at the time, as well as politics. But we were fine about coming from different places and trusted each other’s feminisms and integrity. They were, are very fine women.
So we worked hard at getting the run down shop into some order, and it was run down and dusty. Upper Street was not the trendy place it is now. There was an old fashioned underwear shop just down the road, you know the kind with that yellow cellophane in the windows to stop the sun spoiling the suspender belts and capacious bras on display. They went on pricing in handwritten pounds shilling and pence labels until they day they finally went under. The Kings Head pub down the road, busy and popular as a theatre pub kept its huge silver till and continued with pounds shillings and pence too for many years. Maybe even still do.
The street was run down and unloved, and we weren’t as close to a tube as we’d have liked, in between Highbury Corner and the Angel – but it was the best we could do and we just hoped that women would come to us. And, they did. You did.
But I’m jumping the gun. One of the most important things we knew we had to do was to find some way of getting books from the USA. So many things were being published there, and so little in Britain that we knew it would be vital for our success.
I had already taken home, bit by bit, the card index file from my job at Compendium and we’d painstakingly copied out each card, giving details of books, publishers, price etc. so that we had the beginnings of a collection, a data base I guess. I then went to the States. We could only send one and we agreed it would be me as I’d had some experience of importing already, and cheekily, I asked Womanbooks in New York if I could go through their stock and make notes. Amazingly they said yes, which was very sisterly of them. They were the most famous women’s bookshop at the time and had a huge collection of books. So I stood on stools and ladders and went thro every single one of their books and publications and wrote out a card for them all. It took at least 3 days, may have been more. Can’t think how I did it now. But I also went and saw distribution organisations and set up an account so we could order directly from them. I set up an account with an American bank so that we could pay into it and then be able to pay our suppliers directly with American cheques. I went to San Francisco to see some of the small publishers, and set up more accounts, and Philadelphia I think too, not sure exactly why. Anyway, the upshot was that we were then able to provide a very comprehensive selection of books for our customers, not just the mainstream presses, but the pamphlets, the small press stuff, the political journals and papers such as Off Our Backs and Sinister Wisdom. Perhaps I should mention here that we didn’t always get what we ordered, that if customs didn’t like a book in your consignment, then they could and did confiscate the whole box – it was very difficult to get it back again. So, somehow loads of porn got in, but if they didn’t fancy The Joy of Lesbian Sex, for example, then they could just confiscate it. Same in Ireland where certain issues of Spare Rib weren’t allowed in.
Lets not forget some of our other imports, Olivia Records – the women’s music company. And, if you’ve never heard Meg Christian’s Gym Teacher – you’ve truly missed out. Many of you will have fond memories of those records, there was a time when they seemed obligatory in any and every lesbian household. One of the very early photos in the file, of the 3 of us shows the Olivia records behind us I think. Curiously, I think they now do very successful cruises for lesbians, huge boats full of lesbians, imagine that!
It was a matter of personal pride to me that we should have everything, or at least know of it and where to get it. It wasn’t a question of profitability. We didn’t only stock things that sold as I know many bookshops did and do. We were trying to operate as a centre for knowledge and activity for the WLM, We were a physical location where you could go, meet other women,(the anarcha-feminist group I was in at the time often met at Sisterbite). You could find newsletters that would tell you what was happening; read notices for groups or somewhere to live; find the latest book or article, the one everyone was discussing at the time; or find something totally obscure – books on medieval women or women in Victorian literature; lesbians books and newsletters, some of which were kept under the counter – Down There, the guide to self-exam by Sophie Laws of Onlywomen, sold with a speculum to do it yourself, and here is one of those speculums! – And if I remember rightly there are some lovely photos of my cervix in there, not an easy photo-shoot); or Betty Dodson’s Liberating Masturbation – very popular that was, we sold many copies. The art of the female orgasm was something we definitely had to teach ourselves. We sold badges and lovely silver women’s symbol earrings and pendants (Paddy Tanton made the first of those), and labyris/axe pendants, and badges, of course.
