In conversation with members of Sisterwrite Collective

sisterwriteIn conversation with members of Sisterwrite Collective 30th May 2020

To celebrate #indiebookshopweek, members of our collective, Gail Chester and Magda Oldziejewska, have written up a bit of feminist herstory, based on our recent interview with former members of the Sisterwrite bookshop collective – a feminist shop and hub/women’s resource in London during the second wave of the movement – Ferha Farooqui, Yvette Ellis, Sheila Auguste, Rachael Cox, Sakthi Suriyaprakasam, and Sylvia Parker.

Question: Let’s start by talking a little bit about how you all met and why you joined Sisterwrite. 

Answer: (Ferha starts) We were all employed at the Bookshop at varying times between 1986 and 1993, when it closed. When I joined, the Sisterwrite Collective consciously wanted to bring in black women’s voice to add to the rich herstory of the Bookshop and all its achievements. There already was a very strong lesbian voice as the Bookshop was set up by three Lesbians who pioneered the development and promotion of women’s voices in literature. When I joined in ‘86 it was to help expand the services provided by the Bookshop by setting up a craft shop/gallery on the first floor, reflecting the diversity of women’s creativity in terms of art, craft, music and other forms of women’s expression. We managed to persuade Islington Council to give us a grant to support the initial setup of the Craftshop/Gallery and grant a ‘Change of Use’.

This was around the same time that the GLC was being abolished. (Sheila comes in) It really was the beginning of the end of an era. It had a huge impact on a lot of projects (which were previously funded by the GLC), like the East London Black Women’s Centre. A lot of the women involved would have previously been involved in a lot of other projects (that either lost or experienced massively reduced funding). But also, I don’t think that I would have been able to afford to work there if I didn’t live in a GLC Hard-to-let council flat and my rent was low – that’s also where the GLC ethos of attempting to balance out structural inequalities came in.

But to me, Sisterwrite also represented everything that was important to me, like being a writer, a reader, being part of a cooperative – it was fantastic to work collaboratively. It was a thrill and an honour to be part of the collective. It was an idealistic time – even if it wasn’t always wonderful! (Everyone laughs.)

And I must also mention, before I forget, that Sisterwrite is mentioned twice in a Booker Prize winning novel by Bernardine Evaristo (yes, ‘Girl, Woman, Other’)! I got so excited when I saw our name mentioned, I had to stop reading! And actually, she was a regular at Sisterwrite!

(Sylvia comes in) For me, [the reason I joined] it was really the emergence of a lot of black writers – you know, the likes of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Paule Marshall… the list goes on. There was so much going on in literature that reflected what was going on in my life – my interest in Sisterwrite was mainly because of that – because that’s where I could get a hold of these writers. I think it was the literature that really drew me in. And I was fresh out of university and wanted to do something that I felt made a difference.

(Sakthi comes in) I was just a baby when I joined Sisterwrite. I was 22. It seemed like a dream to get the job. I had just come out when I was about 19. And one of the first things that I did was find a book of all the lesbian titles, and wrap the book in brown paper (I was a bit like a drunk!). I was drifting – going around bookshops, looking for the titles. I didn’t know about feminist bookshops. And then my partner told me about the Sisterwrite job advert. I didn’t think I was going to get the job when I went for the interview. I was absolutely thrilled when I got it. It was absolutely amazing to work with other Black feminists. It was such an honour to be able to take/introduce other lesbian feminists to the lesbian section in the Bookshop!

And speaking of the GLC days – I was working on a GLC oral histories project for the Metro Centre, where I went on to work for afterwards – those were the days when you could do a 6-month or a year-long course in IT or music, for something like a £1 a week! The GLC was such an amazing thing! It gave so many opportunities to so many amazing people, including a lot of people who are famous now!

