It sits at the back of a small Lilyfield park, behind a fairly serious-looking set of iron bars. In 1974 it opened in the otherwise quiet suburban setting of Eastwood. Back then it was one of the only places in Sydney for lesbians to buy the few books written about their lives.

Although not strictly a lesbian store, the Feminist Bookshop has a history that reflects the past 30 years of gay and lesbian Sydney. In the early 70s it was quiet, in the late 70s, rowdy. Its gay and lesbian section has grown in sync with the visibility of the community. And now, in the early 2000s, it sells -“ among a wide range of other things -“ heaps of books to lesbians planning to have families.

Since 1982 the shop has been owned and run by three lesbian sisters, Gail Hewison, Libby Silva and Jane Waddy. The three were activists (Hewison was one of the 52 people arrested at the first Mardi Gras protest march in 1978), and were all working in women’s health organizations. They have employed a number of young women over the years, mostly women’s studies graduates and undergrads like current staff members Emma Kersey and Siri May.

An inconspicuous black and white portrait behind the shop’s counter represents an important part of its history. It’s of the three women’s beloved Aunt Joan who bequeathed them a small house in Adelaide. As all three were living in Sydney, they sold the house and bought the shop.

Hewison had first visited the shop soon after coming out in 1976.

We were all lesbians and we wanted to do something for women, Hewison says. Well, Jane hadn’t come out at that stage but we were all feminists. We all wanted to do something that was significant. We had similar goals and reasons for going into it. Feminism and politics played a very big part in how and why we started the shop.

In 1982 we took over the bookshop. We moved it to here -“ this was a bigger shop and sort of out of the way, but back then people would seek it out wherever it was. Even when it was in Eastwood people would trek out there from the inner west. With no experience we moved here and turned it into a big beautiful bookshop from a struggling small closing down thing. With three women putting their energies towards it, it grew, and then it did start to become a meeting place for lesbians. They came, they met, they picked up lesbian books.
The sisters have had their troubles over the years. Some have been serious -“ the bars on the windows were put up to protect staff and customers from a gang of teenaged boys who used to hang around outside throwing things and shouting homophobic abuse. Some have been less serious, like the constant questioning all of the staff get about the shop’s name.

The name of the Bookshop is off-putting to some people, Hewison says.

But it’s terribly attractive to others. We’ve had long debates about whether we should change the name or not. Because it’s so attractive to some people -“ and we love the name and we’re proud of it -“ we put up with having to explain a hundred times a week what we mean by feminism, and how feminism has changed and how our particular views on feminism are very broad.

In the beginning, the Bookshop had a small shelf of lesbian titles, mostly non-fiction. Now, its gay and lesbian section takes up about a quarter of the shelves. The growth in gay and lesbian publishing in the past 30 years is a by-product of increased visibility.

I think lesbians were absolutely starving for lesbian stories. Lots of people love to read, and lesbians in the 50s and 60s were looking everywhere for something to read that they could identify with, but there were no books, Hewison says.

Lesbian and gay publishing has gone hand in hand with the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement.

Like small bookstores around the country, the Feminist Bookshop has felt the effects of the rapid rise of large-scale book supermarkets. Its specific focuses -“ on gay and lesbian, transgender, health, parenting, mental health, children, among others -“ keep it relevant, Gail says.

If shops like us and the Bookshop Darlinghurst didn’t exist, these books would not be in shops and on display in the quantity that we make them available. If you go into major bookshops and you ask for the gay and lesbian section -“ if it exists it might be a shelf or two of limited titles. Lots of this fantastic stuff would not get into bookshops. The shops are a vital link. If there aren’t bookshops like this these books won’t be in shops, publishers will stop publishing them.

As for the future, Hewison said the sisters weren’t looking further ahead than the next few birthdays.

A friend of mine said the shop in the early 70s was like a candle in the darkness, she said.

The candle was passed to us, and eventually we’ll have to pass it on to someone else. But we haven’t really thought about how or when we’ll do that.

The Feminist Bookshop is at Shop 9, Orange Grove Plaza, Lilyfield. The shop is starting a lesbian reading group soon. More shop details are available at
www.isis.aust.com/feministbookshop.

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