A Woman’s Place was operating at the time in central London, and they sold a few books too as well as being primarily an information centre. We were anxious not to upset them or impede their business in any way, so we did go to see them early on, and later when we were up and running and had some money, gave them some. In our first year we were able to give them and WIRES £500 each, and I think we bailed WIRES out again when they had no money for printing. It was always our intention to pass money on to other feminist organisations when we could and we talked quite a lot about the difficulties of how to decide who we should support. There seemed to be lots of issues we had to discuss and decide about together.
We did start to pay ourselves as soon as we could. Having opened a few weeks before Christmas, the word was really spreading by then and we were getting loads of women coming to the shop – and I remember the first day, just before Christmas when we took £1,000 in one day. It seemed a huge amount, and we were thrilled. Of course, our American books in particular were expensive, and I remember being verbally duffed-up at the disco because we were not selling cheap to women. But we couldn’t do that, as I said at the beginning, we knew we had to make a profit to survive, but it was never a private profit or capitalist venture. But few of us then had a problem expressing whatever it was we thought about whatever anyone else was doing in the name of feminism. You had to be prepared to be challenged, however good you thought your motives were. And, of course, selling politics, as in a sense we were, was just asking for it.
However, all the informal services we offered we did so for free – women would telephone to ask for all kinds of information – when the next demo was, how they could contact someone, where could they get an abortion. And, remembering what I said earlier about the phone being tapped, we could have gotten in very deep water had we passed on information about illegal abortion networks, so we were always very careful.
We did those things for the love of feminism, to promote and spread the word, to be a service to women and, to lesbians of course. Then there was little in the way of facilities and services. The local councils were having great battles to set up lesbian and gay units. There wasn’t much in the way of literature, but we tried to have everything there was, even if some of the novels were more than a bit naff. And, as I said, we kept things under the counter that were in any way sensitive. Women’s newsletters meant only for women, Catcall and Wires, or only for lesbians. It was important to open up those networks for communication. There wasn’t an internet, of course, that’s exactly why books, periodicals, journals, pamphlets were so important. Conference papers, discussion articles in newsletters – all these things were in the print medium, and we made our own. We got access to Banda machines in the early days, those involved the cutting of waxed paper to go on a metal drum full of ink in order to produce copies. Later Gestetners, a little easier. And it was only by controlling those means of production and distribution that we got the power to decide what was printed and where it went. Spreading the word about a demonstration took time, from advertising it in newsletters and journals, to posters (and Sisterwrite kept many posters for sale as well as for information, they became a feminist art form), to word of mouth. Meetings were important. We did things face to face.
When a number of women wanted to discuss entering the Labour party as a strategy, we agreed to have the meeting at the shop to discuss the pros and cons. Funny how that one seems very relevant again now. So many women came that we had to close the shop doors and I was worried the wooden floors of the first floor where the meeting was taking place would collapse. And still we had women in the street banging on the doors to get in. It was very heated. Some women saying it was the best plan to get things changed, others that it was only by having a strong and autonomous (that word again) women’s movement that we would put pressure on the parties to make the kind of changes we wanted to see happening. Women did both those things, and both were right I think now. Each approach made important gains for women.
Anyway, my point being, that we did things together, argued them out, disagreed profoundly and were sometimes nasty, and sometimes funny and often weepy with the passion of it, but we did it in real reality, not virtual reality, and that, I think, is why we changed things and ourselves so profoundly and formed bonds that have connected us all our lives and kept us engaged all our lives. I wanted to say that, but I won’t go on. It just seems important to me that with so much political activity taking place on line now, and in such a different way, that we don’t forget the importance of being there with each other. And, that was what Sisterwrite was for ultimately. So that if you went looking for the Women’s Liberation Movement, as I had a few years before, you would find it.
