Women & Children First and Sem Co-op are under new management | Bleader

Women & Children First and Sem Co-op are under new management

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Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck, new owners of Women & Children First
  • Women & Children First
  • Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck, new owners of Women & Children First
Bookselling has never been a sure way to unfathomable riches, but if you were going to take over an independent bookstore, there have been worse times than the present. Particularly if you're going to take over a beloved neighborhood institution like Women & Children First in Andersonville or the Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books in Hyde Park. Barnes & Noble is fading and Borders—always the dominant chain in Chicago—is gone, and, in some neighborhoods anyway, patronizing local businesses is considered a civic virtue.

At least that's what Sarah Hollenbeck and Lynn Mooney, who purchased Women & Children First last July from its original owners, Ann Christopherson and Linda Bubon, and Jeff Deutsch, who took over as director of the Sem Co-op stores July 1, are hoping.

"It's a dream come true," says Hollenbeck, who, like Mooney, was a customer at Women & Children First for years before she started working there. "But I don't sleep anymore."

Christopherson and Bubon chose Hollenbeck and Mooney as their successors not just because both were longtime employees familiar with the store's operations and its mission, but also because of their business plan, which involves an extensive renovation that will create a dedicated events and community space. Hollenbeck and Mooney will reveal the plan at 10 AM tomorrow during a ceremony in which Alderman Harry Osterman will unveil an honorary street sign at the corner of Clark and Farragut, a tribute to the store's 35 years in the neighborhood.

(For the record, while Hollenbeck has no confirmation that Women & Women First, the fictional bookstore in Portlandia, was named after her store, she has heard that Fred Armisen lived in Edgewater during his days at iO. "I imagine he must have seen the bookstore and it got into his brain.")

"We're going to have a more efficient floor plan," Hollenbeck says. "It will be less cluttered, with a more intimate feel." The way the store is arranged now, readings and other events all take place in the center. Booksellers have to move shelves to accommodate folding chairs, and shoppers who aren't interested in the reading have a hard time navigating through the crowd; during events, the store essentially shuts down. With the new floor plan, though, the books will be in the front of the store, with the events in the back, farther from the door.

They're also planning to make changes in the way the store is run. "We looked at the books when we bought the store," Hollenbeck says, "and decided we need a more sustainable business model." The best way to make more money, they agreed, was to get more people into the store by nontraditional means. In addition to readings, Women & Children First will start hosting a wider range of events: writing workshops, support groups, mixers for different communities (Hollenbeck herself is active in the disabled community, and Andersonville has a large LGBQT population), bridal and baby showers, and children's story time birthday parties. Once people get through the door, they reason, they might be more inspired to buy books. At the very least, it will turn the store into a neighborhood hub that provides, as Hollenbeck puts it, "intangible things beyond books."

This all, of course, costs money, which Hollenbeck and Mooney hope to raise through an IndieGoGo campaign. They're asking for $35,000, a considerable investment from their community. "A lot of people come up to me on the street," Hollenbeck says, "and say, 'Thank you for buying the store.' I always get a little choked up. But we can't save the store without people shopping there, coming to events, sharing our Tweets and Facebook posts. The community is so integral to our sustenance and survival. We need your help saving the store."

Jeff Deutsch, director of the Sem Co-op stores
Changes are also imminent at the Sem Co-op stores, but planning is still in the very early stages, says Deutsch. His predecessor as director, Jack Cella, had the job for 43 years. Deutsch is new not only to the store, but to Chicago: previously, he ran the campus bookstores at Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley. "To be completely frank," he says, "in this initial time, I've been listening and learning about the community."

Hyde Parkers still consider the Sem Co-op and 57th Street Books essential to the neighborhood, but they are also susceptible to the siren call of Amazon and the convenience of buying a book for a Kindle and getting to read it two minutes later without even having to get off the couch. "We weathered quite a storm over the past five years," Deutsch says. "We're not healthy. We need to regain our lost customers." An additional obstacle is the Co-op's specialization in academic titles. These books usually have a higher cover price, and their primary audience—students—balks at buying them new.

Like Hollenbeck, Deutsch believes the best way to do that is to lure people into the store, not just for the express purpose of buying books, but with more frequent and varied events. He plans to reveal more changes over the next few months.

"The bookstore is a business," he says, "but it's about cultural value. That's the point of keeping bookstores around. There's fulfillment from browsing. No algorithm can do that. It's a social experience. That's the value of the books we carry. A huge part of the community gets that. They understand and support us. No one else out there does what we do."

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