(Rachael) It wasn’t long after I’d moved down from Birmingham to London. And I was also living in a housing co-op. I hadn’t heard about Sisterwrite before, but when I saw the job, I just thought: ‘wow! This is a perfect job!’. I’d recently got into reading lots of Black writers, like Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. When I started, it was mainly to support Ferha in the arts & crafts gallery. Though I loved books, I think it was my arts & crafts background that got me the job. And it was amazing working with women from lots of different backgrounds, and being exposed to such a broad range of women’s literature from around the world.  I was exposed to writers that I had never heard of before, like Marge Piercy and Octavia Butler, which really broadened my horizons. It’s also really hard to work in a hierarchy after you’ve worked in a collective!

(Yvette) I think I started in April 1990. And I think I joined because, before that, I used to be very active in the Lesbian and Gay movement and I was working in the civil service at the time, and used to go to Sisterwrite at lunchtime and look around the shop. I liked the atmosphere, the community aspect. And then the job was going and I thought ‘perfect!’. The collective liked that I was active in my community. And it was the perfect job for me. It didn’t even feel like a job! It was a vocation.

Q: Could you talk a little bit more about how the space was run – the cooperative, collective aspect?

A: (Sakthi) I was reflecting on the fact that we were a bunch of very young women who basically owned our own business. It was a very empowering experience. And there was never a time when I felt I could not phone someone from the collective to discuss anything about the shop – we were all in it together!

(Ferha) We were literally a collective. We all had a stake in the business. There were very few of those kinds of businesses around then. What you also have to realise now, is that when Sisterwrite was set up, you could not buy women’s literature at the time! Nowadays people can’t believe it was ever not possible to buy women’s writing. The Founders would have had to order books in from the US and I understand the first books they brought over would have been academic works. There was nowhere else to buy women’s writing then (Silvermoon bookshop came along later) as it was incredibly difficult for women to be taken seriously by publishers. It was only later that the feminist publishing movement got going due to the appetite for women’s literature that was not being met by mainstream publishing or booksellers.

(Sheila) There were women all over the world who relied on the Sisterwrite book list!

(Yvette) And the technology that we had to look up books for our customers was the microfiche! We didn’t have computers in those days! It really was very labour intensive work. We did get a computer in 1993, but it was just before we closed.

People really liked the atmosphere. They would just come in to browse and hang out. It was a community.

(Sakthi) Where is there now for young feminists to just hang out..?

(Sylvia) We really did all of the jobs – from opening the shop in the morning, being on the till, taking the rubbish out, seeing the bank manager… We literally covered all the jobs! That’s the foundation of it – building a foundation for knowing everything about running the business.

We were all under 30, we didn’t have much of an idea of what running a business meant or what a collective was! I do remember now the longest conversations sometimes were about whether we should or should not have a book that was just not selling!

(Rachael) Another very labour intensive piece of work was that we had a piece of paper next to the till where we had to write down all the details of all the books that we sold, and then restock based on that. A computer-free stock management system!

(Ferha) And, there was also originally a cafe in the bookshop – before it was a thing taken up by mainstream booksellers i.e. Waterstones! Then there were changes made, introducing a craft shop/gallery, for example. We were always thinking about ways to expand what we did, how to engage people, and diversify what we could offer women who used the shop. There was a huge amount of commitment from each and every worker there. Staff would put their own money in to go to things like international and national bookfairs! In order to find and bring back the latest books, ideas and thinking.

Q: Do you remember, was it around the same time, that you had to keep some of the books under the counter?

A: (Ferha) I think it was later on, when Section 28 was introduced – the law came in to disallow the sale/promotion of books that promoted homosexuality in any form, including not being able to promote children’s literature that fostered positive images around gay parenting.

(Rachael) We did have to make some really difficult decisions as a collective at the time, with regards to stocking certain titles and always struggled with the idea of censorship.

(Yvette) It was a bit tough at the time. We were later picketed because we wouldn’t stock a particular book! It was a collective decision that we made at the time. I think it was a BDSM book.

(Sheila) Now I would sell that book! (Everyone laughs) There was a lot of personal politics in the collective. We worked as a collective, but we were all individuals, and we did not agree on everything. But everything that we did had a political meaning!

