Indie Feature: Charis Books and More

As Atlanta’s only feminist bookstore and the oldest in the southeast, Charis Books and More is a household name in this part of the world.

“There are probably only 10 feminist bookstores left in our country,” said Sara, Charis’ book buyer. “15 years ago there were 120.”

When I arrive, Sara and co-worker, Elizabeth, are hashing out some last-minute plans before a busy weekend of events, including their 10% off all books “Staying in Business Sale” on Saturday. Despite the rush, she’s good enough to talk to me about what it means to be a feminist bookstore.

Where does the name Charis come from?

It means grace or gift. It’s Greek, the same root at charisma or eucharist. Our co-founder Linda Bryant who founded the store in 1974 started it in this neighborhood across the street and thought of it as a gift to this community.

Could you describe your neighborhood?

Like, pretend you don’t know Little 5 Points? Okay. We’re the neighborhood of Little 5 Points, which we think of as the alternative hub of Atlanta. We have tattoo shops, bars and restaurants. We’ve been in this neighborhood the whole time and we’ve seen a lot of shifts. When the store was founded, and going into the 80s, this area, in particular Candler Park, was an area where a lot of lesbian/feminist activity and activism was going on. It has kind of shifted and moved, but in terms of being where there’s a lot of activism and progressive folks, we’re right in the heart of it.

Are your clientele mostly women?

You know, we have a really good mix of folks. I think people hear feminist bookstore and they don’t know what that means, they don’t know if they’re welcome here, if it includes everyone. A quarter of our store is dedicated to multi-cultural children’s books. So, you know, it’s a lot of women, a lot of people of color, a lot of families, a lot of queer folks and GLBTQ-identified folks and a lot of pro-feminist men who stop here and have supported us for a long time. 

What was your reaction to Borders closing?

We were sad that any bookstore had to close. We were not rejoicing. And we’re concerned about the trickle down of how it’s going to effect the book industry and publishers in general.

How is Charis faring with the changes that are happening in the publishing industry?

We’re trying to figure out what it means to be a feminist bookstore in 2011 and beyond. And really what it means to be a bookstore period. What our customers want. Because we know that customers can buy books anywhere at this point and, especially, with ebooks. And you can also buy ebooks from our website. We want people to know that we hand pick the books that are here, so really what you’re getting is an experience: staff recommendations, a curated selection of books that we think are exciting.

So what do you think readers in the 21st century will want?

Readers I think are still going to want great literature and access to books and access in any way that looks to them. Whether it’s gonna be on a gadgets or in their hands. I don’t think that the printed book is really going to go away. I think they’re going to still want community, which is something that we have certainly been part of and believe that bookstores bring that. It’s where people gather, like-minded folks. 

Are events a big part of your business model.

Oh yes. We have a sister non-profit that actually funds and does programing. The Charis Circle – this is their 15th year – and they do one to two programs every week. Some are literary or book related, and a lot are just community organizing programs. Tonight we have an event on LGBTQ legal issues, on adoption in particular. Tomorrow we have Kim Severson coming in and speaking on her book Spoon Fed. She’s a NY Times journalist who now lives in Atlanta. And we’ll be involved in the Decatur Book Festival next week so we’re all over the place.

What’s your favorite event that y’all have hosted? Can you name just one?

Every five years we do anniversary events for our birthday, so we’ve had Indigo Girls concerts, we’ve had Alice Walker come speak, we’ve had Gloria Steinem, we’ve had Leslie Feinberg, and I’ve loved all of them. So those particular anniversary events are really special.

What does the DBF mean for Charis?

We’ll have a booth that showcases books from our store on the Square, and then we will have all the books for all the events happening at the Holiday Inn, which has three venues. So we’ll have all the author events for that venue.

What authors are you excited about?

I’m excited about Karen Russel who wrote Swamplandia!, which I have not read yet but I’m excited to read. And I’m excited about the keynotes. Again, I have not read Wildwood yet, but I want to.

What are some books you’ve read recently that you’re eager to press into customers’ hands?

I’m almost finished with Taste of Salt, Martha Southgate’s new novel. It’s a novel about a black scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic institute, and about being the only black scientist there. She’s married to a white man. It’s also about her family’s journey through addiction. It’s been really good so far. I’m also about to read Ready Player One, now that Elizabeth has just finished it. My daughter and I are reading When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead – we like to read a book out loud together. Oh! And the Magician King, which is the sequel to The Magicians. We heard Lev Grossman speak at the Festival last year and I love him. And the sequel is just as good as the first one. We have signed copies of that and we’ve been doing well here.

So you don’t just sell feminist literature?

We have a very broad definition of feminism.

What is your definition?

It’s not static. We believe in liberation and equality for all people, in the broadest sense of the world. And that’s not just about women; it’s about people from all different ethnicities and nationalities, it includes families and children and folks from all different walks of life.

Have you seen that term change over the years in the store?

Yes. We have certain guidelines about what we look for when we order for the store and they kind of stretch and grow. We say we have multi-cultural children’s books and that’s also, to us, broadly defined, because we’re limited to what available, but we want children and parents to reflect their lives no matter what they look like or what kind of family they have.

Thanks, Sara! Charis Books will be at the Holiday Inn Conference Centers for the Decatur Book Festival, so be sure to stop by and say “hello.” 

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