Wild Iris, Gainesville’s only feminist bookstore and Florida’s last, closed in December, but its story continues.

Illustrations by Brittney Evans.

It’s 4 p.m. on a Friday in early December, and the neon open sign on Wild Iris’s glass storefront glows red in the fog.

Behind the glass at the register sits Erica Rodriguez Merrell, manager and co-owner of Gainesville’s longest-running feminist bookstore and Florida’s last. Two customers rifle through her store’s chestnut bookshelves, asking Merrell for recommendations about the stock she knows by heart. They appear to have made it their mission to buy the whole store, their numerous purchases misshapenly stacked on top of a short shelf and a wooden chair.

“I have a pile,” one of the women says to the other, another stack jumbled in her arms. “I’m just throwing everything on it.”

On a typical day at Wild Iris, Merrell spent her time looking for new books to add to her stock, chatting with customers and playing tower defense games. She would be lucky if she made more than two sales.

But that day was not typical. The usually jam-packed cases lining the bookstore’s walls were curiously empty; signs handwritten in 

marker on colored paper announced whole shelves 25 or 75 percent off. That day, Merrell was discussing the store with her two customers, and what it will mean for Gainesville when it is gone.

Wild Iris closed its doors on Dec. 23, 2017, marking an end to a nearly 50-year history that stretches back to when the store began as part of the women’s movement in Gainesville. As other relics of that time period closed, Wild Iris carried on despite multiple name and ownership changes, despite never quite being able to break even from books alone.

“There’s been challenges,” Merrell said. “But it’s been a part of everything good that’s happened in Gainesville.”

Upon hearing the news in Sept. 2017 that Wild Iris was going to close, Sallie Harrison, a staunch supporter of the bookstore, was beside herself.

Harrison immediately made a beeline for the bookstore, dragging her friend Rosie along with her.

“I’m having a lot of separation anxiety with this being the last in Florida,” she told her friend as they examined the store’s remaining stock.

“For most of my adult life, I can’t imagine being in a town without a feminist bookstore.”

Harrison moved from Mississippi to Gainesville in the late 1960s as the local feminist movement was just beginning. An outspoken woman, she became a part of a network of people who would demonstrate against sexism and shelter abused women in the homes of Fulbright scholars during the summer. This network was to become the South’s first National Women’s Liberation (NWL) group.

“It was a lovely, magical kind of time,” said Linda Bassham, who ran Wild Iris when it was called Amelia’s. “And Gainesville was a very magical kind of place.”

Bassham was also a transplant, moving to Gainesville in 1964 to attend UF. She took to the city because it was big enough for a lot to go on — Feminists consider Gainesville one of the five North American cities where the women’s movement started — but small enough that everyone knew everyone. Bassham was next-door neighbors to Judith Brown, who founded Gainesville’s NWL.

Bassham was introduced to the growing feminist network in 1973 when she sought advice to help her long-distance partner, a rape survivor. Bassham could see the group was limited without a physical space, and she had been saving money from her job, as one of the first female railroad operators in Florida, to do something for women. So when her consciousness-raising group had the idea for a women’s center, Bassham was more than willing to help.

In 1975, Bassham helped finance the opening of Women Unlimited, the culminating point of the feminist movement in Gainesville. It housed the Sexual Physical Resource Abuse Center, a newsletter, a counseling center and Womanstore, the bookstore.

“What do you want in a women’s center?” Harrison said. “A feminist bookstore, of course!”

Women Unlimited occupied a white house directly behind Wild Iris’s former site on the corner of University and NW 8 street. The center aimed to be a space free of men that women could go to when they couldn’t go home.

“Upstairs they had childcare and downstairs they would try to figure out how to destroy bills that were going through the Senate,” Merrell said.

Like many feminist spaces at the time, Women Unlimited secured federal funding to pay for the operating costs of the space through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. Signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1973 and administered through Alachua County, the act offered job assistance to those with low incomes and the long-term unemployed.

“A lot of women took advantage of this,” Bassham said.

