Social worker Carolyn Anderson started what became a feminist community hub in Calgary in the early 80s called: A Woman’s Place Bookstore. At that time, alternative feminist and lesbian spaces, shops, and music festivals were cropping up across North America. An informal network between them was forged by women’s publications such as the still widely circulated newsletter Lesbian Connection.
After a trip to California, Carolyn discovered a lesbian bookshop that inspired her. Yet her bookstore evolved almost by accident. As a social worker, her area of expertise was in sexual abuse and its recovery, yet Carolyn found a dearth of books on the topic locally. So at professional conferences, she started buying multiple copies of the books she was interested in. She would then sell them to colleagues and clients out of the trunk of her car.
In fact, she amusingly started calling her car, “A Woman’s Place Bookstore,” but then women started requesting other reading materials and even feminist music. The car’s trunk quickly became too full. She found a business partner in Jacquie Stutt, talking one night over a curling game, and they opened a storefront in 1983.
Located in the Beltline at 1412 Centre Street, one entered a lavender door into feminist bibliophilic bliss. At any time you might be greeted by a fluffy dog, goddess jewelry, friendly staff and other shoppers when you entered: plus lots and lots of books.
Carolyn remembers: “The back room was where we had all of the lesbian stuff, all of the lesbian music, so people could go back there and, lots of times, people didn’t even know there was a back room! It looked like, maybe it was a business office or a storage room, but if you were gay you knew what it was, and we would make sure you knew what it was. People didn’t even really get what the gay stuff was if they weren’t gay.”
In the first years of the store, it was well known that Canada Customs officials would seize books with gay or lesbian content. So, Carolyn would have her shipments sent to friends in Montana and then drive down to get them – smuggling the books into Calgary.
Many customers who were too nervous to go into gay bars found a gentler entry point to the community through shopping for books and reading the community bulletin board/information centre. Any activities of interest to women were posted there; you could drop off event posters or call the store and relay event information to staff. For shoppers, the store had non-sexist children’s books, fiction, poetry, self-help tapes and books, calendars, recovery books, jewelry, t-shirts, women’s music, and – if you were still undecided – gift certificates!
By the late 90s, Jacquie had become the sole owner of the bookstore but it began to suffer from the movement of the “b-list” female prostitution stroll into the area (as defined by Calgary Police). Sometimes bookstore staff had to chase away cruising johns and customers began to stay away. The store was sold to a new owner in 2003 and moved to Marda Loop where it existed for a few more years before the business finally closed its doors.
Throughout its existence, the store was an anchor for Calgary’s lesbian community. On multiple occasions, the Calgary Gay History Project has heard from women who told us that this store saved their lives by ending their isolation.
I found some of my now favorite books in the backroom of that store. I was introduced to some wonderful authors via Jacquie’s recommendations. I miss that store.
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