Sisterbite was opened during the next year, 1979 as a café where women could come and relax, and that was women-only. Caroline Forbes, (another good woman we have lost) opened it up and it became very popular. She was joined later by Frankie Green (now of Women’s Liberation Music Archive fame) and Judith Skinner. Caroline had spent time in Australia and was a great fan of jaffles. Anyone remember those? Basically sandwiches toasted in a special machine, everything from eggs to jam. And, Liz Trott (who died a few years ago now) reworked the little garden out the back and that became a lovely place to sit and chat and have your lunch. In a sense we were the forerunner of the ‘destination’ bookshop, where you had a coffee shop and became somewhere to spend time and not just buy something. The big chains went in for it big time, later on.
We also gave space upstairs to the WRRC, the Women’s Research and Resources Centre and we gave them periodicals from the shop and provided a reading room that any woman could use. That was also a very useful archive and many women used and valued it. I do recall one day that Bea Campbell was researching her latest book up there, and we locked the shop downstairs and left, not knowing she and a few other women were still there. They did manage to get out eventually, via a back alley. And altho I didn’t do it deliberately, honestly, it did make me smile as there was a lot of hostility between soc fems and rad fems at the time – remember that thing they (I think it was in a lesbian left show) once said, – you could sleep with a rad fem, but don’t on any account talk to them!
I don’t remember doing this but apparently we stickered books we didn’t agree with – (including Bea’s Sweet Freedom) I’m sure we were quite opinionated enough to do that. Certainly we stickered books that had a sexist cover that we didn’t approve of – Susi Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue being one that was successfully changed I think. Authors didn’t necessarily get control of their covers then but started to write it into their contracts around that time.
We had author readings – Marge Piercy was one, which we organised at the Kings Head down the road, but other visiting poets and writers too. We didn’t do book signings as we thought it was a bit star worshippy, we were a bit holier than thou at times. But it was very much frowned upon in the movement to be famous or stick your head above the parapet – we were determined not to have leaders and it was very difficult at times for those trying to do things publicly when all they got was criticism for it. But I digress again.
The shop did become a centre that was known internationally. There were some links with European feminists, we stocked some literature from Denmark and France. Sisterwrite was contacted by the French feminists who were challenging a group in France who had tried to take out legal rights over the words Women’s Liberation Movement, asking for support. It totally split their movement, and of course, we were appalled that anyone should try and do that, tho i’m not sure that we were able to do anything practical to support them. We produced a catalogue of books and everything we stocked so that women who lived outside London could have access too, and that also went abroad and we had a number of women in different countries ordering things. We got a grant of £2,600 from the EOC (Equal Opportunities Commission) to do the first one ( the second and much larger one is also in the file), (I don’t remember any other grants, we did work very successfully as a commercial enterprise). The EOC sent a male photographer to take pictures of us for their publications, but I sent him away suggesting (politely) that they send a woman photographer instead. He went back and told them he’d been savaged by a little old lady. I’ll admit to a grey hair or two but I think you can see from the photos that that wasn’t quite an accurate description I was 31 I think. I’ll admit to it now tho and like to think I could be much more savage. But the catalogue was, I believe very useful, it contained comments and descriptions as well as ordering information, and lists of useful groups and organisations etc. again, a lot of work, but worth it to disseminate the material and to include women who for whatever reason couldn’t get to the shop.
We tried to make sure we reflected the important debates at the time and the widest range of women’s issues. We kept sections on what we described as Black, Asian and Third World Women’s Writing, and women’s liberation politics including class and disability and Violence Against Women and Lesbian Literature and Politics. We were not a very diverse collective ourselves at the beginning but I believe that changed over the years. And we stocked material we didn’t necessarily agree with at times, like some of the stuff on S&M because we thought the debate was important. And often books that weren’t by feminists or didn’t take a feminist line if it was something about women we thought useful or unique in some way.
Feminists visiting London also came to the shop from all over the world. One of my personal favourite moments was being able to introduce two women who had been expelled from the Soviet Union for their feminist activities to the then editor of Manushi, the Indian feminist magazine. One of the Russian feminists was trying to survive by selling her watercolours, there’s a couple in the file, and we stocked and sold them for her. One of my least favourite moments occurred when I was standing by the feminist science fiction section (I imagined myself a bit of an expert by then) and being asked by a customer what I thought of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books. I replied somewhat sniffily that they were ok if you liked fairytales with dragons in them. Of course, it turned out that the woman who had asked me was Marion Zimmer Bradley……She seemed to take it in good heart.
