In November, Charis Books and More will celebrate its 39th anniversary as the South’s largest and oldest feminist bookstore—and as the oldest feminist bookstore in all of North America. The lilac-colored house on Euclid Avenue in Little Five Points is full of books of all sorts: cultural studies, feminist, children’s, LGBTQ fiction and nonfiction and much more.
Authors from all over visit for readings and signings. There are groups for writers to help strengthen their work and raise their voices. The store also has a non-profit called Charis Circle with a mission: “to foster sustainable feminist communities, to work for social justice and to encourage the expression of diverse and marginalized voices.”
Charis is doing so much in the community and has been for almost 40 years now.
In the early days of Charis back in the 1970s, lesbian feminists in Atlanta, many of whom lived communally and focused on political activism, flocked to the budding new store for a few reasons. One was simple enough, yet so very important: it was nearby. Another was that women ran the store and provided important books and knowledge to the community. They liked the idea of giving money to and supporting women in their ventures.
At first, Linda Bryant and Barbara Borgman opened Charis as a community bookstore that stocked non-sexist and non-racist children’s books, books by and about women, books from local writers and theological books. (Sara Look and Angela Gabriel co-own the store today.)
Bryant and Borgman envisioned Charis as a gift to the community—Charis is Greek for “gift” or “grace”—as well as a place where curious minds could come read and discover new things. They had both been part of the Christian Young Life movement and Charis’ first retail space on Moreland Avenue was actually previously occupied by Young Life as a teen center.
Bryant was a young teacher, but felt unsatisfied in her role. She wanted to know people, talk to people and discuss big, real ideas. She dreamed of a bookstore full of enlightening books, people and cups of tea. Even though she had her doubts about being able to run a store, she found nothing but encouragement from people she talked to about the idea. Borgman offered right away to take care of finding and stocking children’s books that were not racist or sexist.
The two of them didn’t have much business sense at the time, but they had faith and they had an idea. Feminist bookstores were opening all over the country at the same time, in cities like Washington, Boston and San Francisco. One store, Minneapolis’ Amazon Bookstore Cooperative—no relation to Amazon.com—had actually started on the front porch of a women’s collective household. (Amazon, established in 1970, was considered the oldest feminist bookstore in North America, but closed due to financial difficulties in 2012.)
As Atlanta’s lesbian feminists began to patronize Charis, the identity of the store evolved over the first few years into a feminist bookstore with lesbian leadership and literature included. Bryant and Borgman happily welcomed all who wanted to come to the store and would take suggestions from customers about what books should be stocked in the future. Just as Bryant imagined and wanted, she was talking to people and discussing those big ideas.
Gay and lesbian clients requested that Charis add books reflecting their life experiences and they did just that, even though conservative friends of Bryant and Borgman’s disagreed with what they were doing. To this day, Charis will still happily order books for customers if they don’t have them in stock.
The bookstore also became a community center for the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance, which was founded in the early 70s as a response to feeling left out by the more male-dominated Atlanta’s Gay Liberation Front. (ALFA later disbanded in 1994.) Women could go there to learn about the activities and events that ALFA put on, buy tickets to concerts in the area, look for places to live and meet new people.
Maya Smith, who identifies as bisexual, bought into Charis and joined the leadership as a partner in 1977. Her expertise in lesbian feminist books was valuable to the store. Two years later, Julia Strong started to work at Charis and was the first woman who was out as a lesbian when she joined the staff, though Bryant had been out for about a year after previously identifying as heterosexual when Strong came on board. However, Smith and Strong resigned in 1981 after a conflict on the store’s collective advisory board about the identity and mission of the store.
At that time, when Charis’ identity and future was being debated, Bryant decided that her focus regarding Charis was clear as day: against the patriarchy, encouraging feminist voices, inclusiveness, helping men free themselves from the patriarchy, always asking questions and rethinking assumptions. She doesn’t want Charis defined in limiting terms, even though they might be or sound accurate, simply because those terms are in direct opposition to the wholeness and inclusiveness for which she stands.
