Jaclyn Friedman: Preserving Feminist Space

(Photo by Anh Dao Kolbe)
As the Program Director for the Center for New Words, formerly the 32-year-old feminist bookstore, New Words, based in Cambridge, Mass, writer and performer Jaclyn Friedman is busy coordinating feminist spaces online, and all over Boston.
Thankfully, Jaclyn made time out of her busy schedule to speak with me about surviving change and the importance of independent bookstores and media. Here’s Jaclyn…

What were the obstacles that the New Words bookstore faced that made change necessary for it to survive? Would you say online bookselling and bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders were the main causes of the change?
The whole publishing industry has changed in the 30 years since New Words opened its doors in 1974, so online retailers and chain bookstores are definitely a part of that economic environment. But so is the fragmentation and growth and change of the feminist community. When we first opened, we were in a neighborhood with a whole bunch of women-centered businesses, restaurants, bookstores, you name it. So it all got more diffuse and became harder for women to know where to go physically [over the years].
And also, the publishing industry itself has gone through a lot of consolidation. There were a lot more small independent publishers before, whereas now there are a lot of big conglomerates. Which means the types of books, and the numbers of books, and how they’re getting published, and how they’re getting promoted, changed.
There’s been an enormous amount of change in those 30 years that made [New Words] not as critical in the community as it was 30 years ago.
What’s the short version of the transition from the New Words bookstore to the Center for New Words?
Well, we already had started a nonprofit sister organization called New Words Live that was responsible for bringing on all of the events for the bookstore. We got a grant from the Ford Foundation, just about the same time that I came on [2000], and did a year of thinking about, and talking to the community, and talking to advisors about what was still functioning, what was still the value of the bookstore, and what things weren’t working. And what came out of that is the model for the cart and the horse, basically.
We used to be a bookstore that had a lot of different programs, but now we are a feminist-based community organization and New Words will in the future be a part of that. But it was really about thinking about what was still working and what can we build on and what the needs are. The needs were clear, people still needed New Words as a place for community connection and finding out what’s new, and connecting with each other on new literature and new thought, and creative ideas in the feminist community.

So, the bookstore is not a part of the Center yet?

No, the bookstore is not there yet. It’s in our long-term plan.

But can people still buy books through the Center of New Words?

People can buy books in one of two ways: One is at an event. We always sell the books of the author that we’re hosting. The other is online. We have an affiliate connection with Women and Children First, which is a fabulous women’s bookstore in Chicago. You can click on the link to our website that links to Children’s First before you go, and it benefits us as well as benefits them. But we don’t sell books in any other kind of way.

So, what kinds of programs does the Center for New Words provide?

