Overview

Open from 1975 to 1987, Womanbooks was the second feminist bookstore in New York City. It sold books written, published, and printed by women, many of which could not be found in mainstream bookstores, including many titles on lesbianism and female sexuality.

The bookstore doubled as a women’s center where women could gather regardless of sexuality, race, or political affiliation.

Header Photo

Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2019.

On the Map

History

Opened in 1975, Womanbooks increased the visibility of feminist literature and created a space for women to embrace womanhood in all forms. Three women — lovers Eleanor Batchelder and Karyn London, as well as Fabi Romero-Oak — founded the bookstore with the belief that there should be a women’s bookstore in every neighborhood. Womanbooks was first located in a superintendent’s apartment in a single-room hotel at 255 West 92nd Street. In 1976, the bookstore moved to a larger and more visible corner store on the ground floor of an apartment building on Amsterdam Avenue and West 92nd street a few doors down from Joan Nestle’s apartment (the original site of the Lesbian Herstory Archives). The bookstore was easily identified by its distinctive red sign.

Womanbooks was the second feminist bookstore in New York City and the first feminist bookstore in the city to be inclusive of all women. Lesbian feminists opened Labyris, a bookstore with a lesbian separatist agenda, in Greenwich Village in 1972. The owners of Womanbooks came from diverse backgrounds and wanted their store to be welcoming to all women regardless of race, sexual preference, age, marital status, or political affiliation. They made a “concerted effort to represent all viewpoints rather than one of [the store’s] own” and encouraged older women and women of color to apply for jobs at Womanbooks.

The store carried over 6,000 non-sexist and non-racist books written, printed, and published by and for women, many of which were unavailable at mainstream bookstores or libraries. The store is widely credited with helping grow Women’s Studies as an academic discipline since students and scholars visited the bookstore to purchase and consult texts that they could not access elsewhere. It also distributed vital information to and support for women who felt uncomfortable asking for texts on rape, abortion, or women’s health elsewhere. The store carried a range of children’s books, all of which excluded characters adhering to traditional gender roles. Their books on lesbianism moved beyond sexuality and explored lesbian history, music, motherhood, law, and religion, among many other topics. Through a Lesbian Catalog and Womanbooks Review, the influence of these books diffused to thousands of subscribers across the country. Womanbooks also carried women’s magazines, music, and posters.

Womanbooks was more than just a bookstore:

“It’s not a supermarket of books. It’s a women’s center disguised as a bookstore… It’s a place to meet, chat, connect, find out about resources, find refuge and comfort. It’s a place where the needs of women and children come first and hopefully all women and children feel comfortable.”
Karyn London, co-owner of Womanbooks, 1984

Women were welcome to sit in the store, enjoy time with their family in the children’s corner, and utilize the books as resources even if they did not intend to purchase them. Music performed by women played in the background, and the owners invited women to “come have a cup of coffee with us” in the back room. Womanbooks frequently hosted free events, including concerts, book signings, a volleyball league, workshops, films, and poetry readings. Many lesbian poets and authors, including Audre Lorde and Kady Van Deurs, spoke here. The bookstore also supported and partnered with other women’s and lesbians’ organizations, such as the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Womanbooks, according to author, activist, and customer Karla Jay, became “part of the social fabric of the community.”

By the mid-1980s, numerous other woman-owned businesses had opened near the bookstore. Womanbooks closed in 1987 due to lack of sales, primarily resulting from women using the store as a gathering space without making purchases.

This entry was written by project consultant Emily Kahn.

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