CHICAGO — For decades, local, independent bookstores have served as important community spaces for the LGBTQ+ community and remain dedicated to amplifying queer voices and topics.
Unabridged Bookstore in Lakeview, 3251 N. Broadway, which opened in 1980 and Andersonville’s Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark St., founded in 1979 are two of the oldest LGBTQ+ bookstores in the city.
In both stores’ early days, they served as some of the only spaces queer people could come together to share information with each other, build community and further their political goals.
Even though computers have made information much more accessible, bookstores remain an important community resource, especially amid legislation that aims to restrict books with queer themes in other states.
People from all over the country travel to these bookstores in search of LGBTQ+ literature. Both stores remain dedicated to amplifying LGBTQ+ voices, bringing people together and nurturing today’s social movements.
Fueled by their interest in women’s literature, co-owners Linda Bubon and Anne Christopherson opened the feminist bookstore Women & Children First in 1979.
Bubon said she could “count on one hand” the number of women writers she read while pursuing multiple degrees in literature and general bookstores often excluded women’s topics while highlighting exclusively male authors.
Since Bubon and Christopherson were in a “budding relationship with one another,” they were naturally interested in finding books about lesbian relationships and that became an extension of their feminist mission, Bubon said. They also felt it was important to offer a children’s section, since many of the women they knew were involved in children’s lives even if they didn’t have kids of their own, Bubon said.
“Part of our job, we thought, was to provide what general bookstores weren’t providing, which was extensive literature about women’s lives,” Bubon said. “For one, having a real pregnancy section and a health section that actually included books on women’s health. We also knew that wherever there are women, there are children in their lives.”
“When the store opened, it was tiny, but the queer literature available was even more scarce,” Bubon said. “Wherever we could, we supported women writers. And believe me, it didn’t take that many bookshelves to house what we could find at that time.”
Bubon and Christopherson mostly carried books written by women writers and would send customers to Unabridged Bookstore to find a more extensive selection of queer male authors. The stores still have a collaborative relationship today, said Unabridged Bookstore manager Shane Khosropour.
Ed Devereux founded Unabridged Bookstore just a year after Women & Children First opened, with a similar intention, Khosropour said.
“Because the owner has always had a voracious literary appetite, his mission was to open a queer bookstore that also carried everything else,” said Khosropour. “So while we carry a lot of mainstream publications, we definitely prioritize smaller, independent presses, and the books that are considered too bold, provocative, idiosyncratic or simply ‘not trendy enough.’ This is often LGBTQ+ literature.”
Over time, both bookstores have greatly expanded both their physical spaces and their book selections.
“I love that I can go into the bookstore now and see the expansion of queer literature and the expansion of literature by writers of color and disabled writers,” Bubon said. “None of that was available in the late ’70s when we opened.”
Khosropour said Unabridged Bookstore strives to carry as much LGBTQ+ literature as possible because “queerness can mean different things to different people, and the term is always changing and expanding.”
“Our selection of books is able to reflect that now that the publishing industry is finally starting to catch up,” Khosropour said. “So while a lot of the older ‘gay classics’ that we carry were written by white, cis men, the LGBTQ+ section is now so much more inclusive and vibrant with all the newer queer literature.”
Though Bubon and Christopherson eventually sold Women & Children First in 2014 to Sarah Hollenbeck and Lynn Mooney, who previously worked as booksellers there, the store’s mission has remained the same.
“We believe that having a strong curatorial eye and political view is what makes our store thrive and keeps it a sustainable business long-term,” Hollenbeck said. “We’ve found that the stronger we stand in our mission, the more our community rises up to support us. Sometimes it feels risky to be overtly political or feminist as times change, but we’ve always felt strongly that it’s what makes us survive.”
In the early days of Unabridged Bookstore and Women & Children First, the stores served as important, bustling gathering places for queer people.
Since information was mainly disseminated through books and print publications, these bookstores were where people went to get information about current events as well as their identities, said longtime Unabridged Bookstore employee and LGBTQ+ historian Owen Keehnen.
“When I started working at Unabridged Bookstore in the 80s, the job was more like working at a community center than a bookstore,” Keehnen said. “I never thought of myself as a sales clerk; bookselling was part of the job, but a lot of the work was assisting people with research and answering their questions about the city.”
People would frequently call Unabridged Bookstore to ask questions that could be answered by using Google today, Keehnen said. For example, people would call to ask where to find LGBTQ+ bars in their Midwest cities.
