In Your Store

Creative Retail Strategies: A Feminist Bookstore with a Mission

Earlier we touched on the similarities and the differences between the art supply industry and the bookseller industry in preparation for a spotlight on a specific indie bookstore with creative retail strategies that our community can learn from: Women & Children First.

Women & Children First (WCF) is one of the largest feminist bookstores in the country, stocking more than 30,000 books by and about women, children’s books and LGBTQIA+ literature. In addition to the books, they carry an assortment of literary swag including cards, journals, posters, calendars, buttons, flags and their newest addition, pens. Since 1979, they have celebrated and amplified underrepresented voices, offering a welcoming space and a robust calendar of events. In 2014, co-founders Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon sold the bookstore to two of their staffers, Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck. Art Dog contributor and Key Account Manager Cassie Brehmer met with Sarah to learn more about their business. 

Sarah and Lynn, independent booksellers and owners of Women & Children First, in front of a beautifully painted window display
Sarah and Lynn in front of their hand painted shop windows .

Sarah has always had a passion for books and literature. After earning a MFA in Writing from Northwestern University, she joined the non-profit sector—but she missed books. She found herself seeking out a part-time job at a large chain bookseller just because she wanted to spend time in a bookstore. She soon discovered that working for such a large chain was not feeding her soul: the store began dedicating more and more space to non-book merchandise, and turned many of their booksellers into baristas. Eventually she discovered WCF, a store whose mission resonated with her, a place where books, readers and writers could thrive. A store she would eventually co-own with fellow staff member, Lynn.

WCF’s crystal clear mission—to amplify the voices of female authors—solidified their reputation in the industry. Over time they have expanded their offerings to authors of every gender expression, but originally they only stocked books by women. At the time this was seen as unique, even controversial. Authors, sales reps and publishers took note and flocked to them; over the course of four decades, WCF built strong, long-lasting relationships with publishers and an intense reputation as a community hotspot.

Creative merchandising image of political books arranged into the word VOTE

This authenticity translates to their product selection, merchandising and event line up. It is common for publishers to rent table space within a retail bookstore to showcase new and popular books. But Sarah does not rent space directly to publishers. “It feels disingenuous to accept that incentive,” Sarah says. The store’s mission is centered on the community’s needs and voices of the underrepresented, not the publishers.

Independent bookseller showcasing her top five favorite books encourage retail customers to read in a creative way
Co-founder Linda with her Top Five (actually, six) books of 2019

Curating is Caring

To curate literally means “to take care of.” The beauty of small business is how owners and their staff can curate what they carry. WCF has a very strong Poetry section with a large following. The following was born out of two poets on staff who just really liked chatting about poetry. Passionate conversations with customers has resulted in a steady demand for the poetry over time.

Curation is the retailer’s version of collaboration: choreographing a communicative dance that integrates community needs, talented writers and intriguing content. And when you pay attention to each component, it’s only natural that applause follows. “It’s so affirming to see your work have a direct correlation with sales,” Sarah says. In the art industry’s case, the dancers are manufacturers, artists, educators and a diverse ensemble of creative consumers.

Creative merchandising display in a retail environment: staff recommendation of books at an independent bookstore
The Staff Picks shelf at WCF, December 2019. Cards running vertically down the left and right indicate each staff member with their interests; cards under books give an overview of what they loved about their choice. These cards stay with the books as they move back into regular rotation, so shelves are in constant bloom with colorful clusters of recommendations!

Taste the Reading Rainbow

Why shop local and independent? Just like in the art supply industry, it’s not just about product. And there is no algorithm for personality. “People always mention how much they love our recommended book section,” Sarah says. When she worked at a larger chain, there was one shelf for the entire staff…in a space that spanned over 15,000 sq feet. With a staff of avid readers and critical thinkers, Sarah has the creative control to reserve half a shelf for each staff member, literally making space for their personal styles to flourish. Staff refresh their shelf every two weeks. “The staff have to invest in books in order for them to sell,” Sarah says. In this case, investing means reading. WCF’s staff of bibliophiles and their “shelf-talkers” strengthen business in more ways than one: products are elevated, bookworms are celebrated and the need to read is catching!

How might we add this kind of flair to an art store? It’s difficult to make a cohesive section of favorites when you likely have a creative potpourri of painters, sculptors, illustrators, and fiber artists on staff. Instead, try “Like this? Try That!” tags. Give every staff member a specific color of paper or pen and ask them to add one recommended product per week. Your staff can highlight their favorite products, and recommend related products: an art supply association game that sends customers on a scavenger hunt around the store. 

Creative, Intentional Evolution

While the “shelf-talkers” rotate regularly, the overall curation of WCF evolves slowly—and dramatically. Just like our product categories, most bookstores have the same go-to sections: Fiction, Young Adult, Mystery, Self-Help, History, etc. WCF incorporates their feminist mission and adds a twist to this system, with exclusive sections like “Young Adult Queer.” Staff monitor customer traffic and interest to see if these kinds of experiments have a positive impact. This is the beauty and freedom of small business: they are transparent about trying new things, and their customers shop there to be a part of that ongoing conversation. 

Creative retail display of books 
 that center Environmentalism
Creative protest that an independent bookseller participated in

Special displays are another form of deliberate curation. Themed displays at WCF have focused on a relevant social justice issue, feminist theory, literary theme or cultural celebration. Each initiative is an opportunity to engage with the community and make an impression on a customer base that is already inherently curious. 

Key Takeaways

So what can those of us in the art supply industry learn from the long term successes of Women & Children First?

  • Talk the talk: flaunt a mission statement! Build your brand by building your personality. What are the values you share with your staff members, and how can you lean in that direction?
  • Then, walk the walk. Are you focusing on ethically sourced materials? Provide your customers with information about your vendors. Are you wanting to become the destination for painters? Make sure you have a truly diverse selection of paint lines, pallet knives, brushes, pallets and sundries. Gifts are also a lucrative business model, so include some surprise items in your inventory to delight artists and non artists alike.
  • Prioritize people. Empower your staff and give your community what they want! Let staff opinions shape merchandising. Products sell best when someone talks about them excitedly; give staff the opportunity to make shelf talkers around the store on their favorites. As for your customers, are they constantly asking if you have classes? Stop turning them down! Make yourself an essential thoroughfare for your community by providing meaningful and exciting experiences. 

Next Up: Networking and Events in Retail

In the final installment of our Extended Retail Family expedition, we’ll be focusing on events, both on-site and off, the point people that make the magic happen and how bookstores maintain long-lasting partnerships with publishers. 

Have you been inspired by an independent bookseller in your community? Or have you discovered another industry that we can learn from? Reach out at artdogblog (@) macphersonart.com!

Series Navigation<< A Three Part Series Inspired By Independent BooksellersFor Successful Events in Retail, More Power to the Point People >>

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