We still have great events with authors from international to local. We also have a monthly open mike called “New Voices,� through which we also run contests. We have a new fiction contest, short fiction—1500 words or less, a poetry contest, and a play contest every year. The idea is to keep on finding out who are the new voices out there so we can really bring them into the spotlight and keep hearing from new folks.
We have a monthly television program which airs on the local Cambridge Community Television channel where we feature a new local woman writer every month and talk about her writing. We’re always accepting submissions from people who want to be on that show.
We have a great program called “Feminism & Dessert.� Which is as delicious as it sounds. [Laughs] It meets the first Tuesday of every month. We get together, we get great dessert, and we talk about an issue of interest to folks. So it’s really sort of informal. The younger people say that it reminds them of their favorite discussion classes in college. And people of an older generation say it reminds them of the feminist consciousness-raising groups.
Basically we have somebody who knows a lot about the issue come and talk about it for 10 to 15 minutes, just to get us started. And then we just all talk, and it’s not about the conclusion at the end. We sort of hash out during the whole conversation. Some of them are fun, and some of them are really serious.
We’re doing a program with On the Rise, which is a local shelter for homeless and formerly homeless women, where we do a writing program with them. And they have a blog and chatbook with their own writing.
We have a book group that meets live monthly, and we also just launched an online book group that people can participate in. I should also mention that we have a brand new website and we also consider it as a new program. We’re so excited about it. The whole site was 7 or 8 years old. [Laughs] It was the bookstore site and we just sort of amateurly adapted it for our purposes. You can now roughly find all the information you need to know about our programs and who we are. But we also really wanted to create an online women’s community for Boston. There’s a monthly calendar where people can post their own events. There’s different discussions boards. We just had [cartoonist/author] Alison Bechdel by for a live chat. And there’s also calls for proposals and auditions and classifieds.
We also have a blog that talks a lot about what we’re thinking about. As well as a section where you can watch or listen to past events we’ve posted. If you’re not local to Boston, or if you missed an event, or if you have mobility issues or anything, you can get access to our programs. You can download them to your ipod, and there’s a podcast available.
On the other end, we’re also working on making sure we’re addressing the digital divide. We’re fundraising right now so that we can start a bimonthly newsletter that would be distributed around the communities here in Boston—especially for folks who don’t have any regular internet access, or for whatever reason choose not to have any access to the internet regularly. As much as I love tech stuff, and I’m sure you do, too [Laughs], we’re also trying to really make sure that the program is accessible for folks who are not oriented for whatever reason.
And of course I left out one really exciting program, which is WAM!, the Women, Action & the Media Conference. We’re already getting ready for the 2007 conference.
How many years has WAM! been around?
The past one in March was our third one. We have plans to build new programs, and to build on the ones we already have. Definitely for WAM!, we’d love to get to a point where we’d have sort of ongoing programs reaching different parts of the country so that it’s not just about the once a year conference.
For people who are not familiar with WAM!, basically the conference is to connect women activists and journalists and people in the publishing industry, to help us all network more together?
Exactly. It’s about bringing all the stakeholders who have a stake in creating and sustaining media that have a positive impact on women’s lives together. So, it’s not just a women’s journalism conference, or women activists’ conference. Not just academics. Not just professors and students. But bringing everyone to the table together, and creating what we like to call, “the new girls network,� so that we can have an impact and start creating media that serves us much better than the media that is currently servicing us.
Does the Center for New Words have a writing program?
We have, and we will again. We offered writing workshops in the past. We’re going to be doing strategic planning for it. We didn’t ever feel that we got the right model down after doing it for a little while—just in terms of getting enrollment and cost and everything it entails in succeeding. We are definitely this summer going to be working with the YWCA here in Cambridge, which has a summer program for girls. We’re going to be offering summer workshops for those girls, and do work with women from On the Rise. We do private, program-specific writing stuff, but we’re reworking on how to do the writing stuff for the public.
People who are reading the interview, and have ideas about writing workshops: “What kinds of writing workshops I would like to take?� “Do I want to be gone for one day or gone for ten weeks?� We’re open to feedback! [Laughs]

Working with young girls is definitely a great idea, especially with literacy being such a problem.

