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Selling Sisterhood

Melinkoff is a local free - lance writer.

When they opened Sisterhood Bookstore 20 years ago, Adele Wallace and Simone Wallace weren’t sure there would be enough books for, about and/or by women to make a go of it.

That thought makes them laugh these days. Their shelves are packed--and meticulously labeled according to subject matter. Body image. Literary criticism. Aging. Sexuality. Childbirth. Poetry. Biography. Chicana literature. Lesbian literature. Science fiction. Co-dependency. Battering. Spirituality. Travel. Sports. Politics of health.

Despite being in a city and an era that has seen many independent booksellers go under, the two have managed not only to survive but to provide a sense of community for customers. Now they’re opening a second store in Santa Monica--and all this without previous bookselling experience.

For their original store, they chose a store name that plays on both their focus and their relationship--not sisters, but former sisters-in-law. When they started, both were young mothers and activists in the women’s movement. As part of their involvement at the Crenshaw Women’s Center, they ordered books on women’s issues. It was far from real bookstore work, but it did convince them that there was a need for a store that specialized in these topics.

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They opened in, and soon outgrew, a tiny storefront on Westwood Boulevard. Within a few months they settled in their present location a few blocks north, a place they consider perfect because of its good corner visibility and proximity to UCLA. It also permitted them to expand into adjoining space a few years ago.

“In the early years, a lot of our clientele were women who identified themselves as part of the women’s movement,” Adele says. “We got a lot of students and women in their 20s. Much of our business was, and still is, through word of mouth. Now there’s a much broader age range browsing in the shop. It’s also more multiracial.”

They also suffered the occasional but (to them) predictable male customer who would “act stupid and expect to get attention,” says Simone. “They’d say, ‘Do you allow men in here?’ and ‘I guess I’m just a male chauvinist pig.’ That never happens any more. Now men feel at home.” The booksellers have tried to make men feel more comfortable by devoting a section to the men’s movement, but have found they sell few books in this specialty. Nonetheless, they continue to offer them.

It was mostly, but not exclusively, women who packed the store to celebrate the 20th anniversary one recent weekend. Dozens of women writers read from their works in two five-hour sessions. The crowds and the speakers reflected the store’s diverse appeal: Filipina novelists, lesbian poets, translators of works from Spanish.

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In the store’s early days, the best- sellers were the classics in the field: Robin Morgan’s “Sisterhood Is Powerful,” and “Our Bodies, Ourselves” by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, both of which are still in print and selling well. “We get customers of all ages asking for ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ ” says Adele. New classics are added all the time, such as Susan Faludi’s “Backlash” and “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf.

Over the years, the two booksellers have seen trends come and go. Ten years ago, there was a great interest in reading about eating disorders. “For a while . . . we were practically the only store that had books on bulimia and anorexia,” says Adele. After that, there was a proliferation of interest--and publishing--in the subject of violence against women. While books on domestic violence have been selling well for about 10 years, it’s only in the last three years that they’ve seen a strong interest in reading about incest.

A section of the store has always been devoted to lesbian titles. Now this area has been broken down into many sub-sections such as Parenting and Coming Out. Then there’s a hot new genre: lesbian mysteries.

The mystery genre, in fact, has been “taken over by women writers,” says Simone. “There have always been women mystery writers like Agatha Christie and P.D. James, but now writers like Sue Grafton have brought women’s consciousness to the field. Seeing a dead body or killing someone is not just all in a day’s work. Grafton will write several paragraphs about how her character felt afterward.”

The latest trends? Science-fiction by and about women. And women’s spirituality is a very broad, and popular, category that includes books on black goddesses as well as books that redefine the concepts of witchcraft.

These days every bookstore in the country carries the menopause books by Gail Sheehy and Germaine Greer. The once-embarrassing subject is now big in publishing circles, on best-seller lists, and grist for the TV-talk-show mill. Sisterhood has always had a menopause section. “Before Gail Sheehy, it was ‘Women of the 14th Moon’ and ‘Menopause: A Positive Approach,’ ” Adele reports. “Both are longtime steady sellers in our store.”

Adele is delighted with the growth of women’s fiction--for personal reasons as well as business ones. “I love novels. When we started there were very few that showed women as total human beings. There’s been such incredible growth in this area. Obscure novels can sell well here when someone on the staff has read and taken a shine to them,” she adds. Recently, Ella Leffland’s “Rumors of Peace” and Paule Marshall’s “Brown Girl, Brownstone” have been highly touted by readers behind the register.

There have been topics, and specific books, the two partners have had different opinions on over the years. Adele was against carrying Madonna’s sex tome. Simone prevailed. But it was placed behind the counter rather than in the window.

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The store feels like a clubhouse. Readings frequently are held in the back area where movable bookcases are pushed to the side and chairs set up. These events attract from five to 500 (the big turnouts have been for comedian Lily Tomlin, novelist Alice Walker and poet Adrienne Rich). Gloria Steinem’s appearance this week is expected to pack the house (see Book Calendar, Page 14).

The postings room, a small side area, is “our donation to the women’s community,” says Simone. “Sometimes people come just to look at flyers.” The store gets frequent phone calls asking where to find help in handling problems of rape, emergency housing and domestic violence. Adele and Simone keep referral information handy and take this part of their work as seriously as they do ordering books.

Buoyed by these 20 successful years, Adele and Simone have just opened Books on the Edge, located in the space once occupied by Revolution Books. It won’t be Sisterhood II but a more general bookstore; “General progressive” is a term they’re both comfortable with. But while Books on the Edge will stock books for both men and women, don’t expect to find Lee Iacocca’s autobiography or Danielle Steel’s romances. Not even behind the counter.

Sisterhood Bookstore, 1351 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024, (310) 477-7300. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

Books on the Edge, 2433 Main St., Santa Monica, CA 90405, (310) 399-3399. Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.


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