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Women & Children bookstore sold
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

This article shared 14 times since Wed Jul 16, 2014
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A cornerstone in Chicago's feminist and LGBT communities dating back to 1979 is transitioning and preparing for a new, modern look.

Women & Children First Bookstore, based on Clark Street in Andersonville, has been sold by longtime owners/founders Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen to two of their current employees, Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck, the Windy City Times has learned exclusively.

The 3,500-square-foot bookstore was put up for sale last October, and the new owners were selected—from eight formal offers—in May. The nine-member staff learned of the new owners at a staff meeting July 1—and Mooney and Hollenbeck were given a round of applause when it was announced.

"It's been hard to keep a secret, [especially] since we really couldn't talk about it with anyone," Hollenbeck said with a smile on July 13, in the first public acknowledgement by any of the four that the store had in fact been sold.

Terms of the sale were not disclosed.

"The continuity of the legacy [of the store] is important, building on the foundation that is here," Mooney said.

"Women & Children First Bookstore has been a critical part of Chicago's feminist and LGBT communities since the day it opened," said Tracy Baim, Windy City Times' publisher. "They have hosted thousands of authors from all backgrounds, and supported many causes in the community through their individual efforts and via the bookstore. Ann and Linda are community treasures, and mentors to myself and so many other women who followed in their footsteps as business owners."

Bubon, 63, said she is not saying goodbye to the store. "I'm just saying goodbye to ownership," she said. "So much has happened to me in the last year—to change my perspective on life. I now see myself as more than just the owner of Women & Children First, more than what I've done all my life.

"I have been guided for more than 30 years by this mission and purpose to be a feminist activist, and I've lived out that mission [through Women & Children First]. But there are other ways for me to now live out that mission. And I'm excited about those possibilities."

Mooney, 52, who lives in West Rogers Park, has worked at Women & Children First for six years, and has 25 years experience in the publishing industry, most recently as a freelancer but before that on staff at several major publishers, including HarperCollins and McGraw-Hill. She is a New York native who has lived in Chicago for the past 20 years—and on June 25 converted her civil union to Marisa L'Heureux to a marriage. The two have been together for eight years, and L'Heureux also works in publishing.

Hollenbeck, 30, lives in Edgewater and has worked at Women & Children First since last September. She has worked at numerous bookstores for years and herself is a writer, mostly nonfiction. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University, and her essays exploring sexuality, gender, disability, and the perception of self have appeared in various literary journals and blogs, including TriQuarterly, Dogwood, and In Our Words.

Hollenbeck also has worked at Independent Publishers Group and StoryStudio, as well as large, nationally known bookstores. She is active in Chicago's exploding live literary scene, regularly attending and performing at area shows. She got engaged to Andrew Marikis, an actor, in June.

Hollenbeck, a longtime shopper at Women & Children First, learned it was for sale about a month after she started working there—and admittedly was "kind of surprised," she said. "I wasn't aware that they were considering retiring."

Hollenbeck has long worked in the book world and wanted it to be her long-term career. But, she admitted, she never considered working at/in a bookstore to be a "real job."

"I just kept thinking that, at some point, I will find a real job and then my career will start," she said.

Mooney, meanwhile, was approached about two years ago by Bubon and Christophersen about possibly buying the store. "I thought about it very seriously at the time, but there were two things [standing] in the way for me—finances; I didn't have what I needed to do it alone; and also, I didn't feel like I had all of the pieces. I'm a book person, always been a book person. I'm detail-minded, driven. But, I am not a marketer; I am not an event planner; I am not a networker."

Last December, Hollenbeck approached Mooney about jointly pursuing the business when she too realized she couldn't do it alone.

"Lynn was an obvious partner because I think we complement each other really well," Hollenbeck said. "It just made sense to approach her, to see if she wanted to partner together."

Mooney said she was "thrilled" to be asked by Hollenbeck.

Bubon and Christophersen were very clear that they would only sell to someone who would keep the store going as Women & Children First—"because this is their legacy, their life's work, and they wanted to see it continue," Mooney said.