Definitely. We want young girls to get in touch early on with the idea that they have something to say. And that there are many ways that they can say it. And that they can have the skills and the tools they need to say it exactly how they want to say it.
Have you guys worked with Teen Voices [based in Boston] at all?
We have worked with Teen Voices on occasion. But honestly, those girls at Teen Voices are busy. They work hard over there, so we don’t work on an ongoing basis with Teen Voices. We have put stuff together in the past; they present every year at WAM! We love them.
Do people all go to the Center for the programs, or do you have different venues throughout the city?
Yes and yes. [Laughs] We have a location where probably half of our programs and events are done right here in Central Square in Cambridge. But then we also really try to go to different neighborhoods, and around the city, so that folks who don’t know about us—who are more oriented to different parts of the city—we can connect with them.
So, do you have any personal stories with authors you’ve worked with from readings you’ve organized? Do you have any dirt on…like Sarah Waters, or anyone?
Sarah Waters is fabulous! I love her! Did you see her at our reading?
I saw her at an event in New York City hosted by All Girl Action, a new organization dedicated to celebrating lesbian literature and connecting queer women in publishing. And she was so nice.
She is so nice. She’s very sort of self-contained. She didn’t seem to have an ego at all. She’s very frank.…We had a recording problem at the event so the recording is not available. [We had a heteronormative sound cord and we needed a lesbian sound cord. [Laughs] We had one male and then one female and that didn’t work out. And you know, for a Sarah Waters event, that’s not good. [Laughs]
She said at that event, that she really hates it when people—she’s an academic, and she came to her novel writing through getting a PhD in Victorian literature—but now she really hates when people write papers about her books because she feels like it’s like explaining a joke. That the process is so different from the academic process, that she sort of feels funny about it on the other end because her academic career was to analyze other people’s work. I love it when authors tell stories like that. Where they say something that you wouldn’t necessarily think they would say.
One of my favorite ones that we did, which was a million years ago, was with Eve Ensler when a portion of the “Vagina Monologues� came out. And we had her live on stage interviewed by Carol Gilligan. It was so cool. It was like 400 people there for an Eve Ensler vagina revival! [Laughs] Of course, Eve Ensler was 20 minutes late and I almost had a heart attack! There were 400 people crammed into this auditorium. Some people were sitting in the aisles. It was insane, and she was 20 minutes late. But she got there. What else do you want to know about? I can talk about authors all day.
I love it! That’s one of the very best parts of my job. Right now I’m in the process of booking authors. And you look at the book catalogs that the book publishers put out for bookstores to let you know what’s being published. And it’s like shopping! You read catalogs and say, “Oh, I want that.� And then you call up, and you have to convince the publicist that in terms of that tour, your store should be on that tour. So, you have to sort of lobby and charm why they should pick your bookstore over others.

But you’d think New Words has such historical clout.

Yeah, we do. But you know, I think the publishers are less certain about what to do with us now that we’re not a bookstore. But ultimately they care about turning up big crowds.
What plans and programs does the Center have in progress now?
Well, right now I’m focused on really hooking up with the online community. So we’re experimenting with different things—the online book group and having authors stop by for chats and the discussion boards. Just generally getting people interacting with each other online. What I found so far is that we’re getting a lot of traffic to the website—the traffic is way up since we launched! Which is great, but it’s really challenging to get folks actively interacting with each other. I think it’s that no one wants to be the first person kind of thing. But I think it will get there.
Do you see any challenges for the Center?
It’s funny, we’re actually planning on using the summer to do long-range strategic planning, and really engage with the question, “How do we carry out our mission?� Because, especially with the author events, the model of how we get things done is modeled after when we were running a bookstore. It’s a little over three years since we made the transition. And we feel that we really have successfully made that transition and now want to sort of stop and think about: What have we done? What are we doing now? What’s still working? What’s not working as well? What else could we be doing with that time? Do we improve this? Do we stop doing X? And I don’t know what X is necessarily. And how do we figure out ways to fulfill our mission even more?
Our mission is generally to create spaces and places where women feel safe to share their voices. So, what do the women in our community need from us? And we’re actually going to be sitting down and thinking about those questions. I don’t have concrete answers for you right now because we’re trying to go through that process this summer.
Are the majority of the women who go to your programs from Cambridge?
No, not at all. Women come from all over. Certainly from all over the Boston area. But also, depending on…like for Sarah Waters, a woman came down from New Hampshire to see her. So people definitely come from all over.
And in terms of our website, people access the website internationally.
What advice do you have for feminist bookstores who are struggling to keep afloat?
Wow. I don’t know if I have advice. But I would say, I feel ya. We miss the bookstore every day. We’re still all sort of, “But the bookstore…� We’re all book people here.
I think what I’ve learned from this, and what I really admired about the long-time New Wordies on staff—some of the founders of the organization who are now the co-directors of the Center for New Words—is they really kept a remarkably open mind about what could happen. It’s really easy when you invested 30 years of your life to a bookstore to say, “Well, I guess it’s not working.� And not be able to say, “Let’s do something radically different with the same mission.�
So, what I really learned from watching them go through the process—I was very attached to the bookstore just from being a shopper all the time but I didn’t go through the same process that they did—was the openness of what is the need right now? What is the mission? And what does the community need from us? And how can we achieve that? And sometimes that’s going to look like a bookstore, and sometimes it’s going to look like something different. And having a real egolessness about it. Not like, well, we made this decision, and I made this choice, and it was a good choice, and I’m standing by it. That sort of George Bush approach. [Laughs] I made this decision, and therefore it will be right forever!
But also not to give up, because what we really didn’t want to happen was to close our doors and go home and have that institutional memory, history, all those resources, be gone, and then five years later have a group of women go, “You know there should be a women’s bookstore in Boston.� And then they have to start absolutely from scratch. We want to be able to create continuity in the movement to the level that we already have done, and move forward and create something new at this point for that time.
I guess what I would encourage folks to do is think about making it relevant. Think outside of the box.

