Susan Post remembers how it started.
She’d been a bookseller for two decades, and then-Texas first lady Laura Bush hatched a plan for a book festival on the Capitol grounds. There was a planning meeting for potential vendors, and Post was invited.
"I’d never been to a book festival," Post said with a laugh. "But I knew I had to do it. … I really didn’t know how to pack for it. It was kind of a blur. I just brought a table of books. I didn’t realize that you need shelves and lights and flags, and you can make it beautiful."
She learned quickly. Post, the longtime owner of Austin feminist bookstore BookWoman, has been a vendor at the Texas Book Festival for each of its 25 years — the only bookseller to do so.
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"We are so honored by Susan’s commitment to the Texas Book Festival over the years," said Lois Kim, executive director of the Texas Book Festival. "BookWoman has been a mainstay in the Austin literary scene for over 40 years, and we are just blown away that she has been a bookseller at the festival for every one of its 25 years."
Post remembers how the store started, too. Thirteen women, including Post, formed the Common Woman Bookstore Collective on Guadalupe Street, named after the iconic Judy Grahn poem. Post was working as a library assistant at the University of Texas when Nancy Lee Marquis recruited her to join the collective: "‘You must know how to order books,’ they said. So I said, ‘Well, that’s in acquisitions. I’m in circulation.’ But I said, ‘All right, I can volunteer one night a week.’" Two years later, she was the only one remaining.
More than four decades later, the store is now in its fifth home and Post is its sole owner. The store made notable stops on Sixth Street in what became the Iron Cactus building, where it first operated under the name BookWoman with co-owner Karen Umminger, and at 12th Street and Lamar Boulevard near the Tavern before it moved uptown more than 11 years ago.
"Eleven years ago, I felt I had moved to the frozen north, so far up. But now this is the groovy place. I’m in the center of everything," Post said. "It feels like when feminism was on the fringe, but we’re central to everything that's happening now."
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BookWoman is one of only a handful of remaining dedicated feminist bookstores in the nation, devoted to championing female authors and small presses, stocking resources for rape and abuse survivors, and showcasing a well-chosen gift selection of jewelry, magnets, art and a new 45th anniversary commemorative T-shirt.
Sitting amid shelves of books, Post’s stories spool out, peppered by boldface names of women long associated with feminist thought: Betty Dodson, the now-nonagenarian sex therapist; Ms. Magazine founder and political activist Gloria Steinem; and author Alice Walker, who BookWoman hosted in 1997 at a joint event with Black-owned bookstore Folktales. Yet the day-to-day ins and outs of bookselling still please Post, including the rabbit holes of research that mean spending time with each customer to decode requests.
One notable desperate call in the first days of the shutdown warned a relationship split was nigh unless the caller could snag a workbook whose name they couldn’t remember, but they knew it was oversized and pink. After a series of questions, Post figured it out: "The Dialectical Behavior (Bipolar Disorder) Therapy Skills Workbook," which was indeed oversized, but actually shelved next to a pink book. As shutdowns wore on, Post and her handful of part-timers would snap pictures of their kids’ book stock and email the photos to parents so they could compare the store’s shelves with their own and choose new titles.
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In the early days of the pandemic, she’d put a brick in the door to signal the curious that they could come in one at a time for a book or puzzle handoff. Now that four people are allowed in the store at a time, she turns at the tinkling of the doorbell to ask about online order pickup or to offer suggestions. On one recent morning, in the space of an hour, one man came to pick up the architectural-themed titles he’d ordered, a writer came to browse at the urging of Austin author Rebekah Manley, and Austin thriller author Amy Gentry popped in to pick up her fiction order and peruse the shelves.
"I think it's only in the past five or six years and since becoming an author myself that I've really understood the impact of stores like that and their extreme rarity," Gentry, the author of "Last Woman Standing," said later in a phone interview.
Gentry has participated in fundraisers for the store, which at times has struggled with rising Austin rent and the lagging sales that many independent bookstores are experiencing as they battle online behemoth retailers. "I think a feminist bookstore … is more than just a place to house books and for people to find them," she said. "It's an explicitly designated safe space. They provide so many resources for people — their nonfiction section is amazing, the resources they provide for marginalized populations and victims of abuse."
Bigger events like the Texas Book Festival in years past provided a financial ballast to the occasional slow sales day, Post said. "If we had a $50 day, I knew in a month or two I might see 4,000 people, and so I didn’t worry about those bad days so much."
BookWoman’s inspiration, she said, endures.
"The message and the mission is really the same," said Post, 73. "This is our 45th year, and our 25th year at the festival. Gee, too bad I’m not 75!"