A Room of One’s Own, a beloved independent bookstore in downtown Madison, recently changed owners for the first time since its founding in 1975. But at a glance, not much has changed.
In addition to its broad selection of books, the store prides itself on carrying literature that is for, by and about women, non-binary people and queer people. It’s also a venue that puts together a robust schedule of talks and book-readings from a diverse selection of authors. For this fall, the store has helped organize visits from DeRay Mckesson and Anne Lamott.
The sameness is by design. New co-owners Jes Lukes and Gretchen Treu, who had long worked as staff at the bookstore prior to taking over in July, say the plan is to continue the legacy of success that longtime owners Sandi Torkildson and Nancy Geary established. And with the award-winning fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss on board as a silent partner and favorable industry tailwinds giving them momentum, the two say they’re eager to figure out more ways of serving diverse populations in the Madison region.
It’s been about two months since you two officially took over the store. How’s it going?
Gretchen Treu: A lot of people are just really relieved that the store is going to be sticking around, and that it's gone into the hands of longtime employees. It's not going be just some random person from Chicago coming in who bought it with some money, and is just going to run it into the ground. We know how this business works. We know how this specific store works.
We're just in this moment where the bookstore had been doing so well under Sandi and Nancy. We're in this wonderful position to step in now and continue under that momentum. We have all these big events coming up. Print is not dead.
What does it take to run the bookstore?
GT: Oh geez, so much. We have a lot of events that we do. We have a lot of considerations we have about ordering — how much and what to order and when.
Jes Lukes: There's the question of what to bring in on the ordering side of things. But once the books get here, it's the question of getting books on the shelves, because they're not going to do anybody good sitting in boxes.
I feel like the majordomo of the bookstore. I'm kind of like the day-to-day person. I know vaguely what's going on. I work on scheduling too.
GT: I'm the one who's been learning the finances of the business and all that stuff ... Our goal has really been to keep the business running, to be business-minded first. Especially at the beginning, like this.
JL: But a different kind of business. We want to have a mindful business, but a successful business.
GT: Just today, one of the books I was trying to order (from a publisher), they got back to me and basically quoted me their cost on printing books. And I was like, "My friends, this is the least amount of money I will pay you. Your work is worth money, and I want to give you the money."
JL: And it was an anthology of trans women of color. It's especially important to pay for that kind of work.
Tell me more about what it means to be a feminist bookstore in 2018, and to create spaces for different populations in that store.
JL: As feminism has become more intersectional, and we become more aware and want to do better, we want this room to include these people who previously haven't had this space or hadn't seen themselves represented in the bookstore, both in hiring practices and also with what (books) we have. Invisibility is silence.
GT: We try to get books that represent a wide variety of people, especially queer people and people of color … There's no reason that any given display on any subject should only have white people in it. If we're going to be doing a display, if we put together a newsletter, we say, hey, don't put only white people on here.
There are other ways you engage with different communities — I saw that you gifted a book collection to the Progress Center for Black Women, for example. Does that fit in with the mission?
GT: We're still figuring that out. That gift was my own personal gift to the Progress Center for Black Women. I was just so excited to see someone trying to make that space.
JL: We have to be a viable business so we can keep doing the work that we want to do. And that's a concern. But besides that, the sky’s the limit. We can tentatively try out things that we're not putting the whole farm on.
My nerdy self was pleasantly surprised to find out that Patrick Rothfuss would be a silent partner with you two. How did that come about?
GT: About 11 years ago, I was at WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention, which I go to every year. I went to a late panel, and this bearded guy Patrick was really smart on it. Afterward, we got to talking, and we became friends. This was just after "The Name of the Wind" had come out, but before it had won any of the awards or gotten any of the buzz. And he gave me a copy, and I was like, "Oh yay, another doorstopper." And then I read it, and I was like, "This is (really) good."
He came for an event in November 2016. He was signing stock for us, and he was like, "OK, let's not be too Midwestern about this: This is an awesome bookstore, you're exactly the right person to run it. This is a progressive bastion of Madison that cannot be lost."
Why was he interested in getting in on the bookstore, do you think?
He invests in a lot of different things. He's got his fingers in several pots. It's not totally out of character. But it was a pleasant surprise.
Final question: Read any books lately that you’ve been excited about?
JL: I'm reading two books right now. One's “Emergent Strategy,” by adrienne maree brown. It's great for strategizing your own life, but also, as a creative culture, how we can mobilize and sustain ourselves? Then on the nonfiction side, “From Here to Eternity” by Caitlin Doughty, which is on death cultures around the world.
GT: I really enjoyed "The Adventure Zone" graphic novel. And there's this kids book. I have a toddler at home, so I read a lot of picture books now. One that just came out is called "Not my Idea," by Anastasia Higginbothan. She does this series all about things that are really hard to talk to kids about. There's one on divorce, one about death, one about sex. This one is about whiteness and racism.
Correction: The events featuring DeRay Mckesson and Anne Lamott are not affiliated with the Wisconsin Book Festival, as this article originally stated.