By Maggie Lee
In a renovated Decatur house, Charis Books and More and Charis Circle have made a new home, across the street from Agnes Scott College. The symbiosis across South Candler Street is already growing.
Not that moving wasn’t a little bit difficult and scary for the Charis folks, to shift out of a Little Five Points haven.
“But what I keep just saying to people is we’re bringing our feminist bookstore and our feminist non-profit over here and we’re expanding into Agnes Scott community and into the Decatur community,” said Sara Luce Look, one of the co-owners of the bookstore.
Since opening in L5P in 1974, Charis has been “your independent feminist bookstore.” It celebrates radical and independent voices in the heart of the Deep South. It specializes in diverse and unique children’s books, feminist and cultural studies books and LGBTQ fiction and nonfiction. And those are just the books. It’s also always been a safe space for people, especially LGBTQ people, to be themselves.
Charis Circle, founded in 1996, is the nonprofit programming arm of the bookstore. Events include writing groups, discussions with authors, yoga, open mic, intersectional strategy sessions and more.
The meetings, the connections, the serendipitous encounters at Charis are all part of what make what they call the “greenhouse of the grassroots.”
But staying in the old space wasn’t sustainable; and for years, the Charis community worked on what to do to make sure its work would continue. The solution: a move, and the new space.
“I think it can expand our mission,” said Angel Gabriel, the other co-owner. “I think it will allow us to reach a larger audience and clientele.”
There will be neighborhood children who grow up in the store, she said. That happened in L5P of course, but Gabriel said she wasn’t always sure if they were neighborhood kids exactly, or kids brought into the neighborhood. “I think we’ll have a lot of people who are neighborhood people and that will expand us,” she said.
And Charis is still a destination. Gabirel and Look are seeing a lot of the same people they saw at the old location. They also say visitors love the easy, free parking in an adjacent Agnes Scott parking lot. It’s also close to a MARTA train stop.
Agnes Scott students, faculty, staff and potential students were already visiting the store before its official grand re-opening party on April 27.
And by all appearances and feelings, the Charis vibe successfully made the move into the 1901 home. Even interior paint colors made the move.
It feels like a haven that invites a calm exhale, starting from wide front porch, going all the way through the bookshelves inside and event space in the back.
“Now that we have this dedicated programming space … we’re able to do daytime stuff, we’re able to adjust the start times of events so that we can have events going on simultaneously while the bookstore is open,” said E.R. Anderson, executive director of Charis Circle.
“I think that’s always been a big dream of mine because there are access issues with only doing events at night,” he said. Like for older folks who don’t drive at night, parents with evening duties and people who are just tired at night and don’t want to go back out.
The Agnes Scott swag for sale in the store is also new. That’s part of the formal partnership between Charis and Agnes Scott. The school owns the property and put up about one-third of the money to restore the home.
The school has partnered with private companies before. For example, Snap Fitness footed the bill to develop a location on campus, and Snap is its own company with its own customers. But in exchange for use of the Agnes Scott real estate, the Snap location is open free to students, faculty and staff for most hours of the week.
Elizabeth Hackett, the chair of the Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Department at Agnes Scott, helped work out the Charis deal.
Hackett said there’s a practical reason why the school likes the partnership. The textbook business is dying as books go virtual, and Agnes Scott was getting signals that its textbook provider didn’t want to go forward with that business. Yet Agnes Scott wanted a bookstore as well as a swag store and a place that can, say, sell the books associated with the school’s Writers’ Festival. Enter Charis.
“But … what made this partnership really exciting to a lot of us … was the synergy between the mission and the programing and the community that Charis has, and our own,” Hackett said.
The missions are not identical — Agnes Scott does not bill itself as a “feminist” college but it is dedicated to womens education and has a diverse student body, so there’s some significant overlap.
And they’ve already been working together: When Charis lined up author Roxane Gay to come speak in 2017 for example, the event was in Agnes Scott’s biggest venue.
Charis has developed great workshops, relationships, and an evolved pedagogy around social justice issues, Hackett said.
“They have, I think a really wonderfully innovative array of programs and workshops and turns of phrase and books and communities and working groups: all these different ways of engaging people in conversations around social justice,” Hackett said.
Charis gallery by Kelly Jordan