(Ferha) We had a lesbian-only section, and men would come in and get really upset that they couldn’t stand around that particular section. This was because there was a need to have a safe space for lesbians to view books for, by and about them, without having to negotiate their way past men. Some men (not all) felt that they were being excluded, even though the same books were available in the rest of the shop.  The issues have changed, but it’s something that we had to deal with all the way along.

Q: Was it during your time that the space was shared with the Feminist Library, and if so could you share any memories of the time? 

A: (Sheila) No, it was there much earlier, and it was called the Women’s Research & Resources Centre while it was upstairs at Sisterwrite. The Fawcett Library and the Women’s Centre in Holborn were other very special places at the time. I remember we offered a post box system – people used to use Sisterwrite to drop off things for different feminist organisations – this was a very important community service that we offered, like many other radical bookshops. We were also members of the Federation of Radical Booksellers, a mixed organisation.

(Sakthi) We can’t go without mentioning Silver Moon Bookshop – our only competitor at the time!

(Sheila) They had their own publishing collective. I thought: we should have done that!

(Yvette) There was also the Drill Hall – definitely a women’s space. And in Islington at the time,  at the Town Hall, they had a women’s unit, and it was very proactive. There were quite a few of those at the time, a lot of Councils had them, and then they all got phased out. I worked at Camden’s Black Sisters – they put on a lot of social activities. But Sisterwrite was also a social hub for the community. We were a hub for nurturing women’s writing and we held public readings, they were very popular. We were known for them.  It was so important for women to have a space to not only sell their work but actively promote it to a wider audience. We served a very important need for women to have a space to hear about ourselves, share ideas, read what women were writing and promote feminist thinking.

(Sakthi) Also, the Camden’s Women’s Centre and Black Lesbian Centre – they were really proactive and did a lot for women at the time.

(Sylvia) There were a lot of women’s centres at the time and they did a lot of proactive work. I remember the South London Women’s Centre.

Q: Why do you think the bookshop had to close? 

A: (Yvette) I was there when it closed and, for me, it was that we were running a business but we didn’t run it ‘like’ a business. It was technology as well. We would have had to change how we did things substantially. But it was the beginning of a recession, so it was definitely a combination of things.

(Ferha) We were up against a lot of change in the way women’s literature was taken up by the mainstream publishing and bookselling world, once there was a greater recognition of the appetite for women’s literature. It went from nothing available for women to mainstream booksellers suddenly having ‘women’s sections’ in their shops. This then went on to publishers and booksellers creaming off the most popular titles, without offering the diversity we provided. Suddenly, we had a lot of competitors.

(Sheila) And the red routes! It was the final straw for us, because people suddenly couldn’t stop outside the shop. I believe that if it was still running now, crowdfunding could have saved Sisterwrite! But we didn’t have that option then.

(Sakthi) I would challenge anyone, even the best run business, to have survived the recession we were in the middle of. In addition, the movement of mainstream booksellers was towards promoting popular titles rather than offering the depth of titles we sold and provided access to. We had titles on our bookshelves that you would never get from mainstream booksellers, which enabled women to find all kinds of writing which they would not have come across in high street booksellers.  We wanted to provide a level of diversity that you would never get from the mainstream.

(Sylvia) Location and competition key factors too. Silver Moon had greater footfall where they were based, in Charing Cross Road. It was where people from all around the world would go for book shopping. I think it’s a combination of all of those things.

(Rachael) I think these are all contributing factors. But, also, the fact that the business was a cooperative. It was difficult to sustain a model like that in the economic climate at the time, while trying to keep it ethical.

(Ferha) having said that, we all drew part time salaries while working long, long hours and kept our own salaries were very low. It was a labour of love.

We had a really wonderful time chatting with the Sisterwrite collective (and they were very interested in the business of keeping feminist herstory alive) and so we hope to continue these conversations! After the lockdown, we’re looking forward to getting some of their archives! Keep an eye out for more on that coming soon!