At A Loss For Words

Bad business choices and lost relevance doom the West Coast's last feminist bookstore.


The only glimpse most people have ever had of In Other Words, the Northeast Portland feminist bookstore, is through the ruthless parody featured on the IFC television series Portlandia.

In one episode, the store's two female employees—with their curtains of hair, baggy linen clothes and deadly patronizing tone—debate whether or not to stock a book on modern feminism. 

"That's a top-selling author," one says. "Do we want that in here?"

"No," the other responds. "We want a bottom-selling author."

Parody is often a barbed compliment. For Johanna Brenner, co-founder of In Others Words, where the scenes were filmed, the depiction of an insular feminist bookstore alienating customers and neglecting financial opportunities is comic and a sharp insider's view  of feminism.

And the truth in the satire may be helping kill the 18-year-old bookstore.

In Other Words is sliding toward financial collapse. The Women's Community Education Project, which runs the bookstore, ran $18,743 in the red last year. This month, the store laid off its only two employees. Annual sales are down 73 percent from where they were four years ago.

The number of feminist bookstores nationwide has dropped to nine. In Other Words' board members acknowledge the store may be headed for closure—and the next-closest bookstore dedicated solely to women's issues is in Austin, Texas.

Brenner says that would be the city's loss. "There are still a lot of people in Portland who really appreciate the need to have a space that's explicitly feminist," she says.

Last summer, In Other Words tried to expand its appeal by calling itself a "resource center." As the store's website puts it, "We are a feminist community center and our mission is to support, enrich, and empower the feminist community through literature, art, and educational and cultural events."

But In Other Words also struggles  because it's lost its relevance to a new generation of women—a reality that suggests feminist bookstores are simply out of date.  "People don't see it as urgent anymore, because feminist issues have been mainlined into many different areas," says Bren Murphy, associate professor of communications and gender studies at Loyola University Chicago.

It's obviosly tough for retail businesses. Katie Carter, who was laid off as In Other Words' program director, says the store faces the same economic pressures as retail bookstores everywhere. "Independent bookstores are dropping like flies, and it's not particular to feminist bookstores," Carter says.

But many of the problems at In Other Words are of its own making.

For years, a single source of income helped prop up the store's finances: an exclusive contract to sell textbooks on women's studies to Portland State University students. The store's tax returns (which are a public record because it's owned by a nonprofit) show that nearly half of In Other Words' revenues came from such sales last year. But a 2008 federal law effectively ended the practice of holding students captive to where they can buy their textbooks.

Even though In Other Words saw this coming—the law didn't take effect until last summer—the board that runs the store wasn't prepared for the change. A statement from the board says the store faces an "unforeseen immediate financial crisis."

The nonprofit running the store has turned to donors in the past to pay the bills and has counted on volunteers to stand by the business.

This time is different. Volunteers say the board sprang a new business plan on supporters this month that included laying off the staff.

Since its inception, In Other Words has depended almost exclusively on dozens of  volunteers to run events and staff the store. 

Yet according to Ali Kafka, who's been a volunteer at the bookstore for the past eight months, they were kept in the dark about key decisions.

"We're here day to day. You guys aren't," Kafka said at a tense board meeting last week. "We are the only feminist community center in Portland, and right now it feels like [the board is] perpetuating oppression, labor exploitation, and hypocrisy."

Many volunteers say their loyalty is now in doubt. Kate Shrum, a four-year volunteer at In Other Words, holds the new business plan that called for the layoffs and points to the graph that shows the business still losing money well into next year: "If this is what feminism looks like in Portland, thenmaybe we shouldn't be doing this," she says.

Brenner does not share that sentiment. She helped start In Other Words in 1993, raising $60,000 from like-minded community members. She also loaned the store $35,000, which has been on the books for years and hasn't been paid back.

Brenner, who retired from the board last month, still believes in the power of Portland’s feminist community.  “We’re still performing a very important educational and political function,” she says. “I’m hopeful.  People just need to get their butts over to Killingsworth and support us.”

Susan Post, owner of BookWoman in Austin, says feminist bookstores also must work harder to remain relevant.

"There hasn't been a burning desire to change the world," Post says. "People still want to save the whales and have clean water, but women's rights are on the back burner.” 

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.