“The Bookstore Ladies” by Chelsey Clammer

Chelsey Clammer about to perform burlesque at Women & Children First Bookstore

I’m fresh out of the psych ward and cutting up beets. I was in the psych ward because I had been cutting up my arms. Now, scabs flaking off to become scars I will forever bear, I’m crashing at my boss’s extra apartment because I have nowhere to live. My roommate had kicked me out just before I went to the psych ward because she couldn’t handle my genre of mental instability. My gracious boss is one of the co-owners of the feminist bookstore I work at in Chicago, Women & Children First. Ann knows about the cutting, knows that the numerous cuts that kept multiplying on my arms like horny rabbits is what landed me in the psych ward. Now, free of fresh flesh wounds, I’m attending to the closing cuts and taking care of myself by trying to do normal things, like cooking. And so I’m chopping up beets in Ann’s kitchen, their super-red juices sluicing all over both my hands, drizzling down my wrists and the knife’s blade that I’m holding—and now here’s Ann unexpectedly walking into the kitchen from the back door. She sees my hands. Sees the knife. The dripping, drizzling red. Her face turns white and I realize what she thinks this is.

“Beets!” I scream. “It’s beets!”

A beat of a pause between us.

Then, Ann’s color returns as she bows down her head into her hands, fingertips touching her temples, and gives a little chuckle.

Ann’s the one who told me the story about feminist graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi’s reading at the store.

Ann: “She was doing a really great reading from her book Persepolis. The store was packed with people just listening to her in awe. And then she stopped reading for a second, pulled out a cigarette, lit it inside, and started smoking it.”

Me: “Oh shit. What did you do?”

Ann: “She’s Marjane Satrapi. I got her an ashtray!”

Life goal: Be famous enough to smoke at my own reading and not be scolded, but rather have the bookstore owner fetch me an ashtray.

 Women & Children First is its own little ecosystem of feminist words and ideals. Nestled in the lesbian neighborhood of Chicago, called Andersonville, it is a cornerstone of Chicago’s feminist and lesbian scene.

I say ecosystem because while working there, I felt like I was in this little haven of a pro-woman bubble that just worked so well in so many ways.

Working at a feminist bookstore is equivalent to being a rock star in the local feminist sphere. Everyone wants your job. You look so cool and knowledgeable when a customer says, “There was a book sitting on that table a few weeks ago and it had a red cover and maybe the word ‘river’ or ‘sea’ or ‘ocean’ or some water thing like that in the title and I think it was about two women who were friends as kids or something and one grew up to be gay, do you know what I’m talking about?” And you do.

 Or how about when the younger punk rock high school grrrls come in with their mothers who drove them there and they want you to recommend the best, most fierce feminist book and you get to educate them about different texts and female authors and feminist concepts for, like, twenty minutes while getting paid for it?!

Working at the bookstore also meant you could occasionally transform it into the post-bar 2am hangout spot. We bookstore ladies had keys, after all, and everywhere else in the neighborhood was closed, so we’d go into the store, lie on the floor, drunk and laughing about how fucking amazing our night was and how awesome we were as feminists and we didn’t want any of it to end.

I want to say there were some not-positives to working at the bookstore because, well, balance. There really weren’t, though. I mean, there was that dude who used to come in and do push-ups in the erotica section. But he would always leave amicably enough. Even when the asshole dudes, who got dragged into the store by their budding-feminist girlfriends, said to us, “Am I allowed in here because, you know, I’m a man?” we still stayed positive with our stellar response: “We aren’t sexist here.”

Every business has its job roles that need to be filled. The workers at Women & Children First knew how to do many—if not all—tasks. Returns, receiving, cashiering, customer service, checking mail, hosting events. All of that. But during my tenure at Women & Children First, we all had different, distinct roles. Co-owner Ann was the business-minded father. Co-owner Linda was the sociable mother. Anna was the straight but awesome graphic-novelist connoisseur. Angelique knew everything about women and their bodies and their children and the good fiction they should read and she was also training to become a doula. Jac was the kind writer who, when she was working at the store’s computer one day, said all even-keeled, “Oh wow. My first book just got accepted for publication,” and then in the same calm breath her next sentence was: “Sorry I’m checking my personal email at work.” Dana was the quiet book nerd. Lynn was the brilliant word-nerd editor. Kate was the queer quirky one who would eventually quit the bookstore to go learn how to be a honeybee farmer. Megan was the fashionable lesbian who was a pro at recommending books you’d never heard of. I was the insane anarchist dyke. Not that you can put us into boxes like that because essentialism is so not feminist, but we were who we were. And together we functioned as a family.

