After 45 years in Atlanta’s Little Five Points, Charis Books & More, one of the nation’s oldest independent feminist and LGBTQ bookstore, is beginning a new chapter at its home on the campus of Agnes Scott College in downtown Decatur. While the distance between the two sites measures just over four miles, the move represents the end of an era -- and the beginning of a new history.
The new store at 184 South Candler St. opened April 1 and is across the street from the historical women’s college in a Victorian-style house that mimics the once-purple house where Charis was located for the past 20 years in the heart of L5P. The store’s first 20 years were located in a small storefront at 419 Moreland Avenue where, if you look closely, you can still find “Dykes rule” etched into the sidewalk in front of the store from more than 40 years ago.
Selling books has always been the business of Charis, but a few years after opening doors in 1974, the bookstore became the place for lesbian feminists, LGBTQ activists and other marginalized people to discover likeminded people and to be accepted as themselves.
“That first space was so sacred,” says co-owner Angela Gabriel, who has been with Charis for about 20 years. “I hear the stories of how people who felt they didn’t have a space could be among people like themselves, and they could be physically safe, not just emotionally safe.”
In its early years, Charis was a home for lesbian activism, where marches and protests were organized. Charis continued to keep it queer and through the years the store became a place where transgender students found community through meeting groups, where black queer women authors sold their books and held book and poetry readings for their fans, and where genderqueer children picked up a book and saw themselves reflected in the pages.
Noted authors and activists including Gloria Steinem, Octavia Butler, Leslie Feinberg, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Alice Walker and Dorothy Allison visited Charis in L5P and read from their books, spoke with the community and inspired a generation of activists. That tradition has continued with Charis hosting contemporary authors including Angie Thomas, New York best-selling author of “The Hate U Give,” and Jacob Tobia, author of the memoir, “Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story.”
None of these traditions will change at the new home, promises ER Anderson, executive director of Charis Circle, the nonprofit arm of the bookstore charged with programming and author events. Charis will always be a home for independent and marginalized voices, and a popular education center for intersectional feminist justice, Anderson says.
What will change is that now as part of Agnes Scott, Charis is selling university spirit gear as well as snacks and drinks. This ensures a steady stream of customers and a new source of revenue for the bookstore, creating a sustainable model to keep the store’s doors open well into the future, Anderson says.
Despite the digital age and a sharp decline in the number of independent feminist and LGBTQ bookstores across the country -- there are now approximately 13 remaining, including Charis, according to Anderson -- last year’s book sales were the best Charis has recorded in two decades.
“People are coming back to independent bookstores and finding they still want independent and feminist bookstores and queer bookstores,” says Sara Luce Look, Charis co-owner. “There is a whole new generation.”
The current political climate and the divisive nature of social media has contributed to the reawakening of some people, especially white women who live in the metro Atlanta suburbs, seeking community and seeking books to read for information as they face issues new to them about racism and combating racism, Anderson says.
Many readers are also finding that switching off the part of the brain that is consumed by digital media to instead read longform paper books is necessary to protect a cognitive part of their brains, Anderson adds.
Twitter and Instagram have also changed the literary and publishing world because authors seem more accessible to their fans. When an author comes to an event with a built in social media following, those fans want to actually meet their favorites IRL and buy their books.
“With social media, people are seeing an array of a lot more diverse and queer and feminist books being published … than there has been in a long time,” Look says. “Then they come here and see these books and more on our shelves in a way they do not see in other bookstores.”
Charis will celebrate its grand re-opening on April 27 as part of the celebration of Independent Bookstore Day. The celebration includes a ribbon cutting and will take place from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, check out Charis Books & More on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pg/CharisBooks.
Dyana Bagby is an Atlanta journalist. She loves to doodle men’s faces with lots of facial hair in the margins of her notes.