That was a problem. Through a paper trail of names, the county discovered government money was going to fund a feminist bookstore run by radical lesbians, Bassham said. The grant was taken away. Not too long after, Women Unlimited folded.

“We had a sense that we were making history, that we were gonna change the world, that we were having a big impact, and in some ways we did and we were,” Bassham said. “And in other ways, the backlash has been incredible.”

Over the course of the next decade, feminist bookstores across the country met the same fate as Women Unlimited as the grants ended after the election of Ronald Reagan. In 1985, a member of a conservative policy group stalled a grant for a women’s shelter when he announced, “I don’t think pro-lesbian, hard-core feminists should be getting a grant from the Reagan Administration,” according to “Feminist Revolution in Literary” by Junko. R. Onosaka.

Combined with the defeat of Equal Rights Amendment, the magical era seemed over.

But Wild Iris carried on. After Women Unlimited ended in 1979, Bassham bought the white house and re-opened the bookstore as Amelia’s in honor of her idol, Amelia Earhart. Amelia’s wasn’t explicitly a lesbian space, but stocked lesbian literature like “Rubyfruit Jungle.” Set partially at UF, the novel was one of the first books to positively portray lesbians. Amelia’s also sold vibrators, “which was pretty risqué at the time,” Bassham added.

But, “independent bookstores are a real challenge,” Bassham said. “We just never really made any money off of it. … I’m surprised, pleased and surprised, that Wild Iris made it as long as they did.”

Bassham sold Amelia’s and the house in 1981; the new owners re-opened the store in the building right in front of the original site. It would re-open again in this space in 1994 as Wild Iris Books and continue uninterrupted for 10 years until 2004 when it was sold to new owners, Lylly Rodriguez, who stepped down in 2008, and Cheryl Calhoun.

Harrison, for her part, continued to support the bookstore, no matter who owned it or what it was called. She shopped at the store so regularly throughout her life that on the day she went to say goodbye to Wild Iris, she couldn’t find a book she didn’t already own.
When Rosie pointed out Harrison already owned the book she chose to buy — in fact, it was sitting on her coffee table before they left — Harrison was ready with a defense.

“I said, ‘Rosie, that’s not the point, damnit! I know I already have that book. What makes me feel better is that I’m spending money at a feminist bookstore,’” Harrison said.

She bought the book and brought it home to display on her coffee table next to her original copy. 

Merrell moved to Gainesville from Miami to be with her boyfriend, now her husband, in 2007. She had been selling books for six years, and by that point, she was already a very self-identified feminist.

One day, her boyfriend told her he was going to take her some place she was gonna love. He dropped her off at Wild Iris’s front door.
“I had never been in a feminist bookstore, and it blew my mind,” Merrell said.

“Immediately, I was like, ‘there’s all these books here I’ve never seen!’ And I had worked for bookstores for a long time; there’s very few books I hadn’t seen,” she said.

Wild Iris was warm and welcoming, and it became the first place Merrell went to volunteer and find like-minded women. She ended up getting a job at Books-A-Million, but corporate bookselling was already becoming less and less satisfying.

“Especially now that I knew a place like Wild Iris existed,” she said.

After two years of volunteering, Merrell became co-owner of the store with Calhoun in 2009.

In addition to selling books and knick-knacks like crystals and tarot cards, Wild Iris provided an inclusive space for discussion groups, activist meetings, mic nights and live music.

“From the moment that I stepped in there I knew I was in a really, really special place,” Merrell said. “But I also saw lots of places for growth.”

In some ways the store still clung to its past. Wild Iris still held women-only dance parties, and its reputation as a separatist space preceded it. Merrell used to get questions all the time about whether men were allowed in the store or if they sold “normal” books.

In 2012, Wild Iris moved to the Civic Media Center courtyard off Main Street, and Merrell took over full leadership of the store a year later. She took the efforts toward intersectionality — the theory created by feminist scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe how systems of oppression reflect the intersections of race, gender, class and sexual orientation in each person, namely black women — changing it from a theory people could read about to something the store could practice.