“What we are and want to be is a bookstore and a non-profit that exists to promote and honor and celebrate feminist values of mutuality, independence, and compassion. We used to say we wanted to ‘create a world in which all oppressions cease to exist,’ and that is still our vision – we just want to put it into more concrete terms,” Bryant explains in a first-person narrative about the store’s history on its website.
The store also started to evolve even more in the early 1980s: responsibilities of board members were more clearly detailed, board membership was restricted to people who were actively involved in the store and Charis itself moved from being a nonprofit to being for-profit—which is a huge process in and of itself.
Charis even sponsored Judy Chicago’s famous “The Dinner Party” exhibit, an ornate 48-foot triangular table with customized place settings for 39 historical and mythological women plus a floor with 999 further names on handmade tiles, when it visited Atlanta in 1982. The exhibit was at the Fox Theatre, so Charis opened a pop-up store (before pop-up stores were really a thing) right next to the Fox and drew interested exhibit-goers who wanted to talk, think and open their minds.
Though Charis got some competition when Outwrite came to town in 1993, the two stores moved in different but equally valid ways: Outwrite attracted a lot of men and women looking to hang out, get coffee and meet new people, plus men who liked Outwrite’s different focus. Charis concentrated on social justice and queer programming. Like Minneapolis’ Amazon Bookstore, though, Outwrite also closed their doors for good in 2012.
In 1994, Charis moved into the location it is in today, still in Little Five Points but in a renovated house on Euclid Avenue. They considered returning to nonprofit status in the mid-1990s because other feminist bookstores were doing the same, but instead created the nonprofit Charis Circle and placed its office inside the store. In addition to hosting the programs and events for their areas of focus, the Charis Circle space is also Atlanta’s only community feminist space that is open seven days a week—just like how the store served as a community center back in the early days.
The store offers ongoing program series with Charis Circle, including Writing With Intent, a group focusing on constructive criticism and support for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction; T&F Transitionz: A Project of the Feminist Outlawz, for people under age 30 to discuss social issues, gender and activism; and Cliterati Open No-Mic, an open-mic and reading series. Every month, Charis co-hosts more than 15 events and programs with Charis Circle.
Even though feminist bookstores are becoming increasingly rare in this day and age—there were more than 100 in 1995, but today that number has dwindled to fewer than 15—Charis stands strong despite the advent of the Internet as a place for people to meet one another and to buy books of all sorts. They also continue to support their fellow independent feminist bookstores by linking to every single one of the stores they know of, both in America and Canada. The website also includes a large selection of e-books.
Charis is making sure their past is preserved for future generations in many ways. In 2004, the store started to send all the memorabilia from community programs, celebrations and author reading and signing events up to Duke University’s Sally Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture so they can take care of archiving. Two different women have also written about Charis in their doctoral dissertations, one at Emory University and one in Texas.
Over the years, many notable authors and important names have paid visits to Charis, including Alice Walker, bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, Howard Zinn, Meshell Ndegeocello, John Lewis, Dr. Maya Angelou, Karin Slaughter, Jennifer Baumgardner, Melissa Etheridge and so many more.
To keep their future strong, Charis also has a few ways that people can get involved with them. The first one is easy: go to the store. Bring friends. Go to events and programs. Do what Bryant loves and talk to new people. Buy books, give gift certificates, create a wish list on Indiebound.com and let your friends and family get you what you really want by shopping at Charis using that wish list. This is especially important because one of Charis’ biggest challenges has come from Amazon.com.
The store will help teachers, professors and other organizations buy the books they need for their classes or offices and is open to having a book table at conferences or events. In fact, they already stock all the books needed for classes at East Lake Early Learning Academy and take 10 percent off the prices, then donate 10 percent back to the school.
Plus, just as it was in the early days, they can always use some volunteer help in the shop. Buying local and supporting local businesses helps the community in many ways and will keep Charis strong for many more years to come.
Many thanks to Charis and to the Southern Spaces journal for providing a wealth of information.