FROM THE DAY it opened its doors in April 1974 through the next 28 years, New Words bookstore, in Cambridge, offered its customers what they could not get anywhere else. Not just novels by Latina writers, or essays and historical analyses by feminist academics, or national, regional, and local periodicals. And not just a large selection of women’s music, a true alternative in the era before Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, and Tori Amos became household names. For nearly three decades, New Words has been the city and region’s de facto community center and feminist-resource network. In the not-so-long-ago era before women cracked the gender barrier on the Supreme Court, on the playing fields, on Wall Street, and even in the local political arena, New Words was one oasis where no one snickered when a customer asked for a book about breast cancer, or inquired where one might find shelter for battered women or a support group for lesbians with kids. In the late ’70s and through the ’80s, long before the Internet, long before "gay and lesbian listings" were a routine part of the mainstream media’s "lifestyle" pages, New Words was the place where a lesbian new to Boston could learn where to find the local women’s bar or a poetry reading or a pot luck. It was, for many, a lifeline.
Just as important, New Words was the only place that sought links among women’s literature, political writing, and the nascent feminist movement. While mainstream bookstores, even sophisticated ones, boasted at best a shelf or two of "women’s books," New Words championed rising feminist authors such as Dorothy Allison, Marge Piercy, and Alice Walker, and poets such as June Jordan and Adrienne Rich, according their work the same respect and cultural importance that the mainstream routinely bestowed upon, say, Norman Mailer, John Updike, or Hunter Thompson.
These days, New Words, true to form, is still offering something its customers would never find at Barnes & Noble or even Amazon.com: "Grief counseling," says management, only half-joking. That’s because on October 6, New Words closed the doors of its long-time digs at 186 Hampshire Street in Inman Square. It is the end of an era for the oldest continuously operating women’s bookstore in the US. But its founders, who still run the store, stress that it is also a new beginning for New Words. The management is in the middle of a long-term plan to transform the bookstore into the Center for New Words (CNW), a nonprofit literary, educational, and cultural center that, for now, continues to offer readings and live performances in its old space. By next year, plans call for a new, bigger, and more accessible CNW somewhere in Cambridge, where readings and events will be the focus.
It’s no coincidence that the transformation of New Words is taking place at the same time another long-time local feminist institution, Sojourner newspaper, is also facing a crossroads. Sojourner, established in 1975, put out its last issue in September. Its Jamaica Plain offices are now closed, and its board of directors is currently forming a "transition team" that will decide if and how to resurrect the paper.
That ’70s-era feminist organizations like New Words and Sojourner are both undergoing "adapt or die" transitions in 2002 should come as no big surprise. More remarkable is the fact that the two have managed to survive nearly three decades of dramatic social and economic change. New Words and Sojourner, though two separate entities, were both products of the local feminist movement of the ’70s, driven by campus activism and nurtured by the area’s progressive academic base. It was a time that also saw the birth of similar grassroots, activist organizations such as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which publishes Our Bodies, Ourselves, and the Cambridge Women’s Center. New Words outlasted every feminist bookstore launched during that heady time. Sojourner survived several other local alternative publications in the late ’70 and into the ’80s, such as Gay Community News and Equal Times, conceived as a for-profit, more "mainstream" feminist paper. Only the West Coast–based national magazine Off Our Backs has lasted as long. What remains to be seen is if, and how, both institutions can adapt to the current economic and cultural landscape, which is vastly different from the ’60s-style activist era that spawned them.