At Women & Children First, Bubon and Christopherson frequently organized discussions about practical topics women and LGBTQ+ people wanted to learn more about. People would gather at the store to learn about how to get jobs in male-dominated fields and how to divorce their husbands without losing custody of their children.
The store also hosted discussions about how to have multiple romantic partners in an ethical way, how to deal with infertility and best practices for integrating a step-parent into a family, Bubon said.
“Discussions about divorce and blending families together were particularly important for lesbian couples, some of whom were adopting their partner’s children or becoming the stepmother in the home,” Bubon said. “It was a confusing time for all of us, so it was important to be able to work through these things together.
“We wanted to provide a space where they could find books, talk to like-minded people and get support,” Bubon said.
When the HIV/AIDS crisis began in the early ’80s, exchanging reliable information within the queer community became even more vital, as most mainstream publications weren’t covering people’s experiences with the disease.
“Historically, Unabridged has been a meeting place for political movements, and also a community center and news source, particularly during the AIDS crisis when critical information was scarce and often misleading or inaccurate,” Khosropour said. “Unabridged carried all the ‘gay rags,’ the queer newspapers and magazines that other places refused to carry. These papers were of vital importance to all queer liberation movements.”
In addition to queer newspapers and independently published zines written by LGBTQ+ people, queer bookstores sold posters, buttons and T-shirts to raise money and awareness about HIV/AIDS.
Both stores also hosted recurring book clubs. People would come together to discuss literature, but would quickly become friends outside of that, Keehnen said.
“The clubs centered around the books, of course, but it centered more around their relationships as they developed,” said Keehnen, who ran the club for many years. “There weren’t a lot of places where people could just be gay under fluorescent lights, so bookstores were an important place for people to expand their identities.”
As technology has changed the way people share information, bookstores’ function in the community has changed as well, Keehnen said.
“Bookstores have started to become, actually, stores for books nowadays,” Keehnen said. “But almost every day, there are exceptions. People come in who don’t have access to other information and say they can’t find the titles they’re looking for other places. In a lot of places, there are still horrible situations with a lot of censorship.”
“There’s such a threat of things getting worse, with anti-trans legislation and censorship, that the importance of having a positive space where people can share accurate information will never go away,” Keehnen said.
“Books are still one of the best ways to learn about yourself and others, develop empathy, and enrich your world and your understanding of it,” Khosropour said. “And a safe, inclusive book club environment will ensure that everyone feels welcome. It’s a sacred space for many queer people.”
Women & Children First continues to organize community events that bring people together to discuss current events and social movements. Click here to see the store’s events calendar.
“The conversations we have are about more than books, even though the books serve as a jumping-off point,” Hollenbeck said. “I think it says a lot about the character of our store, that people want to have conversations about abortion access, prison abolition and racial justice here.”
In addition to nurturing productive conversations, the stores remain committed to offering a diverse array of books that help to illuminate LGBTQ+ people’s place in the world, Hollenbeck, Khosropour and Keehnen said.
“There are younger people trying to figure out who they are and their place in the world, older people who are still struggling to come out, parents who are trying to better understand their queer child, folks who have been disowned by their families and communities, and of course, people just looking for a fun queer beach read,” Khosropour said. “While the prevalence of the internet has filled some of that need, the internet can also be a place of misinformation and toxic trolling.”
People from all over the country seek out these stores and travel long distances to Chicago in search of LGBTQ+ literature, Hollenbeck, Khosropour and Keehnen said.
“We see a lot of folks who live in states where there’s more legislation threatening the lives of trans folks and horrible book banning,” Hollenbeck said. “They come into our store and see all the LGBTQ+ books and get super emotional seeing themselves represented on our shelves so openly and joyfully.”
Hollenbeck feels Women & Children First’s mission becomes more important every day and the store’s owners plan to continue moving forward with confidence, she said.
“The current owners are even more inclusive and mission-oriented today, and that’s important because there’s still a lot of issues that need to be solved,” Bubon said. “There’s still rampant misogyny and homophobia. We’ve never seen anything like the anti-trans legislation that’s being pushed among conservatives.”
To combat these things, people need to “keep meeting, reading and talking,” Bubon said.
“Books can connect you with the outside world in ways that may not be possible otherwise,” Khosropour said. “When I was coming out in the late ’90s, I turned to books for connection and guidance. And the same is true with many people today, of all ages.
“Obviously we are vehemently opposed to book bans and restricting speech, and the fact that this is still happening now and with increasing vitriol is a testament to the enduring importance and necessity of queer independent bookstores and these safe, inclusive spaces,” Khosropour said.
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: