April 2009

Gili Warsett

features

An Interview with Ruta Skujins of True Colors Bookstore

Last summer, the oldest independent feminist bookstore in North America, Amazon Bookstore Cooperative in Minneapolis, looked like it had taken its final beating and would be closing its doors for good. Founded as a cooperative in 1970, the feminist bookstore has thrived on political and social involvement, local love of a good bookstore, and a good underdog struggle. In 1998, Amazon in Minneapolis sued Amazon.com for trademark infringement, and the two sides came to a settlement, which was effectively a resignation for the independent bookstore. Ten years later, Amazon Bookstore Cooperative still received ten to fifteen phone calls a day for Amazon.com. Amazon Bookstore Cooperative spent over ten years treading water against the threat of being pulled into Amazon.com’s undertow.

When the “For Lease” signs were posted last summer, one woman invested her IRA money to keep Amazon open. Ruta Skujins, an editor at two lesbian publishing houses purchased Amazon Bookstore with the intention to no longer run the store as a cooperative. Skujins was forced to change the bookstore’s name. On the store’s website, she writes, “True Colors Bookstore will carry on the legacy and traditions established so many years ago. The name True Colors stands for many things, but the primary meaning in my mind is that of identity, and not necessarily that of orientation. I've always been fascinated by maritime history, especially the 'age of fighting sail.' In the days of sailing ships the only way to tell to what country a ship belonged was when it showed its colors, or flag. So, True Colors is a place to be yourself, whatever that may be. We have always been so much more than a bookstore, and still are. I want it to be a place of community, where everyone is comfortable and always welcome.”

Skujins is a fighter -- exactly what this feminist bookstore needs to remain in existence. But Skujins can’t do the work alone. She concludes her introduction on the website, “Please help me spread the word -- we are indeed still open, and gaining strength with every day. Remember how you felt when you heard Amazon was closing, and the relief you may have felt when you heard we were staying open after all. Now is not the time to be complacent and say, ‘good, they're still around!’ and assume all is right in the world. The only way the store can stay open is if you patronize it.”

 

How did you become an owner?

I stepped in when it was just a few weeks away from closing, because I’ve always wanted to run a bookstore and due to some fortuitous circumstances I had the time and means to do it.

What was your relationship to Amazon before coming to be the owner?

I was previously a customer, although not a frequent one.

Will the store’s focus or areas of interest be modified under your ownership?

I like to think the store will be the same, only better. Since I edit lesbian fiction that is one area that has vastly expanded. I’ve added a gender studies area and am building up the stock of books for trans and bi people. We don’t stock the NY Times Bestseller list, because I don’t think that’s what people look for when they come here.

What is the literary community of Minneapolis like?

I’ve only been involved in the literary community in a small way for a couple of years, and it’s just since taking over the store in July that I’m getting to know it better. I’d say it’s one of the most vibrant literary communities in the country, partially because of the Loft Writing Center. There are writing groups, reading groups and book clubs everywhere. It’s pretty fragmented though, and that is one thing we might be able to provide -- an informal focal point for writers/readers. They may not know each other, but hopefully eventually I’ll know them.

How has the LGBTQ literary community evolved?

Since I only came out 2 years ago I can’t speak to this.

You say on the website that your store is much more than a bookstore. What does that mean?

I want True Colors to be a resource for the community. We have a great space downstairs that is underutilized, and I’m making it available to all types of organizations and groups. For example, Diva Riot holds free financial seminars for women. Ellen Hart and Lori Lake are teaching writing classes downstairs. I’m talking with District 202 about using the space for events. We’ll be having children’s programming in the summer -- not necessarily reading groups, but activity focused programming. It’s a welcoming place where people can come and chat about books or whatever. I included Sweet Honey and V-day write-ups in my newsletters for months, and gave them advertising space in the store, as I’ve done with other events for the LGBT community. I want to partner with Chrysalis so they know I have books on coming out for women, for example.

What are some changes that True Colors is implementing?

We’re trying to reach out to the community more.

How has the identity of the bookstore changed over time?

I don’t think the identity has changed -- it was founded as a feminist/lesbian store and it still is one.

With changes in identity and sexual politics, what are some ways that the bookstore responds?

Well, one obvious way is in the selection we carry. The store really wasn’t very welcoming to the trans community, for example, and I’ve added a new section for them. Gay marriage, women’s rights, religion are all areas that I’m focusing on. I think I have a more in-depth feminist selection than the store did earlier -- my definition of feminism is broader than equality under the law. Feminism is also a struggle against the media and consumer pressures put on women, and I find books that address those areas. I’m bringing in more books for LGBT youth, too, and books on coming out.

What are some of the challenges that have come with taking over ownership of the bookstore?

The challenges are those that face any new business, but are perhaps more pressing because of the fact that Amazon has been an icon known around the world for almost 40 years. There was huge publicity around the fact that the store was closing, but not so much about us staying open. Getting the word out that we’re still here is our biggest challenge, that and trying to figure out how to get customers in the store in these difficult economic times. Personally, being the bookkeeper, event planner, community contact, PR person without any help is overwhelming. I have just one employee because I can’t afford to hire more, and I’m not even paying myself yet. I spend at least 12 hours a day on store business, 7 days a week.

What is your favorite book?

I don’t think I could name just one book as my favorite. I’ve favorites in lots of genres. If you told me I could take just one book to a desert island I’d be paralyzed with indecision.