Merrell stopped the sparsely attended women-only dance parties,, and changed the bookstore’s feminist mic night to a queer feminist mic night. For a couple years, the store held transgender-only barbeques and brunches for women of color where mimosas were sipped to Beyonce. Wild Iris also organized Gainesville Free Store, a collection of donated items ranging from clothing to potty trainers that people could take from freely. The free store was started with the trans community and the homeless in mind.

Merrell could also control the store’s inventory. While its space off University Ave stocked trans-focused books and other supplies, there was no transgender section before she started working there. Before it closed, Wild Iris no longer sold vibrators.

In 2012, Wild Iris moved to the Civic Media Center courtyard off Main Street, and Merrell took over full leadership of the store a year later. She took the efforts toward intersectionality — the theory created by feminist scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe how systems of oppression reflect the intersections of race, gender, class and sexual orientation in each person, namely black women — changing it from a theory people could read about to something the store could practice.

Merrell stopped the sparsely attended women-only dance parties,, and changed the bookstore’s feminist mic night to a queer feminist mic night. For a couple years, the store held transgender-only barbeques and brunches for women of color where mimosas were sipped to Beyonce. Wild Iris also organized Gainesville Free Store, a collection of donated items ranging from clothing to potty trainers that people could take from freely. The free store was started with the trans community and the homeless in mind.

Merrell could also control the store’s inventory. While its space off University Ave stocked trans-focused books and other supplies, there was no transgender section before she started working there. Before it closed, Wild Iris no longer sold vibrators.

“From the moment that I stepped in there I knew I was in a really, really special place,” Merrell said. “But I also saw lots of places for growth.”

There were some missteps. In 2015, Wild Iris hosted an art gallery called Viva la Vulva that featured photos of local people’s vulvas. The gallery aimed to be inclusive but received backlash from the trans community for equating genitalia with gender.

“I just made people feel like they weren’t part of this space, and that just broke my heart in a million ways,” Merrell said.

At one of the transgender-only barbecues, members of the trans community vented their frustrations to those who came from the feminist community. By the end of the night, the ribs were gone and, for the most part, so was the tension.

For Merrell, feminist bookselling is akin to counseling. She knew that people would come into the store to look for a book or a friendly word that would affirm them, and she worked to make sure Wild Iris was a space full of love. She is most proud she was able to provide a space that could help people.

“I’m really proud of all the people I have loved,” she said.

One such loved stranger was Sterling Davenport. Davenport was introduced to the store his freshman year at UF in 2011, when he walked past the bookstore to go to trivia night at a nearby restaurant.

At the time, Davenport was struggling to be open with his sexuality. He was raised very conservative in Jacksonville, Fla., and he knew that his life plan — to become a Republican senator — would be dashed if he came out.

At Wild Iris he found a community where he could be honest about his sexuality with himself and with strangers.
“For the first time in my life I was able to be an adult among other adults who truly knew and respected me as a gay adult,” he said. “And they were just regular people who got it.”

After Davenport came out to his family in 2012, Merrell and Calhoun were the first people he commisserated with when he had family troubles. He said just being able to be in the bookstore was instrumental in helping him rebuild himself.

“It’s all just an unbroken chain of reaffirming me as a person just as I am, the good and the bad,” he said.
In Jacksonville Davenport didn’t have access to any space like Wild Iris. To move to Gainesville and to find a space where he didn’t need to fear violence was freeing.

“Living in Gainesville we’re surrounded. If you go five minutes in any direction, you end up in part of the country where people who love like you do or look like you do might be suffering violent rebuke, or at the very least angry words. And so we feel the need of that type of space very deeply,” he said. “Or we did.”

By Dec. 6, the night of Wild Iris’s goodbye celebration, winter had set in. The smell of incense signalled the store’s promise of warmth, where a line of bundled-up people waiting patiently to buy a book hugged the perimeter of the store.

Reminiscing around the firepit in the courtyard was the group that made Wild Iris the longest-running iteration of feminist bookselling in Gainesville. There were the owners, like Calhoun; loyal patrons, like Harrison; and the volunteers, Davenport, Crystal Sorrow, a spunky lady with multi-colored hair, and Kira Christmas.

