Andersonville, Chicago’s “Shop Local Capital”: Surviving Three Waves of Globalization?
“Opened in 1979, open today, open forever” – the three huge eye-catching slogans on the glass wall of the independent bookstore Women &
Children First, one of the most famous feminist bookshop in the US  located in Andersonville neighborhood in Chicago, seems like telling people coming that we’ll stick here and won’t leave, however, the truth is that the bookstore had been struggling with surviving as uncountable local shops all over the world.
On Choosing Chicago website, when it comes to the introduction of Andersonville, it writes “home to one of Chicago’s largest LGBTQ+ communities and Chicago’s shop local capital” – with an array of independently owned storefronts and a conspicuous lack of anything that remotely resembles a chain store. There was indeed this quite unique, quirky and mysterious vibe in Andersonville, which is probably created by a number of the vintage furniture, second-hand toys, independent vinyl record store and LGBT-friendly shops along its old commercial street.
Women & Children First was first founded in 1979 by two students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon . They were very closely involved in the feminist movement and sensed a market need when they had a difficulty finding books by the women authors they wanted to read or use for school . The store’s bookshelves were built by
themselves and $15,000 spent by Bubon and Christophersen on stocking the store with feminist-themed material and children’s books which promoted girls as active agents. The bookstore firstly came to locate itself on Armitage Avenue in the Lakeview neighborhood; in the 1980s they decided to move the store to a location on Halstead Avenue, and settled in Andersonville in its current location in 1990 .
Contrary to their later struggles, the bookstore had grown steadily from its opening until the early 90s, clearly the financial struggles started when large bookstore chains like Barnes Noble and Powell’s Books moved into Chicago . The store adjusted by selling textbooks and making staffing changes, but when Amazon and other Internet retailers sold books for far cheaper than retail price as loss leaders in the early 2000s, Women & Children First was facing some of its hardest time.
The rise of large chain bookstores and online bookstores has seriously threatened the operation and survival of independent local bookstores like the Women & Children First. Even if these bookstores are unique and irreplaceable in their own fields, they still cannot escape the market monopoly of oligopolistic chain enterprises, even in Andersonville, a neighborhood known for being Chicago’s “shop local capital”.
Owners Bubon and Christophersen sold Women & Children First to Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck, two of the employees at the bookstore, in 2014 . The next year, extensive renovations were completed for a dedicated events and community space for author readings and community group gatherings, and a mural was created illustrating notable women authors who had spoken at the bookstore. The 2016 presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton energized tons of young feminists, increasing foot traffic and visits to the store’s website, and the store rebounded financially in the late 2010s.
The same fate happened not only to Andersonville’s bookstore, but also to many of the area’s characteristic lesbian bars. Our team and I also went to Fiya, a newly opened Middle Eastern restaurant with modern decor licated in Andersonville (Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine) and chatted with the owner, she told us “the restaurant used to be a lesbian bar, in the 90s a lot of people of the Chicago lesbian community living in Boystown (Northalsted) moved to Andersonville in search of a neighborhood of their own – to creat their own “Girlstown”, initially because of the iconic Women & Children First bookstore’s fame, and a lot of lesbian-themed bars and restaurants were opened here, but we recently took over this bar and opened this middle eastern restaurant”. “Girlstown” has seen a decline in its lesbian population, according to a recent report. Many of the neighborhood’s lesbian-centric businesses have also left over the years, but the feminist bookstore Women & Children First – the pioneer of the women’s business in the neighborhood – still remains and hosts regular events. George’s Ice Cream & Sweets, a ice-cream shop owned by the family of a legendary Andersonville businessman, closed after 13 years In Andersonville, and just around the corner, a new Starbucks opened a few months ago.
Many giant brands created during the 1st wave of globalization in the 90s, such as Starbucks, McDonald’s and other chain stores, coupled with the 2nd wave of online shopping such as Amazon at the beginning of 21st century, have both squeezed the living space of these independent local stores that Andersonville is proud of. Some very distinctive shops are still hanging in there, but when we visited these shops, such as AlleyCat Comics, a very well-known local comic store, and Woolly Mammoth, a well-known second-hand antique toy store, we did not seen many customers, even if they are the most iconic stores in the area and in their field.
Nobody really expected that the 3rd wave crisis crushing local economies was nothing commercial but a globalized pandemic. The COVID-19
pandemic having started from 2020 became the straw that broke the camel’s back for many independent local stores in Chicago. Until March 2021, Chicago lost these 361 businesses during the pandemic, and 11 out of them were located in Andersonville  including some of the most signature shops in the area like Francesca’s, Hamburger Mary’s, Passerotto and Tilly’s Vintage. The owner of Andersonville Antiques told me when I asked her why there are so many vintage stores “oh darling, there used to be much more vintage stores at Andersonville, but due to all the online shops and the pandemic, we’ve already lost many of them!”
Italy, as the frontline rebels fighting for its local cafés against Starbucks, has started to accept the American coffee giant, Starbucks; it celebrated one year in Milan in 2019, and is planning to open in more Italian cities. Like local businesses in many parts of the world, the local independent shops play a critical role for carrying the cultural and identity diversity of the local community, like Andersonville’s independent feminist bookstore, lesbian bars, vintage furniture stores and the comic book store, to name a few.In many areas, these independent stores are irreplaceable for chain stores or online shopping, because they provide a physical place for people from the same community or of the same interest to meet, know each other, and talk. This somewhat more sincere communication and relationship building between people, or business and cultural development models are impossible to be replaced. Globalization, whether it takes the form of a giant brand, internet shopping or epidemics, stifles this diversity of local cultures and identities, which is a serious problem faced by the whole world.
When Andersonville’s Joie De Vine closed during the pandemic, Chicago lost one of its only lesbian bars. What makes us happy is that last year, Nobody’s Darling, a black lesbian bar , opened not far north on Andersonville Old Street, attracting a lot of customers from the community and increasing the popularity of Andersonville’s LGBTQ and lesbian business, however, the vibe of independent local shops throughout the neighborhood is undoubtedly not as lively as it had been rumoured to be.
Coming back to the longest-lasting domestic shop, Women & Children First, on its wall inside, portraits of 15 important women authors who have read at the store are hung on there, some of the most famous female writers all over the world including Margaret Atwood (1993, 2003), Sandra Cisneros (1994, 2022) and Hilary Clinton (2003). Some were invited by bookstore owners to hold new book launches and reader meetings to attract more customers. Almost every two weeks, the bookstore will hold events related to women and feminism. These events are not only the bookstore’s signature activities, but also a way of marketing for its survival.
For its 40th anniversary in 2019, Women & Children First held a hugely well-attended block party outside the bookstore and also hosted a panel of the store’s former and current owners as well as presenting a list of the store’s top 20 all-time best-sellers, with books including My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.
Women & Children First survived the pandemic with a significant business model transformation: moving on-site
events to online seminars with world renowned authors, creating wine & books offline events, inviting family with kids in the neighborhood to painting classes, establishing its own brand of peripheral products and provide clients with more personal experiences, some of which are recommended by the MIT Business School for retail stores to survive the era of online shopping and the pandemic .
The future of the bookstore and other independent shops in Andersonville is still unclear, but at least we’re seeing the owners actively figuring out how to deal with the critic, with hope to be like what is written on their slogan – “open forever”.
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