,From left to right: Ann Christophersen, Jane Lynch, Chelsey Clammer, Linda Bubon, Kathie Bergquist, Lynn Mooney, Marisa L’Heureux

When I say I was the insane one, I mean that. It’s a pretty good assessment, honestly.

Proof:

I arrive for my afternoon shift at the bookstore. After I put my bag in the office, I go and stand behind the cash register. The countertops surrounding it are where we bookstore ladies hang out when there’s not much to do. With the store a bit empty, I rest my forearms on the counter—my hangout posture.

Lynn comes walking up to me and sees the obvious: thick gauze pads taped around my left hand—that type of obvious injury indicator.

“Oh my god, Chelsey. What happened to your hand?”

I reply like it’s no biggie because at this point for me it isn’t. “I cut myself.”

I can see the question “How?” about to form on Lynn’s lips but then her brain kicks in with facts about how I’ve been self-harming a lot lately. This is a few weeks pre-psych-ward stay. Lynn’s face goes white—a shade I’m accustomed to seeing whenever they are confronted with my cutting—her lips stay unmoving as either horror or embarrassment or both creep over her face.

She walks away—her awkward moment with her insane coworker now ended.

But it’s a non-moment for me because what’s the big deal? I’m a crazy cutter. It’s what I do. Like sell feminist books.

In all small communities, you create your own sense of family. We (probably) don’t get to choose who we are born to, but we do get to decide in our adult lives the souls we surround our own with.

Born exactly one day after my mother—same year, even—co-owner Linda became my surrogate mother. She was practically my mother’s twin personality-wise. With my mother in another state when new trauma entered my life—story coming soon—Linda stepped up as a maternal figure.

I’m at work one day, no surprise in that story setup, and I’m doing my work thing, walking around and looking at books. I walk past the craft books and run into Linda. She’s standing in front of me and spots the new arm bandages. They’re hard to miss. She doesn’t say anything, not right away. First, she just looks at me, then tears start to form in her eyes as she gently takes my arm, pats the bandage softly, and says to me, “Please stop doing this to yourself.”

Why I was cutting myself went deeper than the cuts themselves. Deeper than the hands went of the man who sexually assaulted me. That event happened the night after I went out for drinks with coworkers after we ended our shift. I had broken up with my girlfriend ten days prior and needed a boost to my morale.

After many pitchers of margaritas and singing karaoke to the 4 Non Blondes’s “What’s Going On,” I swayed my way home, alone, through the quiet residential streets of Andersonville and Edgewater. Halfway home, I heard footsteps. Indeed, what’s going on?

After the man ran up behind me, after he grabbed me, after he tried to put his fingers inside me, after I fought him off and screamed, six months after he walked away and I sobbed my way home, I became a cutter. As if it were a way to regain some say over what happens to my body.

If you’re going to get sexually assaulted, the best place to be employed is a feminist bookstore. You will have bosses who understand you need mental health days. You will have co-workers who encourage you to eat, but understand that often when you do, the feeling of a full stomach—of having a body—is a trigger that triggers you into throwing up everything and they’ll understand and get you miso soup to settle your stomach. Coworkers who make you handmade art in an attempt to comfort you. A work community that has an entire section of books devoted to the experience you now know. They’ve always been on the shelves, but now you know their language. And when you start cutting as a way to deal with the trauma, you’ll have a boss who will hold your arm and softly plead to you in a respectful and non-judgmental way to stop hurting yourself.

Linda’s also the one who taught me to run toward the whistle.