Christmas began volunteering at Wild Iris in 2012 to fulfill her high school’s community service requirement. She felt so at home in the space, she continued even after she met her school’s requirement.

“If I had a bad week, at least I had the Iris to go to that Saturday,” she said. “I had this environment where I was welcomed and wanted, and I could help, and I could listen to other people’s stories. I could read stories.”

Christmas is now a UF student majoring in Health Education and Behavior, and she works with Planned Parenthood as a community health educator.

“I 100 percent would not be the same person that I am had I not, you know, spent all my time here,” she said. And Christmas has calculated: Over the course of nearly four years, she’s spent over 900 hours at the store.

All the volunteers have their own favorite moment from the store, but Harrison’s stories of the scrappy, underground organizing of the 70s are the most captivating.

“To know that we were key in the feminist battle is an awesome thing,” said Sorrow, who began volunteering at the store as a UF student in the 90s after she joined its consciousness-raising group. “Abortion wasn’t legal, women’s health wasn’t discussed. We put that into the community.”

As smoke from the fire shifted with the wind, the conversation turned from bittersweet to introspective.
In 2012, there were 14 feminist bookstores in North America. With Wild Iris closed, there will be 12.

“I’m gonna miss being a part of what is a movement, just being a part of a feminist bookstore,” Christmas said. “There’s a movement in that. It’s dying out as the numbers dwindle each and every year for feminist bookstores.”

Davenport asked aloud, broaching the subject on everyone’s minds: What caused Wild Iris in particular to close?

The answer, at least in Florida, is two-fold.

Feminist bookstores never profited off their books alone, and in this respect Wild Iris was not unique. For many years in the late 90s and early 2000s, Wild Iris sustained itself primarily through a partnership with the women’s studies program at UF. They would stock their shelves with professors’ syllabi, who in return would send their students to purchase their textbooks at the store.

This model would shift drastically in 2008 when the Florida legislature passed new laws aimed at reducing the cost of postsecondary textbooks. These laws prevented professors from requiring students to purchase specific textbooks from specific places. Theoretically this would allow students to search for the cheapest option available on the market — that is, available online.

In practice, this law hurt independent bookstores. Professors were no longer allowed to require students to stop at Wild Iris, or any other independent bookstore in Gainesville.

“We feel the need of that type of space very deeply. Or we did.”

“If you look at that time frame, you’ll see many of the small bookstores around Gainesville close,” Calhoun said. “You’ll see Goering’s close. Florida Bookstore that used to be across from campus closed.”

Wild Iris had lost its reliable customers.

“Students,” Davenport said,” are not sustainers.” A murmur of agreement circled the fire.

At least Wild Iris was still on University Ave with a bright aquamarine mural painted to look like a blue sky above a green field of irises. The store could still get foot-traffic, and continued to for a couple of years — this is how Davenport found the store in 2011.

Then in 2012, as Wild Iris was approaching its twentieth anniversary, Calhoun and Merrell received word their next-month’s rent was going to increase by 50 percent. The same day, they learned the cafe in the back of the bookstore that shared their operational costs was going to shut down. The choice was to stay open for three months, to close or to move.

Naturally, they opened a bottle of wine.

“The things that come over you drinking and crying,” Merrell said. “We were sitting in the back and we were kind of like, ‘what are we gonna do? What’s gonna happen?’”

Merrell and Calhoun both felt they were only caretakers of the space. Wild Iris was really the community’s, and if the community wanted the store to stay open, it needed to come through. Calhoun, wine glass in hand, came up with an idea for the community to “vote” to keep the store open: One vote would be a $20 bill for 20 years.

The campaign was a success: For days, people were coming into the store with $20 bills in hand. Wild Iris raised more than $6,000, which financed the move to a cheaper location in the Civic Media Center courtyard.

“I still get goosebumps,” Merrell said. “I have very few times felt so loved and valued as I did with that campaign.”

