Cover Story: The Crazy Ladies' Movement

After 21 years, Northside bookstore struggles to survive

Sep 7, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Lisa Huebner (left) and Laura Smith

A progressive niche in a conservative city, Crazy Ladies Bookstore has long been a gathering place for feminists, gays/lesbians and liberal-minded people. As one of the few independent booksellers left in town, Crazy Ladies is known for its personalized service and welcoming atmosphere. But the distinction of independence which marks the store as a bright spot in Greater Cincinnati also carries with it financial hardships and grass-roots organization — struggles this community-based bookstore knows all too well.

Now Crazy Ladies, a fixture in Northside since 1979, is at a crossroads.

Founded by Carolyn Dellenbach, Crazy Ladies Bookstore took its inspiration from all the women who dared to follow their own paths and were dubbed "crazy" by society. Crazy Ladies is called a feminist collective because there is no one single owner: It is community-owned.

Through the years, the bookstore has had its ups and downs but has managed to bring in prominent speakers, including authors May Sarton and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It has also expanded its line of books, which range from a specialized collection of women's and gay/lesbian fiction to works on spirituality, psychology and feminism, with a "Decoration and Design" section. Also available are progressive children's literature, women's music and unique, handmade gifts.

Crazy Ladies Bookstore is very much interwoven with Crazy Ladies Center, a non-profit organization which houses the store, presents programming and hosts events.

It operates essentially as a community center for women and gays/ lesbians. The bookstore is a retail establishment, and while it is classified as for-profit, it operates much like a non-profit, with most of its earnings going back into the store.

Yet Crazy Ladies is simply lacking broad-based community support as a bookstore, and the past few years have been especially tough. With national chains such as Barnes & Noble and Web sites like, it's a tough world for independent booksellers.

According to Laura Smith, bookstore manager, 35 percent of feminist bookstores and 40 percent of independent bookstores in this country have shut down.

"We're not closing up shop," Smith says, "but we are struggling. Now we're at a turning point, where we're going directly to the community and asking them, 'What do you want from the bookstore? What do you want from the center?' "

It's not that the progressive groups in Cincinnati aren't a cohesive bunch. Lisa Huebner, a Crazy Ladies board member, feels that the feminist community and the gay/lesbian community are very committed to their causes. In a conservative city like Cincinnati, it's especially important to establish networks and a sense of community. Crazy Ladies has helped to build that.

But the question remains, is that network enough? Can it sustain a bookstore in the world of huge chains and dot.coms? "You can get the book from a, but you can't get the community," Huebner says.

That feeling of women's community truly is the difference, Smith explains, relating an anecdote about a customer.

"It was one of those afternoons when it seemed like no one had come into the store for hours, and I was wondering, "What is the point of this again?' " Then a woman came into the store, inquiring about books on breast cancer for a friend who was just diagnosed. After the woman selected her book, she confided in Smith that the one diagnosed was really her, but she hadn't told anyone yet.

"That kind of thing happens all of the time, and then you remember why we're here," Smith says. Often a Crazy Ladies staff member might be the first person a gay/lesbian person will come out to, and staff members know exactly which books to point them to for help in telling friends and family.

Now Crazy Ladies is coming out to friends and family for help. By reorganizing, Crazy Ladies hopes to come up with a new plan and a new vision. To that end, the bookstore is going to its base of support, organizing community meetings and looking for input.

In a July 14 letter to Crazy Ladies' mailing list of 2,700, the staff and board told their supporters: "Crazy Ladies is critical to the vitality of the lesbian and feminist communities in Cincinnati and a necessary element to the city as a whole ... Crazy Ladies is not going anywhere. But it's time to come together to ensure that we collectively preserve our strengths and essence as well as begin to imagine how we will best serve lesbians, feminists, and our allies in the years to come."

Smith says that the meeting held in Northside on Aug. 17 was very productive. More than 100 people turned out to discuss the future of the bookstore. The next meeting is scheduled for November. Afterward, the board and staff will pull out prominent themes and ideas. Crazy Ladies is networking with other grass-roots groups, including a partnership with the UC Women's Center to coordinate volunteers.

Crazy Ladies is asking not just for money, but for ideas and support. "It's about strategic planning," says Huebner.

Crazy Ladies must change its way of doing business and operating as a bookstore, because it simply isn't working financially. No matter how many new business plans the board and owners write, it won't work unless the community is involved and supporting the bookstore every step of the way.

"We are so much at the beginning," Smith says, "we're brainstorming, and I honestly don't know what is going to happen."