We were both runners, and after being sexually assaulted, I was trying to figure out how not to be triggered by sexual harassment—which happens a lot when you’re a woman going for a run down a crowded city street. Every whistle felt like a violation. I was trying to get back into my body by running and then some dude has to whistle at me or say “hey baby” or even shout “nice ass!” The whistles felt the worst, though. A non-word sound that ricocheted within me—like the non-word sound of footsteps running up behind me.

“When I get whistled at,” Linda says, “I run over to them and say, ‘Can I help you with something?’ And then they get flustered and don’t know what to say. Then I say, ‘Well, you called to me, so it seems like you must need help with something.’ Men don’t like that. Then I continue on my run.”

Yes, run toward the whistle—face your trauma and reclaim your own power.

Working at the bookstore, I started to inch my way back to some semblance of sanity. Part of that journey was a lot of therapy. Another part was being reminded that even when some terrible life shit goes down, you still have the people who love you and want to see you be happy. Sometimes, they know, and help to remind you, that you just need to have fun.

Our feminist family reached beyond the bookstore’s walls. For the holidays that didn’t insist on spending time with biological family—you know, the big ones—the bookstore ladies chose to spend the day off together. In retail, it’s rare that every worker has the same day off. So, every Labor Day and Memorial Day we all headed over to Ann’s house for drinking, pot-lucking, and whatever that bean bag tossing game is. Sometimes some badminton, too.

We’d drink our beers and wine or Diet Coke for the sober ones and we’d laugh and talk and get friendly flirtations because it was fun and we were a feminist family.

My coworker’s hands are inside me. That’s about as close as you can get. But Angelique isn’t my coworker right now. In this moment, she’s my gynecologist. Training to be a doula, Angelique works at the Chicago Women’s Health Center when she’s not working at Women & Children First.

“I’m going to place some pressure here, okay?” She looks at me, her eyeglass-framed eyes gazing reassuringly into my mine.

She tells me every poke and push her fingers are going to make before she makes them. She knows I’m here not out of a physical necessity—though I was due for a pap smear—but mostly an emotional one.

It’s September 11, 2008—a date easy to remember for obvious American reasons. I left my shift at the bookstore and rode the two miles on my bike to the women’s health center. Angelique of course knew of my recent trauma, and I think she knew that inserting some instruments and fingers in my vagina was a way to work through the trauma.

I’m attempting to re-claim my body, to be comfortable in it again, to feel safe, and to feel safe and comfortable with physical touch and closeness.

“You doing okay?” Angelique asks as she feels around for whatever gynecologists feel around for.

“Yeah,” I reply. And I actually am. I expected to be crying at this point. Expected to feel violated or triggered. The last hands to touch me there were his hands. But here, inside the granny-esque decorated space—with its pea green walls, orange plastic chairs, and an assortment of doilies on some old end tables—with my coworker’s fingers inside me, I finally feel safe. It’s her loving touch, her understanding hands, her intentional questions and trauma-informed feminist approach that starts to welcome me back into me.

And yeah. It does feel healing.

And soon after this, the cutting will start stopping.

What my other coworkers did for me:

Jac held me in the office as I cried. Kate picked up my shifts when I called in mental-health days. Megan encouraged me to attempt to have fun like I used to with bar-going and dart-playing and reading good engaging fiction. She made jokes about wearing plaid while cutting tile to re-tile the store’s bathroom floor and said: “We should play some Melissa Etheridge so I can be the gayest gay that ever gayed.” Angelique took me out for drinks the night after my appointment with her. Anna played my favorite music when I worked.

These bookstore ladies re-raised me, delivered me into a new way of being, doula-like.

✶         

Armed with a black tarp and thumbtacks, I glance past the covers of these picture books I’m about to cover. Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots? One book cover asks. And there’s And Tango Makes Three and even Heather Has Two Mommies. And another favorite: Love You to the Moon and Back.

Tonight, I’m potentially about to embarrass myself to the moon and back.

These children’s picture books are in need of protection, to cover their eyes from the adult things that are about to happen.

