by Barbara Rose Waters
The store happened because Marsha and I never stopped daydreaming. Every so often at school, we’d talk about how nice it would be if there were a women’s bookstore in San Jose. “It’s so hard to get up to Palo Alto more than a couple of times a semester.” “You’d think in a city the size of San Jose, somebody would have started one by now.” “We’ll probably have to do it ourselves.” Having our own bookstore was one of those fantasies we’d both had since we were kids and it was fun reviving it, but we knew it was totally impractical — we could never really do it. We had only $500 between us and had never even worked in a bookstore. Still, it was fun to daydream …
We started driving around, looking for places to rent. The ones we found were either too expensive, too far from school, or just not suitable for a bookstore. Then, one day, Marsha found it — a tiny little shop in the Thrift Village Shopping Center. Ir was only six blocks from school, fairly inexpensive, and, best of all, we didn’t have to sign a lease. “We could just pay for this month and see how it goes.” “It’s so tiny .. . but then, I guess we won’t have many books to start with. Let’s do it.”
We paid our first month’s rent, got our keys, and went inside our store. It had been a novelty shop call Fritz’ Palace. All we knew about Fritz was that he had horrible taste — hideous green flocked wallpaper covered most of the walls, accented by a pink telephone. We knew that would have to go. The next evening after school and after work, we started planning and making lists of things to do. We’d have to call the phone company, utilities, City of San Jose to get a business license, open a bank account, go to State Board of Equalization to get a resale number for sales tax, peel wallpaper, buy paint, write to publishers and ask them how to order books from them, think of a name for the store, get a sign painted, get shelves and bookcases, build a counter, send out a letter announcing our opening, and, if there was time, do our homework. A vaporizer and a teakettle worked to loosen the wallpaper, but it took much longer than we thought it would, We wanted to be open by December 1st, two weeks after we rented the place, but even with staying up all night three nights a week, it looked as if we’d have to hold our open house on the 9th.
We abandoned our plans to write to publishers and phoned them instead. In about a week, the catalogues started coming, and it was Christmas every time the mail came. Those publishers took us seriously! Real catalogues, new ones, smelling of ink and glue — we took turns opening and reading them. The store was beginning to be real.
Every day those three weeks we went to school, went to work, came to the store, worked till Marsha had to go home to cook dinner and get the kids to bed, take a break for an hour or two to do essential homework, get back to work painting and peeling wallpaper, sometimes until one or two in the morning, but often till the next day when it was time to go to school again. One day when we were wondering how we were ever going to finish in time, one of the barbers from the shopping center poked his head in and smiled condescendingly. “You really think you’re going to finish by the 9th?” And that was all the incentive we needed that day. Of course, we were going to do it!
Some nights were Chinese food nights, when we hadn’t eaten since lunch and it was 1:00 am, and we needed real food. Other times it was coffee and chocolate brownies from Seven-Eleven. Thanksgiving morning, 3:00 am, we split a whole pumpkin pie. Not just any pumpkin pie, though. This one was special. It was cut with a paint scraper, served on wallpaper plates, and eaten with screwdriver forks. Delicious. We were able to work till morning.
One problem was solved when we found out that there was a distributor in Berkeley where we could get our books and we wouldn’t have to wait for shipments from the East. So with our last $200, we went to Bookpeople and knew right away that going there was going to be one of the nicest things about running a bookstore. We stayed all day, reading and wondering which books to get. Finally, after spending all our money, we brought our four boxes of books back to San Jose and the store was more than a day dream, more than “one of those things we’ve always wanted to do.”
Open house day came, and to the barber’s disappointment, we were ready and it was perfect. We managed to be open every day. One of us would be at the store while the other was either at school or at work. Jobs were shared. Marsha did the bookkeeping and I did the inventory. We knew that most businesses take a loss the first year, so we planned to put money into the store every month until it was self-supporting. With this money, we were able to keep buying new books until it looked as if we were going to need more space. Just before semester break, Marsha found a bigger, cheaper place, closer to school and more accessible. So, the all-night painting and building began again, and when we were finished, we vowed we’d never move again.
We had had a lot of energy that first month, much of which came from women who were “so glad to find a bookstore like this.” Hostile neighbors drained a lot of that energy, though, and so did women who couldn’t understand why we didn’t have every book they wanted. “This is a feminist bookstore, isn’t it?” School took more time that second semester and so did the store, and by the time finals came, we were exhausted and were seriously considering selling the store. We got through those two weeks, summer came, and we only had to deal with the store and our jobs. I don’t know how it will go when school starts again, but whatever happens, the store has taught me that there’s no reason women can’t do what we really want to do.
We need to take our daydreams seriously.
Barbara was my middle sister, my mentor, my protector. She died in 1989, at the age of 37. I think about her and miss her every day.