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A Personal History of Charis by Linda Bryant

Former Charis Owners Linda Bryant and Sherry Emory

Former owner Sherry Emory, Founder Linda Bryant, and Volunteer Liz Hill, 1979

As with every story, there are many ways to tell it, and the focus all depends on the storyteller, so my telling of this story is from my point of view.  I’ve told this story so many times it feels almost like I should begin with “Once upon a time….”

I grew up as an Army brat, moving at least every three years and living around the world.  I also grew up in the church, deeply believing in God and wanting to find and live my purpose in the world from a young age.  When I graduated from college and took my first job, I was assigned to come to Atlanta.  By the time I was 25, I was in another job, teaching high school English for the first time.  It was kind of my fall-back job, what I was doing while I continued to discover whatever it was that I was supposed to be doing.  I loved my students, but found the confines of the classroom too limiting – I wanted to know people, to be close, to talk about real things and that was not permitted. 

 Just before I turned 26, I was talking with a friend about my dream of a little bookstore where I could be surrounded by books that would encourage and enlighten people and where we’d have a rocking chair, a pot of tea, and a place to talk.  My friend challenged me: “Why don’t you do it?”  I had all kinds of reasons – no retail experience, no money to get started with, no one sharing this particular dream with me.  She didn’t buy it and said, simply, “So….”

That night I met up with some folks I’d known a little and liked a lot and they had decided to move to Atlanta.  I told Barbara Borgman my dream and she immediately said, “I’ll do the children’s books!”  I wrote to a young friend – she was 21 and I knew she had recently inherited some money – and asked if she’d lend me some money to get started.  She called me right away to say, “If I lend you money, you’ll have to pay it back.”  

“Oh, I know, I will,” I said, but she was way ahead of me. 

"Why don’t I give you the money?”  And so she did give me the money, a gift with no strings attached, that made the dream possible.  I didn’t renew my contract at school and when Barbara and her family moved to Atlanta, I and a few other single friends lived in community with them in a big house in Grant Park. Once summer arrived, we worked in earnest to get a store ready to open in November.  This was 1974, 35 years ago.  I had lunch yesterday with that dear friend who gave me the money – she has become an amazing philanthropist in the U.S., and many other LBGTQ organizations have benefited from her generosity. 

I knew from the beginning that the dream of a bookstore was a vision and that developing that vision was my calling, my purpose.  When we looked for a name for our bookstore, I found the word Charis in a Greek lexicon at Columbia Seminary where I’d gone to volunteer in their bookstore to learn something about retail bookselling that summer.  “Charis” means grace or gift or thanks and Barbara and I knew immediately that it was the right name for our bookstore.  We felt the depth of the gift of the vision, the gift of the funds, and our hope was that Charis would be a gift to the community.  Little Five Points was very different back then – no trendy little stores, no place to eat.  In fact, it was full of gun shops, pawn shops, liquor stores, and seedy bars, except for one old appliance store.  We thought it was the perfect place to be of service to a community and we never looked at another place besides the place where we opened the store on Moreland Avenue.  We found further confirmation when we learned that the space had once been used by Young Life, the organization that both Barbara and I had worked with, as a gathering place for teens called “The Broken Wall,” as in walls between people and between people and God broken down.  We were full of faith, but not too much business sense.  We didn’t have a business plan.  We did not know that that same year around the country feminist bookstores were just beginning to open – Old Wives Tales in San Francisco, New Words in Boston, Lammas in Washington D.C. – or that Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis had started on someone’s front porch in 1970.  We just knew that we wanted to sell books by and about women, spiritual books that were challenging and opening, and children’s books that were anti-sexist and anti-racist. 

Sharon Faro and Judy Sanderson

Sharon Faro and Judy Sanderson late 1970s Charis Birthday Party

When we first opened Charis, the first feminist presses were just emerging and they began to print specifically feminist and/or lesbian material.  It took us a minute to discover them, so at first we were combing through mainstream catalogs searching out the few books that spoke to women.  I took a class toward a master’s in English at Georgia State on “Women in Literature” – it was the only such course in Georgia at the time and it was taught by a wonderful man who knew it was needed and that there were no women offering it. In the late 70’s, I studied at Emory at the Candler School of Theology, focusing on theology and literature and there were a few courses related to women by then, though the man who had to approve my thesis topic had never heard of Toni Morrison or Alice Walker. 

