Long Live Sisterhood Bookstore
by Jenni "Emiko" Kuida


Last month, I was dismayed when I read an e-mail that the Sisterhood Bookstore may be closing at the end of July. For 26 years, the Sisterhood Bookstore based in Westwood, has sold books by and about women, feminists, gays and lesbians and especially, women of color. So what does that have to do with this column?

Since the closure of Amerasia Bookstore in the early 90s which was housed in Little Tokyo for more than 20 years, I have been able to find books at Sisterhood about Asian American women that I couldn’t find in the mainstream stores. While I never had the chance to go to Amerasia Bookstore when it was open, it is definitely something that I would have treasured.

Like Amerasia, Sisterhood Bookstore has always represented more than just books on a shelf. Small independent bookstores have been a place for art, culture, politics and community to meld together. Both stores opened in the early 70s, at a time when people involved in the Asian American movement as well as the Women’s movement felt the need to have books that reflected their own histories and experiences. These bookstores were about having a space and a place that was for the community - they were a part of the movement for social change.

Back in the day, Amerasia held "Women In Concert" shows, and jazz concerts with groups like Hiroshima, and folk singers Chris Iijima and Charlie Chin. They served as places for Asian American artists and activists to gather and hang out. Later on, they held fundraisers when things were tight for the bookstore. Many times over the years, the Asian American community came together and organized to help out the bookstore. As a collective in the early days, many people like Evelyn Yoshimura, Johnny Mori, Jenny Chomori, George Abe and countless others volunteered to staff the bookstore, and write letters when the rent was going up.

I remember about five or six years ago, sitting on the curb outside of the Sisterhood Bookstore, listening to small stereo speakers pointed towards the street, while Alice Walker, author of "The Color Purple," spoke inside to a room packed full of people who had come to hear her read. There were as many people outside the store listening, as there were inside the store. There was a feeling of camaraderie and "sisterhood," even though I didn’t know anyone there.

And now in 1999, the owners of the Sisterhood Bookstore, Adele and Simone Wallace are trying to raise money to reopen with new owners, or move the store to a new location. They have said that they need $200,000 in order to stay open. The community has responded with fundraisers to show potential buyers that Sisterhood is an important resource, supported by the community.

I got a chance to hear Simone Wallace at a poetry reading/fundraiser for Sisterhood Bookstore a few weeks ago in Venice. She said that the rise of on-line book purchases has hurt small independent bookstores. The sheer volume of sales allows internet companies like Amazon.com to offer better prices than the independents.

But the main problem has been the mega-bookstore chains like the hugely popular Barnes & Nobles, and the Borders of the world. When the chain stores target small bookstores by intentionally locating them across the street from the independents, it has a direct impact on places like Sisterhood.

I remember one day I was driving around, looking for parking at Sisterhood, but the streets were jammed with cars and people lining up around the block to attend a Howard Stern book signing at the Borders across the street. Although you probably won’t find Howard Stern’s book at Sisterhood, you will find a wide array of non-sexist books, and books promoting cultural and ethnic diversity.

On the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, the Midnight Special Bookstore, another long-time bookstore also faces similar problems with both Borders and Barnes & Noble which have opened within walking distance of Midnight Special. Midnight Special is another gem, that offers a pretty good selection of books about Asian Americans, and has a nice space for book readings and signings.

Midnight Special sponsors monthly Asian American Erotica poetry readings and open mikes, and I have also seen Asian American community activists like Sue Kunitomi Embrey and Grace Lee Boggs at book signings and talks at Midnight Special. Owners of Midnight Special say that despite their efforts, book sales have been affected by the addition of the two chain stores.

In corporate chain stores, where they offer espresso and as many as 150,000 book titles in 30,000 square foot stores (compared to maybe 20,000 titles and 2,000 square foot indies), it’s all about profitability. According to the Sisterhood website, "While a chain store may carry some of the same titles we do, perhaps at a lower price, profit is always their bottom line, not the concepts and values in the books they are selling. The gender and lesbian studies section in a chain store will disappear the moment it ceases to be profitable... Sisterhood Bookstore is a community resource that stands up for women’s and gay rights whether or not it is popular to do so."

What scares me is that Sisterhood and other specialty bookstores have supported unknown authors, small and alternative press and low volume publications for decades, but corporate book stores are more interested in what sells. This trend could also mean the demise of small publishers and the type of writers they support. Asian American studies and womens’ studies have been built on these smaller presses.

I don’t have $200,000 to save Sisterhood Bookstore, but I can encourage people to stop into Sisterhood Bookstore, buy a few books, or make a donation. If you’ve never been to Sisterhood Bookstore, you should check it out. Or, if you miss Amerasia Bookstore, here’s a chance to support another struggling organization, one that has not changed its vision or mission since it opened.

And it doesn’t have to stop there. Instead of shopping at corporatized Ralphs or Vons (the way things are going it will probably someday be called Ral-Vons), you can support small family businesses by shopping at Aloha Grocery, Enbun Market, small independent health food stores or the local Farmers Market. Sometimes, where and how you choose to spend your money is more important than you think. It’s like having a vote, and a voice.

Sisterhood Bookstore is located at 1351 Westwood Boulevard in West Los Angeles. But you better get there quick, because another independent bookstore is on the line.

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Jenni Emiko Kuida is a longtime customer of Sisterhood Bookstore. For more info about Sisterhood Bookstore, their website is : http://www2.sisterhood.com. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo.


Originally published in The Rafu Shimpo, June 2, 1999

Updated: 11/10/02

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