We took books to conferences and ran bookstalls there, often donating part of the proceeds. And we supplied a lot of books on sale or return to women who wanted to sell them at their event. Again, not really profitable, but essential in doing the work we were trying to do of spreading the word and supporting the WLM in any way we could. We stocked libraries, one or two of them would just send us some money saying they were trying to set up a women’s section and could we chose and send them a selection of books. Women who worked in academia often made a point of ordering thro us. Good to remember that debates such as those in Love Your Enemy and Breaching the Peace were included in women’s studies then. We attended conferences in Manchester, Leeds, Amsterdam. There were links with other feminists in bookshops, Jane at Grassroots, Mandy at News from Nowhere in Liverpool, they came and visited us and we had a conference of Feminists in Bookselling and Distribution in Manchester in 79.
And, we had very little shoplifting to contend with, not quite none, but it wasn’t the problem it had been for many other shops. Tho we did have a small group of boys that caused a bit of trouble, running into the shop with toy guns and taking the donation box.
By the time I left, 3 years later, the shop was very successful. We had taken on Jane Tilley (another we have lost), to work in the shop. We were able to pay ourselves a reasonable amount, the shop had taken enough to get a mortgage on the premises and was stable and well established. And, of course we had learned all the necessary skills, how to pay wages, run accounts, do stocktaking, deal with suppliers from here and abroad, whatever we needed, we learned. We had become a well-known bookshop and centre, and I think we did it well in terms of knowing our stuff, knowing who our customers/supporters/audience were and what they wanted. I did read around that time a fashion piece in, I think, the Evening Standard of all things where they were remarking on the return of skirts – and actually said that even one or two members of the Sisterwrite collective had been seen wearing them – the implication being that if even the dykes at Sisterwrite were wearing skirts they must be cool again. So, we even became fashion icons too! Hard to imagine when I think back on the old shirts and dungarees and silver sprayed monkee boots and schoolboy ties and blazers at discos – but that could be a whole other subject for the Lesbian History Group. What did lesbians wear?
It was, of course, assumed that we were all lesbians, which was never quite true. But the shop was also part of lesbian culture at the time. Women could and did meet in the shop, eyes meeting over a volume of Sappho, and go for a coffee upstairs. I got chatted up a couple of times, at one time a young customer was waiting for me outside the shop when we closed up. I was very surprised – I didn’t think I’d agreed to anything, just had a chat at the till, but apparently, I’d accepted a piece of chewing gum, and that was somehow significant. And, we did have a rule that collective members weren’t to sleep with each other. Hmmmm. I think that didn’t last long, if my memory serves me right, Caroline and I put paid to that one.
But, much of the culture surrounding the shop at the time was lesbian, the squats some of us were living in again were a way of living the way we wanted as lesbians, with all our experiments with monogamy and non-monogamy and group living. Penny put a bath in the middle of our hall in the squat we shared at one point – so you could well come in and find a woman in the bath. Or, I once knocked on the door of another women’s house to have it opened by Rosie, fully naked – it was a very hot day. And i should mention that Rosie Gowing made the lovely piece of stained glass that graced our front windows. Wonder where that went? There just is something about women being strong and autonomous that turns women into lesbians. To make the squats habitable some of us had to learn how to do the electrics (thanks to Lee that we were able to turn the meter back, again, allowing us to live on very little and defeat the man!), and another woman who is here today, the redoubtable Chris taught me how to put a sash window in. I treasure the memory, tho I’ve never done it again. I guess that what I am trying to say is that we were creating an alternative society where women did things for themselves, and that’s a very lesbian thing to do.
We also supported one another as a collective, tho we didn’t necessarily socialise or talk about what was happening in our personal lives a lot – when I was not at my best, heartbroken and distinctly flaky, Kay and Mary took the strain, and when Mary was ill, similarly, or when Kay arrived at work in tears, we put that first, and tried to see each other thro whatever it was.
