Re-booting the feminist bookstore

Photo by Sam Schuyler

Wild Iris opened in 1992 — 10 years after Gainesville’s landmark feminist stronghold, Womanstore (then called Amelia’s), lost its federal funding and closed. In the early ‘80s, local conservatives had discovered that Womanstore was publishing a feminist newsletter and using the space to organize protests and demonstrations. They took their complaints to the state legislature, scandalized that federal money was being used for “political action.” When the legislature walked back the store’s support, its means of staying afloat vanished. Womanstore’s story soon became the rule.

All across the country in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, feminist bookstores shut down after government funding disappeared, usually after someone got wind that the small businesses were affiliated with feminism. Donna Loercher sued the Small Business Administration for denying her a loan on the grounds that calling her mail catalogue, Feminist Book Mart, “non-sexist” constituted an unviable political statement. Sally Owen and Carol Levin, who planned to open Judith’s Room in New York City, were denied a loan by the SBA on the grounds that their goods were “too specialized.” In 1988, the SBA refused to grant a loan to Grand Books in Wyoming in 1988, saying that because their wares were considered “political” they needed to get state approval first. Wyoming, unsurprisingly, denied its approval. Eventually, the SBA ended its programs for women- and minority-led businesses altogether.

When Wild Iris opened in the early ‘90s, feminist bookstores were going through a renewed vigor that came from a nation-wide shift in business model. They couldn’t, after all, rely on state funding anymore, so to stick around, bookstores had to adapt. Wild Iris expanded Amelia’s catalogue of 1,100 books to 10,000 and set up close ties with the University of Florida’s Women’s Studies department. Students needed textbooks and readings for class, and at the time feminist bookstores like Wild Iris were the only place to find classic and new feminist texts.

Today, Wild Iris is still going, after five leadership changes and relocation. For the past 23 years, the store has held its own in a city that drew international condemnation in 2011 after a crazy pastor threatened to burn a bunch of Qurans and in a state where a quarter of women didn’t have access to health insurance in 2014 — which is to say, despite everything.

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A lot of this success has to do with Rodriguez Merrell, who has spent the past seven years as co-owner making sure the store provides a safe place for marginalized women. “My nature is to fight for the underdogs,” she said. “That’s what I do.”

Rodriguez Merrell sells books, of course, but she is also the store’s resident counselor, program organizer, cheerleader, sister in the struggle, and driving force. She is the kind of person who knows the store’s catalogue by heart and makes a parlor trick out of locating books without reference. There’s a quality in the way she talks and acts that is both gentle and educational.

“I like to think that people have little holes in them,” she said. “And I have a bunch of extra love. So I’m just going to go in and plug in your holes while you’re not looking. That’s my job.”

For decades, people went to feminist bookstores because they knew that they could find support on issues that more mainstream institutions did not or could not provide. In the ‘70s, people went seeking referrals to safe abortionists and good gynecologists; they came even for pregnancy tests. Jim Schultz, one of the founding members of Pride and Prejudice Books in Chicago, remembers this unique convergence of retail, counseling and medical services in Anne Enke’s Finding the Movement.

“We just had this one fridge, and they just kept putting the piss anywhere, and we kept asking to have one shelf for piss and one shelf for food, to have a little segregation in the fridge,” Schultz said.

The bookstores didn’t charge for these services. To do so would undercut their essential philosophies: people before profit. Darlene Pagano of Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco, which closed down in 1995, told Onosaka in her book, Feminist Revolution in Literacy, that half of the calls to their store had nothing to do with their stock.

“If there was a way to charge 25 cents per inquiry and $1 for the binders,” she said, referring to the compiled listings of community information they had at hand, “there would have never been a financial problem. We might even own this building.”

At Wild Iris when the married woman confessed her quandary, Rodriguez Merrell set her up with the people at Gainesville’s Pride Center. But she also talked the woman through her panic, providing a supportive and nonjudgmental presence.

“Vulnerable and safe,” she said. “When you can combine those two pieces, that is a real space, I think, for magic to happen.”

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What Wild Iris means by creating a safe space for women has changed. When Rodriguez Merrell took over in 2009, the store had come from a history of being primarily, if not almost exclusively, lesbian-oriented. For the past seven years, she has spent most of her time steering Wild Iris into the modern conversation—specifically including trans women. Cisgender lesbians enjoy more safety today to speak out and openly about their experiences than they did when feminist bookstores got their start in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But their transgender peers still face severe marginalization and physical violence. The reality of living as a trans woman means encountering catcalling, heckling and rape threats on a daily basis, which trans activist Yocheved Zenaida-Cohen said is the norm for a trans woman navigating Gainesville, the South, the country at large.