Do you think the political climate also has some kind of affect on independent bookstores?

Oh, yeah. Totally. I think it might get worse before it gets better. What happens every time you lose a feminist bookstore are several things. There’s the stuff that’s obvious: You lose the community meeting space. You lose access to lots of the books on the shelves that maybe other people don’t have, or stores have to special order them. And when it goes out of business, people lose jobs.
But there’s also something that’s much more subtle and interesting, and profound that happens. Which is, it’s true that the chain stores and online stores with that gigo [gigantic] inventory can carry a lot of the books that feminist bookstores will carry. Which was not true 30 years ago. Then, you couldn’t get these books at all, so, feminist bookstores had such an obvious role to play. But most people might not know this: Any of the online, big name bookstores, if they’re promoting a book, they’re being paid by the publisher to promote that book. So, if the book is face out at Barnes & Noble, they’re getting money to face out that particular book. Not because they love that particular book. It’s because there’s money behind that.
An independent bookstore, a feminist bookstore in particular, won’t do that. They’re going to recommend the book that they feel passionate about. And so, different books will succeed when independent bookstores and feminist bookstores close their doors. Lots of books that need the push, the hand-selling, the sort of personal viral buzz of “you should really read this� aren’t going to have as much of a home. And there are not going to be many places recommending them. And so, they’re not going to do as well, those books. Then those authors are going to be discouraged. They may not write as much. Other authors are not going to be inspired by them. So, then there are fewer people writing as well. But also publishers of those types of books are going to do one of two things: They’re either going to go out of business in this type of environment. Or, they’re going to look to publish more “commercial� types of books. Which are less about the writing and more about the selling.
And so, there’s this complete chilling impact on literature, on literature of the movement, when a [feminist/independent] bookstore closes. And I think that we’re going to feel that more and more. I think that it’s absolutely already happening. And we’re going to deal with that more and more and we’re going to hit a breaking point, which we haven’t hit yet, where people understand why we have to shut feminist bookstores.
I don’t blame people for shopping at Amazon—it’s cheaper. You can even do it in your bed shirt, or naked. And so the value of shopping at a feminist bookstore is a lot less obvious, and it takes a lot more time to reveal itself. But I think we’re entering a phase where it’s going to become clearer and clearer that our books aren’t getting published. We can’t say there are no feminist books, because obviously there are great authors. But there used to be more of them. I can tell you that. I’m definitely noticing that when I’m looking for authors in the catalogs.

And what about the voices of people of color? And working-class people?

Definitely people of color. And I’ll tell you more specifically who is not getting published: Latina women.
Oh, my god. In terms of almost all of the catalogs that I read, it’s so hard to find Latina women authors writing interesting stuff—not the Latina version of chic lit. Writing progressive feminism. Writing about their lives in true honest ways. It’s so hard to find. And then if you do find them, oftentimes, there’s no money for them to tour because they’re with a smaller publisher or they’re with a larger publisher who doesn’t put actual money behind promoting their book. So, from my observation, the authors who are really getting the shorter end of the stick are Latina women.

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