Lesbian bookstore revival: Bookends transforms in Florence

Madden Aleia, left, who bought Bookends in 2022, with employees Andy Neuman and Ira Beare. The Maple Street store in Florence has transformed into a haven both for books and as a gathering spot reminiscent of Womonfyre, a lesbian bookstore that had a successful run in late 1970s and 1980s.

Madden Aleia, left, who bought Bookends in 2022, with employees Andy Neuman and Ira Beare. The Maple Street store in Florence has transformed into a haven both for books and as a gathering spot reminiscent of Womonfyre, a lesbian bookstore that had a successful run in late 1970s and 1980s. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Mya Shotwell and Alena Kopec look through the  Bookends store on a recent afternoon. The Florence business is owned  by Madden Aleia.

Mya Shotwell and Alena Kopec look through the Bookends store on a recent afternoon. The Florence business is owned by Madden Aleia. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

Madden Aleia, left, who bought Bookends in 2022,   with employees Andy Neuman and Ira Beare. The Maple Street store in Florence has transformed into a haven  for books and as a gathering spot reminiscent of Womonfyre, a lesbian bookstore that had a successful  run in late  1970s and 1980s.

Madden Aleia, left, who bought Bookends in 2022, with employees Andy Neuman and Ira Beare. The Maple Street store in Florence has transformed into a haven for books and as a gathering spot reminiscent of Womonfyre, a lesbian bookstore that had a successful run in late 1970s and 1980s. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Mya Shotwell and Alena Kopec look through the store, Bookends on a recent afternoon. The Florence store is owned  by Madden Aleia.

Mya Shotwell and Alena Kopec look through the store, Bookends on a recent afternoon. The Florence store is owned by Madden Aleia. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

 Some of the books on display at Bookends, a Florence bookstore  owned  by Madden Aleia.

Some of the books on display at Bookends, a Florence bookstore owned by Madden Aleia. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Mya Shotwell and Alena Kopec look through the store, Bookends on a recent afternoon. The Florence store is owned  by Madden Aleia.

Mya Shotwell and Alena Kopec look through the store, Bookends on a recent afternoon. The Florence store is owned by Madden Aleia. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

 A sign greeting shoppers to Bookends, a bookstore on Maple Street in Florence, reads “Books for Dykes and Friends” this week. The store has transformed into a haven for books and as a gathering spot reminiscent of Womonfyre, a lesbian bookstore that had a successful run in late 1970s and 1980s.

A sign greeting shoppers to Bookends, a bookstore on Maple Street in Florence, reads “Books for Dykes and Friends” this week. The store has transformed into a haven for books and as a gathering spot reminiscent of Womonfyre, a lesbian bookstore that had a successful run in late 1970s and 1980s.

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 06-06-2024 5:19 PM

Modified: 06-17-2024 11:31 AM


NORTHAMPTON — From 1978 to 1989, Northampton’s lesbian bookstore Womonfyre did more than sell books.

Like many lesbian bookstores in the 1970s and ’80s, the store on Masonic Street offered newspapers and periodicals associated with the second-wave feminist Women in Print movement, books and poems on feminist politics and stories of women of color who often are excluded from mainstream feminist discourse. The genres found in Womonfyre, whose name comes from the desire of co-owners and partners Kiriyo Spooner and Jil Krolik to spell “women” without “men,” drew community members seeking to discover a diverse range of women’s experiences.

“(Womonfyre) fills the need that no other store in the area fills, the need for women to communicate with each other, to build a women’s movement and to express and shape new ideas in feminism,” Spooner and Krolik said in a Gazette article from 1982.

Over its 11 years of operation, Womonfyre grew from a store promoting radical ideas to a community center practicing these ideals. The store kept a list of housing possibilities, counseling services and support groups for a variety of social needs. It hosted book talks on feminist authors and offered a space for organizers to build a modern women’s movement in Northampton.

The store closed due to dwindling sales and several instances of harassment, including two bomb threats. Womonfyre wouldn't be the last lesbian bookstore in Northampton, and new lesbian-owned stores would attempt to fill the hole in Northampton’s offerings of queer and feminist spaces. Now, a new generation tries to provide the same services as those before them.

Bookends, Florence’s neighborhood used bookstore in the Parsons Block at 80 Maple St., sold in late 2022, and its new lesbian owners have transformed the space into a lesbian bookstore that aims to honor the legacy of its predecessors, like Womonfyre, by offering their space to organize, hold events and swap ideas with new and old generations of socially minded, politically active people.

Dream comes true

Owner Madden Aleia had a history with Bookends before buying the local used bookstore. She sold antiques and books as a side job while in school, and planned to work in, and eventually own, a bookstore after graduating with her master’s degree in English from the University of Massachusetts.

