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Book Club Mon Nov 21 2011

A Chicago Bookseller's Take on the Life of Book Publisher Barbara Grier

Lesbian and feminist literature is by no means a booming business in the United States, but the foothold it has gained is due, in part, to writer and publisher Barbara Grier, who passed away on November 10 at 78. When Grier began Naiad publishing in 1973 with her partner, Donna McBride, and two other women, she set out to offer an alternative to predominant narratives that subscribed to the notion that lesbian sexuality existed to please men, or that it was just a passing phase in the life of otherwise "normal" women. That their work drew such an audience is a testament to the fact that their readers were indeed seeking legitimate representations of themselves in literature.

In the wake of Grier's death, it felt pertinent to speak with a Chicagoan who had both a professional and personal connection to her mission. Ann Christopherson co-owns Andersonville bookstore Women & Children First, alongside Linda Bubon. The store opened in 1979, not long after the birth of Naiad, and has faithfully stocked Naiad Books, now Bella Books, from the beginning. Christopherson said her store and Naiad came to be during an encouraging time for feminist literature.

"When we opened there was an ecology of women's publishing and women's bookstores," Christopherson said. "I liked to call it the 'women in print movement.'"

Naiad was the answer when it came to romance novels, however the house's most successful book was a nonfiction work entitled Lesbian Nuns: Breaking the Silence. Written by two former nuns, it included interviews with a number of nuns who identified as lesbians. It garnered some unfavorable attention from the Catholic Church.

Though political in nature, the movement was indelibly personal to its participants, Christopherson said. The women dedicated to the circulation of lesbian and feminist literature were in the business to deliver comfort to like-minded individuals whose identities were virtually unacknowledged in the media.

"Donna McBride said Barbara's goal was to help lesbians be comfortable with who they were," Christopherson said. "I think that's a pretty good summary definition of Barbara. Romance is genre fiction and you know, it sells, but it has the political ramifications of speaking to an audience that did not see themselves reflected in the rest of literature."

At Naiad, Grier and her partners reissued books written by lesbians in the 1940s and '50s that were originally released with pulp covers marketed to men. Newly designed, Christopherson said, these books attracted a contemporary female following.

"They certainly did a lot to bring back lost women's history and lesbian women's history," she said. "They provided a whole new kind of publishing that represented their current times rather than historical views."

Grier's professional achievements are meaningful, and affect a contemporary dialogue about female representation in literature, both as protagonists on the page and names on the shelf. But Christopherson was also sure to note that Grier's demeanor lent itself to her success in dealing with other business people as friends.

"Barbara was a character and just a terrific woman -- very dynamic and supportive," she said. "I remember the times I talked to her over the telephone when she called us about a new book they were excited about doing. She was also complimentary on our work and a real team builder. I feel very fondly about Barbara."

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Book Club is the literary section of Gapers Block, covering Chicago's authors, poets and literary events. More...

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