“One thing I try to remind people is that when [Wild Iris] was an all-exclusive, separatist lesbian space, it’s because it was not safe [to be a lesbian],” Zenaida-Cohen, said. “And I’m well aware that we have a long way to go, obviously.

Rodriguez Merrell wants Wild Iris to muck up the gendered boxes. In fact, when two trans activists in the city approached her about starting the Trans Affairs Office to meet the specific needs of trans women, she agreed to provide the space and resources.

In the past, Wild Iris only offered a few trans resources, including an infrequent support group. Zenaida-Cohen noticed that the trans community needed more than occasional meetings there and at the Pride Center of North Central Florida where she worked. These places were supposed to offer resources for trans people, but that usually meant a contact list of the same five people. Many of the therapists and doctors on those lists were unaffordable for people living paycheck to paycheck like Zenaida-Cohen was, and even more weren’t trained in the kind of political thought that attuned them to a trans person’s experience.

The feminism Wild Iris was built upon felt outdated; the next step, in Rodriguez Merrell’s view, was to change and accommodate a broader conception of women’s empowerment.

“The minute you think you’re done learning, you’re just not even in the fight anymore,” Rodriguez Merrell said. “The minute you think you have all the answers, then you’ve stopped listening.”

With Rodriguez Merrell’s support and guidance, Zenaida-Cohen and Scout Ashtyn, also a trans activist, started Wild Iris’ Trans Affairs, pulling together a group of trans activists to develop programming that catered to the needs of trans women. They’ve created partnerships with local endocrinologists for hormone treatment, started new support groups and ventured into electrolysis training. They plan to connect donors to people who need surgeries and connect people who can provide space with those who need homes. And then there is, of course, the bookstore’s most popular event, the Free Store.

Every two weeks, a line of garbage bags lopsided and lumpy with donated goods issues from vans and trucks into the Wild Iris’ courtyard. It takes a small group of women to break all of them open and sort the wares, spilling the contents onto folding tables and assembling them into neat piles: used clothing, shoes, toiletries, appliances.

Although the free items are available to the general public, the Free Store event began back in 2014 to provide local trans people with easy access to pricey goods like makeup, chest binders and breast forms in a discrete space, where they could be sampled and experimented with safe from prying eyes or bothersome inquiries. A common complaint among trans women is the aggressive looks they’ll receive trying on makeup in malls and the polite directions toward the opposite gender’s section of clothing stores—micro-aggressions that make living as a trans person exhausting, frustrating, and sometimes dangerous.

Zenaida-Cohen started up the Trans Affairs Office last year, but she met Rodriguez Merrell back in 2012 at Wild Iris’ old location, where they somehow started talking about Zenaida-Cohen’s weave, which now hangs to her chin in a thick cloud of frothy white curls. But back then she was still building it up, and she covered the thin area near her scalp—cleverly, she thought—with a hat. Rodriguez Merrell had quickly identified the ruse and sympathized. Zenaida-Cohen said it was refreshing to have a sisterhood with Rodriguez where they could talk freely about Black women stuff, ensconced in a space that celebrates women of color.

“She’s been able to hold so much space for women of color in a movement that is so successfully co-opted on behalf of assimilation into white patriarchy,” Zenaida-Cohen said. “I’m just glad that there’s this really baller Afro-Latina woman running Wild Iris.”Where many cisgendered activists may have good intentions but ultimately steal the stage from the trans folks they’re trying to help, Zenaida-Cohen says Rodriguez Merrell is different.

“She was very, very clear from the beginning, ‘Y’all belong here; this is your space. I don’t know what trans liberation looks like. You do,’” Zenaida-Cohen said. “I think that’s what we all have to do as organizers — hand over the keys to people who have less power than us in day-to day-life and say, ‘OK, my name’s on it, but this is for you, and you let me know if there’s a problem.’”

In the beginning, Trans Affairs struggled to garner attention or even foot traffic to events. The team was, after all, a wobbly tripod: Rodriguez Merrell, Zenaida-Cohen and Ashtyn came up with programming and executed everything, but as Zenaida-Cohen pointed out, she and Ashtyn are disabled and very poor. They could hardly devote all of their time nursing life into the program. "And then something amazing happened,” she said. “It just came to life; stopped being something that we had to do CPR on every day.”

To have a place that is public, downtown and welcoming for trans folks was needed—but for the space to be partially managed and run by trans folks who hold the reins to their own resources like is the case with Wild Iris is exceptional.

“If you are able to dictate the rules, the decorum of a space, you are able to insulate yourself from certain trauma,” she said. “That’s something really important about what Wild Iris does.” Providing a safe space for women, broadly conceived, remains a constitutive part of Wild Iris’ mission.

“We can’t stop all of it, but in our walls we can operate how we choose,” Rodriguez Merrell said. “When someone crosses that gate—if someone is on the other side messing with you, we’ve got you.”