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Women & Children First Continues Mission As Two Employees Buy Iconic Bookstore

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 17, 2014 3:30PM

From L-R: Women & Children First bookstore founders Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon, and new owners Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck. (Photo credit For Mooney and Hollenbeck: Ross Forman)

When news broke last October that Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon, founders and owners of Women & Children First bookstore in Andersonville, were looking to sell their store, hopes were among fans and customers it would maintain its independent nature and feminist focus.

It turned out Bubon and Christophersen didn’t have to look far for like-minded new owners. Lynn Mooney, Women & Children First’s current manager, and Sarah Hollenbeck, a bookseller at the store, were announced as the shop’s new co-owners Wednesday. (The Windy City Times first broke the story.)

"Women & Children First means so much to so many people."
Mooney and Hollenbeck both believed the new owners should not only continue Women & Children First’s mission, but that the buyers should have some institutional familiarity with the store. Bubon and Christophersen approached Mooney two years ago about buying the store. Hollenbeck began considering buying the store last December. Each realized they couldn’t do it alone, so they worked together and submitted a business plan.

Christophersen and Bubon began accepting business proposals last December and received eight bids to buy Women & Children First. “All of them were interesting,” Bubon told Chicagoist. “Some of the proposals were written by people with no bookstore experience. Lynn and Sarah had a lot.” They narrowed the search down to three in March and chose Mooney and Hollenbeck at the end of April. It became clear right away Mooney and Hollenbeck had a strong business plan that was in line with their wishes for new ownership. But they found more.

“Lynn and Sarah had a lot to like in their business plan,” Bubon said. “We were able to assess their capabilities from them working around the store, but what we were really impressed by was what they did outside the store. Both are heavily involved in the local writing community. Lynn’s time here has helped her set roots in the Andersonville community. Sarah is out and about all over town attending storytelling shows. Their work away from here was important to us.”

Mooney and Hollenbeck, meanwhile, had their own opinions on who should carry on Women & Children First’s mission. “Lynn and I believed strongly the new owners should come from within,” Hollenbeck said. “Women & Children First is such a neighborhood staple. We weren’t sure if an outsider would recognize the values of the bookstore, especially a feminist bookstore, and work with the community to carry on the mission.”

Indeed, both Mooney and Hollenbeck have impressive writing and publishing resumes. Mooney has over 20 years experience in the publishing industry, including working for large publishers McGraw-Hill and HarperCollins and still does freelance work. Hollenbeck holds an MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University and regularly performs at live lit events around town. Her essays tackle issues of feminism, sexuality, gender and disability. (She was born with partial paralysis of some of her cranial nerves.) Her work has appeared in TriQuarterly, In Our Words and Dogwood, where her essay “A Goldmine” won grand prize in the 2013 Dogwood Literary contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

After submitting their business plan, Mooney and Hollenbeck discovered many facets of it were ideas either originally embraced by Christophersen and Bubon at times during their ownership or wanted to implement, yet didn’t have the time or energy. “We knew what we wanted to keep and what we wanted to change,” Hollenbeck said. The most ambitious element of Mooney’s and Hollenbeck’s plan is to expand the programming at Women & Children First to include themed lectures; live lit shows that explore gender, gender bias and how it has affected women, men and transgender; a wider range of children’s events such as baby sign language; improv classes; and events where notable authors read their favorite childhood books, in addition to author readings and the store’s current programming.

“Women & Children First is such a neighborhood staple. We weren’t sure if an outsider would recognize the values of the bookstore, especially a feminist bookstore, and work with the community to carry on the mission.”
It’s all geared with an eye toward growing Women & Children First’s customer base. “Author readings are amazing and should continue, but they only draw an existing audience and don’t expand the customer base,” Hollenbeck said. “We realized as we were putting together our bid that bookstores sell less of the same products. We can’t compete with larger bookstores so we began looking at ways to increase sales once we get people in the store.”

Bubon saw parallels between the renewed focus on programming and the early days of Women & Children First. “When Ann and I opened the store in 1979, we couldn’t get authors to read in the store. Our first attempts at programming centered on monthly themes like women in trades, women in academia. We hosted poetry workshops, journaling workshops. And that’s come full circle again in Chicago. It’s interesting how, right now, storytelling and creative nonfiction in Chicago hasn’t been hotter.”

Bubon believes Mooney and Hollenbeck have the necessary skills and connections to strengthen Women & Children First’s presence and reputation in the local literary landscape. “Sarah and Lynn are hip to what’s happening regarding creative writing in Chicago the past 10 years,” Bubon said. “Columbia College’s creative writing program is huge and so influential, and you can’t walk past a university in Chicago that doesn’t have a solid writing program these days. And most writers are serious readers—it goes hand in hand.”

"We were able to assess their capabilities from them working around the store, but what we were really impressed by was what they did outside the store."
While Christophersen is looking forward to a quiet retirement, Bubon will still remain a presence at Women & Children First. “I want to be here on busy days and I’ll still be conducting my storytime shows for children,” Bubon said. “But I will have more time to read.”

Hollenbeck said she and Mooney are happy to have Bubon around. “She’ll still be doing the parts of the job she loves the best and she’s the best handseller of books I’ve ever met. There are certain longtime customers who will only work with Linda.”

Details of the sale were not disclosed but Hollenbeck said the deal should be finalized by the end of the month, and she and Mooney will officially take over as the new owners Aug. 6. The other major facet of the business plan is a long-needed renovation of the bookstore to take place in January and February. “If we’re going to expand the programming, we want to have a space that’s dedicated to hosting these events,” Hollenbeck said. “We want to create a community space that is effortless to hold events very easily.” Barring any delays, Hollenbeck and Mooney hope they can implement Women & Children First’s expanded programming next spring.

Bubon is excited for the future of Women & Children First and is confident Mooney and Hollenbeck can carry on the store’s feminist focus.

“When Ann and I first started, we kept a notebook on the counter asking customers for book suggestions to carry,” she said. “We started carrying copies of The Courage to Heal and saw we were selling out.

“Coming, from an intact, happy family, I never realized how many wounded people there were out there—children of abuse, street harassment and incest. The women’s movement just began addressing these issues. Originally we just wanted to highlight women authors and books, but that made us much more committed.”

Hollenbeck said she and Mooney are up for the challenge. "Women & Children First means so much to so many people. It's been a long road to get here and I'm ready to have this dream job. It's a huge opportunity and an honor."