It’s no accident that Charis Books & More is the oldest independent feminist bookstore in the South and one of the oldest bookstores in Atlanta. It’s not luck either. As society’s understanding of feminism, sexuality, gender and race has evolved over the last 45 years, so has Charis, and that is the secret to its success.
When the store opened in Little Five Points in 1974, it wasn’t considered a feminist bookstore; it was simply a bookstore owned by two women, Linda Bryant and Barbara Borgman. It was their commitment to serve the community’s needs that set them on their course to create a cultural center for feminists, the LGBTQ community and people of color.
And now Charis has begun a new chapter. In April, the store moved to Decatur and began a partnership with Agnes Scott College.
It was a “perfect storm” that brought the two entities together, said Ken England, CFO of the private women’s liberal arts school.
“We were with a traditional bookseller through Follett,” said England. “Follett had an on-campus presence where they sold textbooks and T-shirts and the normal gamut of supplies.”
When Follett decided to transition to online textbook sales only, it created a dilemma for Agnes Scott.
“We realized it was going to leave a void in terms of on-campus merchandise sales and pop-up sales for admission events and fundraising events,” said England. “At the same time, Charis was looking for a location and a different model that was more profitable. The stars aligned, and we were able to provide them with a space. It was a mutual investment … and a collaborative effort with renovations.”
Both England and Sara Luce Look, co-owner of Charis, say the partnership has been a learning experience, but all signs indicate a promising future.
“We had our grand reopening on Alumnae Weekend for Agnes Scott, and we didn’t quite get how huge that would to be,” said Look. “Agnes Scott has a new president, and it was her inauguration that weekend. It was also independent bookstore day. We had the biggest sales day we’ve ever had.”
The new location, which is in a former house, did not increase the store’s footprint, but the layout makes it seem bigger, said Look.
“The whole back of the store, what we’re calling the reading room, is our programming space. It has a couch and chairs and tables where people can hang out during the day, and we can do programming. Charis Circle actually has space to do programs during the day without having to close the store and move the furniture.”
Charis Circle is a nonprofit organization that programs speakers and events at the store. It’s run by E.R. Anderson, the only other full-time employee at Charis.
“It’s a beautiful space. People walk in and say, this feels like home,” said Look.
The new store also has a large front porch, a huge parking lot and is more handicap accessible than the previous space.
“It was very hard to leave Little Five Points,” said Look. “But even though we were in Little Five Points for 45 years, many folks didn’t even know we were there. We were still the best kept little secret. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when we got here, but we’re busy all day long. People are finding us.”
Charis is still adjusting to the academic calendar. With the approach of August, traditionally a slow month for book sales, the store is gearing up for orientation and fall classes.
“We’re not sure how that will unfold,” said Look. “We’re interested in working with student groups and working with faculty. We have a whole section devoted to books by Agnes Scott professors and alumnae.”
Look is eager to welcome Agnes Scott students who might not have ventured into a feminist bookstore were it not to buy a T-shirt or water bottle with the school’s name emblazoned on it.
“As a feminist bookstore, we want to be an opening and welcoming and inclusive space for all different kinds of ideas, and part of that is drawing in people who don’t know what feminism is or are exploring their gender or their sexuality or white folks who are trying to grapple with their racism,” said Look. “And because the majority of our customers are people of color, the majority of our books are by, for and about people of color, especially our children’s books.”
Look credits the store’s longevity to its ability to change and adapt, and she sees the move as another step toward relevance and sustainability.
“Feminism is ever-evolving. Intersectionality is such a buzz word right now, and that is what Charis has always embraced,” she said. “Charis has also had to grapple with issues of race and racism. We had to be at the forefront of working on issues about disability and transgender issues and trans politics. I think that’s where a lot of stores got stymied over the years. It’s been hard, and we’ve worked on a lot of stuff, and we keep working on it so it’s not stagnant.
“We’re also truly multi-generational,” said Look. “(Co-founder Linda Bryant, who still works at the store part time,) is in her early 70s now, and she really did a good job of training me so I could be the next generation. And now we’re working on our next generations.”
The main thing Luce wants Charis’ long-time regulars to know is that everything in terms of inventory and programming remains the same in the new location.
“I keep telling people, everything is still here,” said Look. “And what we’ve added is Agnes Scott merchandise and snacks and sundries. We now have tampons and Advil. We have Starburst and Twizzlers. Which I can’t quite believe — the students and the Agnes Scott folks love it, but our regular customers are thrilled. I had no idea what a feminist bookstore needed was snacks.”
Cliterati Open Mic, 7:30 p.m. July 18
Yoga, Noon, July 21 and July 28
Race-Conscious Parenting, 6 p.m. July 24
Black Feminist Book Club, 7 p.m. July 25
Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism, 7:30 p.m. July 29