Hollenbeck said they applied and had numerous in-depth talks with Bubon and Christophersen, and a Florida-based professional bookstore management company hired by Bubon and Christophersen.

"It was never a given that we'd be the [new owners]. We hoped that working here would give us an advantage, but they looked and considered everyone," Mooney said.

The list of candidates was narrowed to three in March.

Mooney and Hollenbeck were told they were selected to succeed Bubon and Christophersen in May, and since have been negotiating terms, planning the transition, and more.

Mooney was promoted to manager about 18 months ago, thus works full-time and is involved with the book ordering. She will continue with most of the store's book ordering, managing the staff, displays, and more.

Hollenbeck will manage the store's publicity, events, programming, and non-book items, such as cards, t-shirts and coffee mugs.

"Our vision for the store really hinges on expanding the events and programming aspect," Hollenbeck said.

Both will work full-time going forward.

"When Ann and I first started talking about selling [the business], we immediately thought of Lynn," Bubon said. "I was impressed with Sarah since her first day [working at the store].

"Both are extraordinary book lovers, and they both have extensive book store experience, which Ann and I both felt was very important [for the next owners], plus a feminist commitment. "

Mooney said she is not sure yet if they will expand beyond the store's current staff size.

Women & Children First will undergo a store renovation next January and February, Mooney confirmed.

The store will, for the most part, be open during its remodeling and the construction of a new, comfortable, dedicated event space. Hollenbeck said if they need to close due to renovation, it shouldn't be for any more than two weeks.

"We believe that we need a dedicated event space," and that's something that is being added in the area that now houses the women's studies and LGBT books, Mooney said.

"We love author-readings, but often, they just attract fans of that particular writer, not new customers. We want to attract new customers," Hollenbeck said.

They are considering adding lecture series, support groups, additional storytelling and more. Plus, they will offer the renovated space for birthday parties and other social get-togethers.

With the new dedicated event space, there will be more events, both formal and informal, scheduled for Women & Children First, and they won't be restricted on days events can be held. Plus, the option for additional lectures, both author- and idea-driven, and more also will help combat the challenges from Amazon and other online sellers.

The location of the cash register also will moved closer to a wall, Hollenbeck said, "which should make it feel more spacious."

Also around the renovation in early 2015, a new Women & Children First logo will be unveiled—centered around the ampersand "as a symbol of inclusiveness, that this is a bookstore for everyone," Mooney said, .

Both of the new owners said they mostly plan to just "tweak" the content offered at Women & Children First. "I think the [book] collection here now is a really good model into the future," Mooney said. "The store, as it's evolved over the years, has been true to its feminist roots, but also has found a way to be a neighborhood bookstore."

Mooney said there likely will be more events featuring male writers and a push for more male customers.

Feminism also, naturally, will remain important, both said.

"We have an ongoing, serious conversation among staff about feminism, and the future of feminism, and what that looks like, and how it can evolve," Mooney said. That conversation about feminism also includes men, Hollenbeck said.

Mooney confirmed that they have had discussions about re-organizing the LGBT book section, particularly within the renovation. Thus, LGBT books will be meshed within all other books, offering a higher visibility.

Mooney also confirmed that they will keep the store's name, while acknowledging the challenges that the name presents.

"There are male shoppers in here all the time, so we've done a decent job on getting the word out," Mooney said.

They plan to remain at the current location 5233 N. Clark St., Mooney said. "This is the heart of Andersonville; we love it here," Hollenbeck added.

Hollenbeck said a "huge mission" of hers is to expand the offering of locally based writers. "We want to support local writers and we want to have permanent, local author display that is more [prominent] than what we have now," she said.

Both Bubon and Christophersen, 65, will have ongoing roles at the store. Bubon will remain active at the store, working two or three days per week for the next two years. Plus, she will continue her long-running, popular children's story time, and more. Christophersen will be a consultant, mostly on business-driven projects.

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