The children’s section in Women & Children First has a small stage, which is transformed into the stage where authors sit to give book readings. We usually don’t hang a tarp over the books in the background, but tonight is Sappho’s Salon—the bookstore’s monthly after-hours lesbian entertainment night. Singers. Comedians. Slam poets. Authors. If you are a lesbian and can entertain an audience for about ninety minutes, you qualify for being a Sappho’s Salon guest performer. So the black tarp backdrop just gives the show a different vibe than seeing Everyone Poops on display.

Tonight is talent show night and I’m going to hop on this stage in about an hour and strip off all my clothes. Funny enough, I’m working tonight, so technically I’ll be getting paid to do my first-ever and probably only burlesque act.

Because what better way to reclaim your body than to strip in front of a crowd of drunk lesbian feminists?

How it all goes down:

I have chosen the acoustic, sultry version of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” to strip/burlesque to. The perfect outfit: a short white skirt with red fishnet tights and a piece of elastic with a deck of playing cards splayed out and taped to it, nothing but barely-there pasties underneath the card bra. Also: elbow-length fingerless gloves and a black blazer that at first covered it all.

Photo courtesy of the author.

When it’s my time to perform, I leave the cash register area, saunter up to the small stage with that black tarp backdrop, a full audience of about 30 lesbian feminists—most of whom I recognize because they’re regulars at the store—sitting on metal folding chairs staring at me. The music begins. After some slow twirls, after I remove the blazer to some cheers, the fingerless gloves are peeled off, one by one. Now it’s time for the cards. Fifty-two flicks, tearing each card off, tossing them like Frisbees into the crowd.

One card at a time, I make myself vulnerable with each pick and flick. Stripping off my costume, I hope I’m layering on a sense of empowerment and confidence with my exposed flesh. This goes on for a good three minutes and I get some cheers and in-good-fun “hell yeah” shouts.

By the time the song ends, I’m only wearing pasties and the fishnet tights with a garter belt and some black underwear. I put back on my blazer, and resume my post at the cash register as the crowd continues its clapping.

So that was us.

We were the Bookstore Ladies—that’s what we called ourselves. When I worked at there, I was an anthology of bad decisions and even worse coping mechanisms. But like a fawn learning how to stand up, my wobbly survivor legs started to gain some strength through the empowerment coming from my feminist bookstore family. The ladies supported me down my twisted path of healing because they knew healing wasn’t a straight trajectory. Through their guidance, I made it out of the trauma forest alive, finally finding the space where the cuts could heal and I was strong enough to start facing the scars.

Tonight I’m on that same children’s picture books section stage, but this time I’m fully dressed and plan on staying that way. It’s five years after my burlesque act—four years after I last worked at the store. I had gotten sober, stopped cutting, and moved to Minneapolis to live with my best friend as I continued my healing. But tonight I’m back in the store to be heard.

Photo courtesy of the author.

My first collection of essays was recently published. The book is all about trauma and learning how to find a sense of home in your body. There’s only a handful of people in the audience—Linda and some other old coworkers, my old therapist, and my new special someone—which I’m fine with because I don’t feel like this reading is for me or the sake of publicity. It’s for them. The Bookstore Ladies and company.

On that same stage where I flicked cards away to grab back my body, I now sit, reading the words of my experience out loud, describing what I have been through—a different sort of reclamation.

I’m a little sick tonight, though—a nasty cold circulating in my blood. Although my voice is hoarse and scratchy, it finally isn’t shaky. And no, I don’t Marjane Satrapi-style it and smoke a cigarette in the store, but I do accomplish a different kind of goal I didn’t even know I had. Reading about my trauma—having an actual book reading for my own actual book—feels destined. Because the women in the audience are those who held me, and now they are able to hold my words they emotionally helped to birth in their own.

✶✶✶✶

Chelsey Clammer is the author of the award-winning essay collection, Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017) and BodyHome (Hopewell Publications, 2015). Her work has appeared in SalonThe RumpusHobartBrevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Normal School, and Black Warrior Review. She teaches online writing classes with WOW! Women On Writing and is a freelance editor. Her next collection of essays, Human Heartbeat Detected, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press (Fall 2022).