Two of the best jobs I’ve ever had fell into my lap.[1] I wouldn’t have had the nerve to apply for either of them. Conventional wisdom for decades has held that women apply for jobs we’re sure we can do, while men apply for jobs they think they can learn to do. I fit the female stereotype, but my caution wasn’t just due to my sex. The message I internalized over the years from watching my perfectionist father ridicule my mother for getting her facts wrong was that it wasn’t safe to not have the right answer. It’s pretty much impossible to venture into new territory without making mistakes and asking questions that reveal that you don’t know everything. In addition, plenty of people were likely to write me off on the basis of my physical appearance, so I had to be hyper-qualified before I even thought of applying for anything.

In the spring of 1981, I quit my first editorial job (see “1979: I Become an Editor” for how I got that job and why I left) intending to take some time to focus on my writing. That’s not the way it worked out. About a month later, Mary Farmer, owner-manager of Lammas Bookstore, asked me to become the store’s book buyer. We were at my group house in Mount Pleasant prepping for my 30th birthday party; Mary was seeing one of my housemates at the time. I’d assigned her to halve cranberries for cranberry bread. The cranberries were squishy because, though I was already modestly renowned for my cranberry bread,[2] I hadn’t yet figured out that cranberries are much easier to cut in half if you freeze them first.

I’d bet good money that my face at the time didn’t show how astonished I was when Mary asked if I’d come work for her: Mary and Lammas were at the center of the D.C. women’s community, and I was way off on the peripheries somewhere. I had no idea she even knew who I was.

As it turned out, Lammas’s current buyer was leaving, and both she and Mary had noticed from my frequent forays into the store that not only was I an avid reader, but my tastes ran from history to feminist theory to poetry to fiction. Mary herself claimed not to be a reader, which wasn’t quite true, but she had her hands full as the regional music distributor for Ladyslipper. In addition to managing the store’s finances (enough in itself to bring on ulcers — read on!), she bought the records, jewelry, crafts, and cards. Wisely enough, she hired a co-worker to handle books and periodicals.[3]

How to convey how much that job changed my life? Let me try to re/count the ways.

The Lammas softball team on the cover of Willie Tyson’s Full Count (1974). Mary Farmer is 2nd from right in the back row, Willie is in the middle of that row with Ginny Berson (co-founder of Olivia Records) to her left and sound engineer Boden Sandstrom of Woman Sound at far left. I did not play softball but I did go to a bunch of games. (Cover photo by JEB.)

Back then I was at best dimly aware of how goods reached the shelves of retail outlets — which were all “brick and mortar” at the time, though we didn’t call them that because what else was there? I learned. When a title ran out, it had to be reordered. If it was new and/or selling briskly, it had to be reordered before the last copy sold.

There were two options: order from the publisher or from a distributor. When you ordered direct from the publisher, the discount was better — meaning we paid a smaller percentage of the retail price, which meant we got to keep more of the cash when the book was sold — but you had to order a larger quantity, possibly more than you could sell in several months. With a distributor it was possible to order two of this title and five of that. Distributors came in two flavors: those focusing on independent presses, including the feminist ones, and those who dealt with “the majors,” like Random House and Norton.[4]

Books, like other retail goods, have to be paid for before they sell, but you can’t sell a book that isn’t on the shelf. Most (all? virtually all?) feminist businesses were seriously undercapitalized. This meant that bills had to be paid out of revenue, and cash flow was always an issue. We couldn’t stock everything we wanted, but we had to stock what we needed, i.e., anything that was in demand and selling well.

Publishers’ invoices were supposed to be paid in 30 days. They virtually never got paid in 30 days, but when 60 days started stretching toward 90, you risked getting put on hold. If you were on hold with a publisher and needed one of its titles, you ordered from a distributor — and put that publisher on the priority to-be-paid list.

Lammas, at the beginning of August, is the cross-quarter day between the summer solstice and the fall equinox — and also Lammas Bookstore’s birthday. We celebrated every year with champagne and a sale. From left: Liz Snow of Ladyslipper Music, owner Mary Farmer (a Ladyslipper distributor), me, The Printer Tina Lunson, and staffer Deb Morris, who went on to Politics & Prose Bookstore in D.C. She’s wearing the 10th anniversary shirt, so this was probably 1983. I’ve got the old one on.

Feminist publishers were always on the priority to-be-paid list. They were in the same undercapitalized boat we were, except that their burden was even worse: the costs of publishing a book have to be paid up-front, and it can be six months after publication date before the income even starts to roll in. The independent distributors were next, particularly Inland Book Company. We couldn’t afford to be on hold with them. (See note 4 below for the why of this.)

What I learned in those days keeps coming up, most recently not long after the Covid-19 shutdown started, when huge gaps began to appear on grocery-store shelves that were usually crammed full. Supply chains, usually invisible to the consumer, were in the news. In April 2020, I blogged about them — and traced my awareness of their importance to my experience at Lammas.

Serendipitously the second Women in Print conference was held in suburban Maryland in October 1981, a few months after I’d started my new job.[5] As a writer, an activist, an amateur local historian, I already knew I was part of something far greater than myself. Seeing that “something greater” in the flesh, meeting women I’d only known from seeing their names in print and reading their words — well, it was something else. This neophyte bookseller couldn’t have asked for a better training program. At one plenary session I found myself sitting next to Adrienne Rich, who told me how much she’d liked a review of mine she’d just accepted for the lesbian journal Sinister Wisdom[6](of which she and her partner, Michelle Cliff, were then the editors).