Yet as much as Wild Iris fit into the courtyard, Merrell said the space impacted sales. The store wasn’t able to get Main Street facing property; being tucked away decreased their visibility, foot traffic and, ultimately, sales.
For her day job, Merrell is the finance director for Peaceful Paths. What she does is numbers and math, she said, and in the past year and a half, she could see the math was not good.

“Somehow we’d always be okay and something would happen and kind of pull us out,” Merrell said. “Something would kind of always show up. But I think in my heart I knew — I mean, I’ve known this day was coming.”

Looking back, there is one thing Merrell is most proud of Wild Iris for doing: Exist.

“When I first made the decision to close I was talking with my husband, and I had always been really obsessed that Wild Iris could not close on my watch,” she said. “And he slowed me down and was like, ‘do you realize that you’re the driving force of why it is still here from ten years ago?’”

It look Merrell six months to make the decision to close the store. By mid-2017, she knew it was what she had to do.

“It’s not a decision I came to lightly,” she said. “I think anyone who knows me or has been in here knows that I spent a lot of time making this decision. But as a business woman, as a person who loves this store so deeply, it’s time.”

Davenport, Sorrow and Christmas seemed to know the store’s final day was coming, too.

“It’s bittersweet. I know these people deserve to move on,” Sorrow said, referring to all her friends around her. “There’s not the financial stability at this point. Keeping a feminist queer bookstore alive is hard, so for us to be one of those that closed is really sad. It makes me wanna cry, but all the people that here I love, their stories continue.”

On Dec. 26, Merrell, Christmas and company were back in the store, packing up the remaining inventory. It took two to three hours every week until late January to pack all the books into eight boxes and sort through storage.

Most of the inventory was donated to other organizations in town. Some of the books went to Girl’s Place, the Pride Center and others; the remaining $6,000 worth went to the Friends of the Library. The display cases went to Third House, and Merrell’s signature rainbow chair — or as she calls it, her throne — went to Sorrow’s home.

Calhoun said that over the years, as other feminist and LGBT-friendly spaces in Florida have closed they’ve sent their resources to live on at Wild Iris. Now, Wild Iris is doing the same.

“Even with us we can see there’s been a process of passing along what resources were left,” she said. “There’s some part of me that thinks that even if we’re not successful in keeping Wild Iris alive as Wild Iris Books, it will stay alive in these other entities.”

As they combed through the store, they found old posters from shows and open mic nights, buttons, bunches of paper napkins and cups, and an elaborate tapestry of a goddess decorated with the zodiac signs and phases of the moon. Some of the items they found were from before the store moved, when it was still on University Ave.

“It’s not a decision I came to lightly. I think anyone who knows me or has been in here knows that I spent a lot of time making this decision.”

“It had its own journey,” Merrell said. “It’s its own entity, and it has its own story that’s bigger than us.”
Then on Jan. 26, the movers came for the bookshelves.

“It feels backward,” Merrell said, looking at the empty store. “I opened this space. I remember when it had nothing in it. I remember when I was building it, and now I’m taking it down.”

Merrell said the process was painful yet pleasurable, like picking a scab; it contains an element of liberation.
“I’m excited to enter that realm as Erica,” she said. “I think there is — right next to the sadness — there is this great freedom that I can be my own activist now.”

For the first time in seven years, she’ll have Saturdays off to spend with her one-year-old. That past weekend, Merrell took her to the Women’s March and played with her in the grass, just as Erica, without any talking points or responsibilities to the store.

“I keep thinking about how this is going to be a past chapter of my life really soon, which is still kind of surreal,” she said. “I think about what I’ll feel about it in 10 years and 20 years when my kid is old. I’m gonna be like, ‘your mom used to own a feminist bookstore and she was awesome!’ It’s already so tender to me. It’s already such a place where I’ve grown so much and done so many things. I’m really, really proud of what I was able to do.” •

Editor’s Note: The original version of this article wrote that Brown approached Bassham with the idea for the women’s center. It was actually Bassham’s consciousness-raising group that had the idea for the women’s center; they approached Brown for advice.