While living on Maple Street in Florence, Aleia often visited the store and recognized it as “an underrated gem of a bookstore” with its cozy, quiet corners fashioned from the maze of tall bookshelves and the carved stone archway from the store’s former use as a bowling alley.

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So when former owner Grey Angell put Bookends up for sale in 2022, Aleia jumped at the opportunity.

“As someone who’s lived in Northampton for almost a decade now, I saw an opportunity to make a space that felt like it really needed to be there,” she said. “I saw a need for more gay spaces, more sober spaces, quiet spaces, spaces that are particularly oriented towards the lesbian community.”

Choosing the term lesbian over other identities and vernacular was purposeful. Employee Andy Neuman said the exclamation of the store’s lesbian ownership and identity is the first step in promoting lesbian visibility. On the first Monday of each month, the store hosts Dykes to Hang Out With, a casual, intergenerational lesbian social that attracts lesbians from Hampshire and Franklin counties, as well as New Hampshire, Connecticut and Vermont.

“You’ll never find us saying queer bookstore, or like sapphic event. We don’t use words other than lesbian, because that’s the identity we’ve chosen to align ourselves with. And that means a lot,” Neuman said.

Double-sided axes called labryes, lesbian flags, zines with queer art and essays and booklets of famous lesbian figures mingle within Bookends’ inventory of over 50,000 used books. Many of the new books ordered are requested by politically progressive community members interested in feminist, queer, BIPOC and socialist narratives.

But neighborhood patrons who have shopped at Bookends for years still come to the neighborhood’s used bookstore to appease their hunger for literature, regardless of their sexual identity. Neuman has seen a person who drove in from New York to check out old Marxist material and a local picking up an order of the newest Stephen King novel in the same shift.

Fellow Bookends employee Ira Beare designed the store’s merchandise around slogans and images from the Women in Print movement that coexisted with the heyday of lesbian bookstores. The Women in Print movement mobilized feminist writers, publishers and distributors to release print material that broke down ideas of feminism, gender and patriarchal power.

“Whenever I get the opportunity to do merchandise for Bookends, I like to start in the archive and think about how are we continuing in that legacy, and how can we kind of make that legacy visual and play with it,” Beare said. “The slogan ‘don’t die wondering’ is like an early-ish Gay Liberation slogan. That is one of my favorites.”

Continuing a legacy

But it’s not the paraphernalia that makes Bookends a lesbian bookstore. It’s an effort to continue the historic legacy of lesbian bookstores as community spaces for organizing. Aleia offers the space to grassroots organizations and community members in need of a space to hold events, like movie screenings that are part of Decarcerate Western Mass’s Summer Film Series. The store holds public art shows, documentary screenings, and book clubs centered on the experiences and liberation of marginalized groups.

“The experiment of Bookends is like, can you run a business without sacrificing your values and can you continue to break even and not burn yourself out? And still run it in such a way that you feel good about it?” Aleia said.

Most recently, the store held two concerts for Smith College’s Students for Justice in Palestine after the group occupied the college’s administration building for two weeks. Students in the group asked Bookends staff, who also work in various departments at the college full time, if they could organize concerts, one at Cityspace and one in an open space area in Northampton, during and after the sit-in for people who support the cause to gather and debrief. 

“We try to be supportive in whatever way people want, if they want books, if they want an event, if they need a space, we try to be there for them,” Aleia said. “I think also that’s a position that is informed by the historical function of lesbian bookstores and feminist bookstores as community spaces and also the historical relationship of lesbian community to community organizing and activism.”

In fact, Bookends is one of the few businesses in Northampton to visibly and enthusiastically express their support for Palestinian liberation. Free stickers, posters and guides to purchasing digital e-sims cards for Gazans to connect with larger phone service networks reside in corners of the store. A huge Palestine flag hangs next to two lesbian flags, and the store offers a pin that donates all proceeds to a family in Gaza.

On an individual basis, the Bookends staff provided jail support for the 134 people arrested during the dispersal of an encampment at UMass.

“When I’m showing up to things, it’s not necessarily as Ira from Bookends, right. I was showing up to them before I worked at Bookends, and I will continue showing up to them if Bookends closes down,” Beare said. “But what Bookends does have is a physical presence and a platform, and I wouldn’t feel good about having that if we didn’t use it in the fullest way that we can to practice solidarity and to live our values and to show up for the people that we’re in community with.”

While Neuman imagines the future of Bookends inside the store, hoping to rearrange the furniture once the huge inventory has shrunk a bit, Aleia looks forward to taking Bookends’ support role outside of 80 Maple St.

“I think like where I see the future for Bookends is just broadening what we do in terms of having more people involved with booking events and with the bookstore, and where we can do things and what and that I think will really open things up in a way I’m excited about,” Aleia said.

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.