At Women in Print I had a crash course in how it all fit together: publishers, bookstores, periodicals, print shops, designers, editors . . . The birth of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press was announced at that conference. It was historic in so many ways.

In my early months at Lammas I learned the details of ordering, stocking, interacting with customers, explaining the challenges of acquiring a title to women who were as clueless about the mechanics as I had been a few weeks earlier. For instance, in the early 1980s much work in feminist theory and history was published by university presses. Few university-press books were carried by any distributors, in large part because those presses only offered a 20% discount — which meant that for distributors there was no profit to be made whatsoever. Ordinarily, when a customer special-ordered a book, it was something we were out of temporarily and could restock on our next regular order. Not so with university-press books: in those cases I really had to order a single copy, knowing that between the short discount and the postage the store might actually lose money on the transaction.

For a regular customer I would do it, no question: I knew for certain that they’d return to pick up and pay for the book. For someone I’d never seen before, I learned to request a deposit on the retail price.

Over time I also learned to make a distinction between customers — and feminists in general — who understood the economics of running a small, economically fragile feminist business (or were willing to learn) and those who seemed to think we all lived in a utopian world where economic considerations did not apply. Mary, Lammas’s owner-manager, regularly ran into women who were surprised to find her doing her own laundry at the local laundromat. This often willful cluelessness was all too common in the women’s community, and 40 years later I keep running into it on Martha’s Vineyard too.[7] My patience with this crap left town a long time ago.

The 10th anniversary T from 1983. Our celebration concert (at All Souls Church, IIRC) featured pioneer Jewish lesbian singer-songwriter Maxine Feldman and local favorite Judy Reagan.

Meanwhile — well, I got to work in the heart of D.C.’s women’s community, which meant I got to meet and talk with so many women I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I knew just about everything that was going on, in town, in the book biz, and in the women’s music biz, across the country and even around the world, usually before most other people did. I got to talk continuously about books and call it work, because it was. I got to build up a women’s fantasy/science fiction collection; partly as a result, in 1984 I became Feminist Bookstore News’s first columnist, reviewing (you guessed it) fantasy and science fiction. This continued till 1996, long after I left D.C., and got me lots of free books.

The most lasting impact on me as a writer was the ongoing one-on-one contact with women to whom the printed word mattered. Books and articles opened new vistas for their readers, and the remarkable thing was that you couldn’t predict what book or story or newspaper article was going to make a decisive difference in someone’s life. And yes, I got to call customers’ attention to the works that had made a big difference in mine.

You’ll be hearing more about Lammas, the book biz, and why I eventually left town if you keep following this blog. I’m still trying to make sense of it all myself.

If you want to leave a comment and don’t see a Leave a Reply box, click the title of this post and then scroll to the bottom.

notes

[1] The other was working for the Martha’s Vineyard Times, where I started as a part-time temp proofreader at the end of the decade. More about that later.

[2] My recipe came from Jean Stewart Wexler and Louise Tate King’s Martha’s Vineyard Cookbook, with minor modifications (less sugar, more orange juice). Forty years later I still make it regularly. That’s why a third of the space in the freezer of my small fridge is devoted to frozen cranberries. Cranberries are only available in the fall, so if you want cranberry bread year-round you stock up then and freeze them.

[3] The store was founded in 1973 by two lesbian jewelers as Lammas Women’s Shop. Feminist and lesbian books were scarce at that point, so they only occupied a shelf or two. That changed rapidly in the following years. IIRC Mary started off as their manager but within a year or two bought the store. The jewelers continued to make jewelry under the name Lielin, which was made up of syllables from their first names, LesLIE and LINda. I’m spacing their surnames but will probably rediscover or remember them in my (virtual) travels.

[4] In the early 1980s, the main trade distributors were Baker & Taylor and Ingram. The main indie-press distributors were Bookpeople and Inland Book Company. Since Bookpeople was on the West Coast and Inland was in Connecticut, freight charges were less from Inland, so I ordered more from them. Without getting down in the weeds about book pricing — all you have to know is that (1) books are heavy, (2) the bookstore pays the freight, and (3) since the retail price was generally printed on the book, a store couldn’t increase it to compensate for freight costs, not without being accused of ripping people off. By this time Women in Distribution (WinD), which specialized in feminist-press books, had folded, but Helaine Harris, one of WinD’s principals along with Cynthia Gair and Lee Schwing, was working for Daedalus, which dealt in books “remaindered” by the big trade publishers. Daedalus was based in nearby Maryland, so when a remaindered title was of interest to us (as often happened), Helaine would deliver it in person, saving us a bunch of money in freight charges. Helaine, incidentally, was a veteran of the Furies collective, as was Lee Schwing.

[5] The first Women in Print conference, of the movement pioneers, was held in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1976.

[6] Sinister Wisdom still exists. Not only is it still a journal of lesbian writing, it’s been publishing works that would otherwise get lost, such as The Complete Works of Pat Parker, edited by Julie R. Enszer, and Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, 1974–1989. If this thrills you half as much as it does me, or even if you’re just curious, visit www.sinisterwisdom.org, email sinisterwisdom@gmail.com, or write Sinister Wisdom, 2333 Mcintosh Rd., Dover, FL 33527. P.S. I had work published in SW 14, 17, 28, and 35. I also know that “Sinister Wisdom” came from a line in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. You see the challenge here? All it takes is a name to send me off on a dozen tangents, in part to remind me that my life really happened and that some of what I remember might be useful to others.

[7] More about that later. Much more. Remind me if I forget.

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