Shelf Space

We talk to Sandi Torkildson, Owner of A Room of One’s Own Bookstore

In 1975, five young feminists finishing up their degrees at University of Wisconsin-Madison collectively launched A Room of One’s Own Bookstore. “We had taken some feminist studies courses together and were really interested in starting a feminist bookstore,” says co-founder and owner Sandi Torkildson. They learned by doing everything themselves, from building bookcases to ordering books to accounting. The 6,000-square-foot, renowned general bookstore serves as a meeting place, event forum, and safe space. We talk with owner Torkildson about running a feminist bookstore in galvanizing times.

How would you describe A Room of One’s Own to the uninitiated?

We’re a large general bookstore with a collection of both new and used books with a strong emphasis on fiction, children’s and young adult, and women’s studies. We began as a scrappy little feminist bookstore in 1975 and have grown to become Madison’s largest independent bookstore. We have premier author events both in our store and offsite, often in partnership with the Wisconsin Book Festival.

Which was your favorite event and/or most memorable disaster?

Over the years we’ve had fun events—we hosted the first women’s delegation from China after Nixon opened up relations with China again. We’ve hosted Dorothy Allison, Isabel Allende, Barbara Smith, Ursula K. Le Guin, Audre Lorde, Leslie Feinberg, May Sarton, Alison Bechdel (who drew us a wonderful original of Mo sitting in our cafe as a thank you for letting her use our fax machine). We organized and hosted a Women in Print conference. We’ve gotten through many disasters, from the men’s urinal pouring water unstoppably during a recent full-house reading with three of our staff bailing out. We’ve gotten through fires in the boxes outside our store, which led to the windows breaking. Every surface of the store was covered in a fine fire-retardant dust that took 10 days and a professional company to wipe off of every counter and book in the store.

How does the bookstore reflect the interests of your community, especially in the era of Trump and the #MeToo Movement?

Rooom of One's Own Well, we’re still progressive feminists, and we are definitely a hub for Madison’s progressive community. The day after the election we got a lot of people coming into our store seeking comfort and community, and we regularly feature political authors and books. We had cookies, open bathrooms, and a warm-up station during the Women’s March. I still see the bookstore as a space that helps facilitate progressive change.

What trends are you noticing among young readers?

They read! Lots of young readers get the classics, from Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. They also read a lot of graphic novels! They read very diversely, both in content, identity, and format, and they know what they want—a lot of young readers follow blogs or Instagram authors or other social media. They’re also very expressively appreciative—we get lots of compliments, especially from younger customers, about the store.

What are your top handsells?

We cultivate a dedicated staff who are really passionate about their favorite books. I’m very invested in handselling a local Milwaukee author, Larry Watson, who is a beautiful writer. I also try to get people to read Bonnie Jo Campbell, who writes really great books that can be hard to get people to read because they deal with such tough subjects. I handsell Margaret Atwood a lot, especially the MaddAddam trilogy.

Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.

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