And, Islington, dusty and unfashionable as it was at the time was also the home of the famous Crown and Woolpack women’s disco, and others later on. I think some of the Women’s Events, combining music and poetry, mad dressing up and all kinds of things were held at Islington and Finsbury Town Halls. There were many lesbians living in the area by then.
- I think the existence of the shop and publishers also encouraged many women to write and there were lots of writing groups at the time too. Be it novels or articles, having a place where they will be published and distributed and sold and have a readership is essential, and particularly important for lesbians at the time who really didn’t have access to mainstream publishing and bookselling, or indeed access to each other. But I’m sure much more will be said about that at the Onlywomen talk you are going to have in December.
- Novels were as important as political writings, and we sold books such as ‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French almost by the hundred. Dale Spender’s book on language, ‘Man Made Language’ was another important one – and I think the first to really bring home the importance of the words we use and who gets to define those and how much they shape our thinking. Important all over again I think in the current trans debate, but also hugely significant in thinking about race, class, disability, animal rights, all forms of oppression. We imported Mary Daly’s works, and ‘Gyn/ecology’ was such an important text that the Women’s Press decided to publish it here and asked us to stop selling the US version. And, we did. I like to think that there was a general sense of supporting each other’s projects and willingness to cooperate. Much to my amazement at the time, the Sunday Times reprinted straight pages of ‘Gyn/ecology’, right on the front pages of one of its supplements I think. I think they described it as the apex (not that, the opposite of nadir?) of radical feminism. Hard to imagine now.
- It is significant also I think, that many of us knew each other, that it was a social circle too, that some of us lived together and learned from each other and wrote for each other and fought each other and loved each other. We gave one another strength and formed a living, vibrant, energetic community. And we had an amazing time. Sisterwrite could never have existed without all the women who helped, and all the women who came and bought books and passed the word and all the women who wrote and printed and drove things round in vans, Alison Read, Pam Isherwood and Gail Chester were involved with the Publications Distribution Coop, part of the wider feminist network that linked in not just to publishing and bookselling but out to colleges, schools, universities… It was a collective manifestation in the broadest and best sense. I quote the end of the collective statement in the second Sisterwrite catalogue
- “We owe our existence to the Women’s Liberation Movement and the continuing strength and creativity of feminism.”
I suppose I need to say a bit about the end. The shop lasted for 15 years, but things had changed a great deal over that time. My last experiences of the shop had been of a run down place with little energy or enthusiasm. But, to be fair, there wasn’t the same women’s movement to support it any more. And, everyone was selling feminist books, and many other things had changed, the big chains had been able to dominate the trade once compulsory RRP ended and they could discount books. This meant the end for many small bookshops. The whole political climate had changed beyond recognition.
Kay and I went to see the remaining collective members (not women we knew) when we heard that the shop was to close. We wanted to know what had happened and what was going to happen to the money. We had thought in taking out the mortgage that whatever happened to Sisterwrite that there would be a pot of money left from the sale of the premises which could fund another women’s project, and Islington had become a very desirable place to be by then. But we were told that they had remortgaged the property, in order to keep going and now it all belonged to the bank. So, it was very disappointing for us, but as I said, the whole world had changed and Thatcher’s Britain was a very different kettle of fish.
Overall, I don’t think we ever thought the bookshop would have lasted that long. It did wonderful things in its day. It provided employment for a lot of women over the years. It was, a good example of a women’s cooperative, a worker’s cooperative, and I guess it had an impact on many women’s lives.
We were part of – all of us who created this network – were part of something much bigger. When women began to have more confidence that our voices were worth being heard. That the networks of publishers, journals, distributors and booksellers meant that you could be heard. We depended on them and they on us. It became a great flowering of creativity for women, from novelists to polemicists. Women’s voices entered the mainstream culture in a way they hadn’t done before. I am very proud to have been a part of that. Our movement was its inspiration and made so much possible.
(Thanks to Pam Isherwood for providing some photos)
(c) copyright Jo Nesbitt
(c) copyright Jo Nesbitt
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