Barbara and I met a young woman who had attended the Michigan Women’s Music Festival and was eager to start a women’s bookstore.  After many conversations, Maya Smith decided to throw her lot in with Charis and with her passion, knowledge, and investment, we enlarged the store both physically and in content.   We continued to broaden our understanding of who we were and who we wanted to be.  When we learned that similar bookstores existed and identified as feminist bookstores, we knew that we were a feminist bookstore.  Over the years, we have continued to expand what that means.  It does not mean that we are a women’s bookstore – we have always known that the wholeness we dream of includes men and women and in recent years have understood that such gender designations are way too limiting.  We have resisted being defined as a lesbian bookstore, not because we are in any way ashamed that many of the primary people who own, manage, or work at the bookstore are lesbian, but because, again, that is too limiting.  What we are and want to be is a bookstore and a non-profit that exists to promote and honor and celebrate feminist values of mutuality, independence, and compassion.  We used to say we wanted to “create a world in which all oppressions cease to exist,” and that is still our vision – we just want to put it into more concrete terms.    

Feral Wilcox, 1979 Garden Party

So, that’s the beginning and part of the next chapter.  If you are interested in more of the story, there’s a wonderful oral history, done by Saralyn Chesnut and Amanda Gable,that appears in the book, Carryin’ On in the Lesbian and Gay South. A few years ago, Duke University’s Sally Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture approached us about our archives, so now there’s a wealth of photographs, flyers, and other history stored there for folks to be able to study.  Two women – one in Texas and one at Emory – have written their doctoral dissertations on feminist bookstores and both include Charis.  Once we had a whole feminist bookstore network, a catalog, and about 125 stores in our network.  Today, there are only 10 feminist bookstores left in the US and Canada and Charis is close to the oldest one remaining.  Amazon is still around, though they recently changed hands and changed the name of the store. 

Not long after we opened the store, we began to have readings and discussions in our space, and soon it was every Thursday night.  Authors began to visit – often new authors, but once Maya Angelou came, and other authors read at our store and became loyal supporters of our work. Workers and volunteers came and went and we began to see our program events as a way to participate in things we believed in as well as times to hear writers read their work. We got involved in peace work and anti-racist work.  We expanded our understanding of sexuality and spirituality and feminism, beginning to explore the amazing diversity of human beings in our programs and our books.

Shay Youngblood

Shay Youngblood Reading From The Big Mama Stories, 1989

In 1996, when we were in the midst of wondering how we were going to survive financially, I was invited by Edie Cofrin to serve on an advisory board for the brand new Gay and Lesbian Youth Funding Initiative for the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta.  That was the group that gave the first major funding to Youth Pride and other organizations that were beginning to serve queer youth.  Serving on that board, I learned about non- profits and realized that the programming work we were already doing at Charis was just such educational and social justice work.  When a small group of concerned customers and community members thought together how we might help sustain Charis Books, the idea for the creation of Charis Circle emerged.  My dear partner Wendy wrote our application to the IRS and we had plenty of evidence of our educational non-profit work from almost 20 years of programming.  And so, Charis Circle was born and began to expand and grow to the point that today we do about 150 programs a year, pay rent to Charis Books, and are constantly learning more about how to serve the community, how to be accountable, how to keep growing internally, deepening our commitment to independent voices as a way of creating social justice for all. 

Charis's "New" Building at 1189 Euclid Ave. in 1994

Today we think of Charis Books and Charis Circle as separate entities, yet deeply intertwined.  People who come into our space in Little Five Points enter a bookstore and in that bookstore find resources in the books and on the bulletin board and in the heads of the folks who work there or volunteer there.  Many tell us that they come to the bookstore because of how they feel when they are there, that they find peace or encouragement, or simply a sense of home.  We think of all those qualities as ways that we offer sacred space every day – we call that mutuality of respect feminism and strive to offer feminist space in both the bookstore and in our programming.  When authors speak, they seem to open up, to feel that they are in a space where they can speak their hearts.  Spoken word artists try out their performances.  Writers come to writing groups where their individual style is encouraged and their voices are heard.  We offer discussions on things like urban sustainability or disability activism or ending violence.  We host amazing authors, both famous and emerging writers – ones we have to secure another venue for because there will be hundreds of people attending and ones whose 3 best friends attend. 

Charis Young Writer's Book Release Party

In November, 2009 we will turn 35. We are still here because we mean so many things to so many different people. As always, we need to hear what you are thinking.  We need your questions, your visions, your dreams.  We have a rich history, our present is as complicated as life is, and our future is in your hands.  What do you need in a bookstore?  What do you want to see in our programs?  How can Charis work together with you and with other organizations to help create the world you hope for? 

Linda Bryant, Charis Founder, July 2009

Linda @ Charis Review Launch