It’s late afternoon 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 40-year-old Erica Rodriguez Merrell, manager and co-owner of Gainesville’s longest-running feminist bookstore—and Florida’s last. A short woman with a toothy grin, Merrell would spend a typical day 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 this day is not typical. The usually jam-packed cases lining the bookstore’s walls are curiously empty; signs handwritten in marker announce whole shelves 25 or 75 percent off.
When Wild Iris finally closed its doors on December 23, 2017, it marked an end to a nearly 50-year history, one that is inextricably tied to the women’s movement in Gainesville. As other relics of that time period closed, Wild Iris carried on despite multiple name and ownership changes. And as the community around the store changed, the store’s owners altered their programming to foster a more inclusive feminism.
In its later years, the bookstore held a queer feminist mic night. It hosted transgender-only barbecues and brunches for women of color where attendees sipped mimosas and listened to Beyonce. Wild Iris also organized the Gainesville Free Store, a collection of donated items ranging from clothing to potty trainers that people could take from freely, an initiative that started with the trans community and the homeless in mind.
For Merrell, feminist bookselling is akin to counseling. “I’m really proud of all the people I have loved,” she says. Wild Iris sought to provide a welcoming space for feminists and the LGBTQ community when there weren’t many other spaces in Florida attempting to do the same.
“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,” one longtime patron, Sterling Davenport, says. “And they were just regular people who got it.”
Many feminists consider Gainesville one of the incubators of second wave feminism in America. It hosted one of the first five Women’s Liberation groups in the country during the late ‘60s. Sally Harrison, who has been supporting Wild Iris since those days, says she’s having “a lot of separation anxiety” about the closing. She’s been going to Wild Iris for most of her adult life.
Harrison moved from Mississippi to Gainesville in the late 1960s as the local feminist movement was just beginning. A politically active 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,” says Linda Bassham, who ran Wild Iris from 1979 to 1981 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 the University of Florida. She took to the city because it was big enough for a lot to go on—but small enough that everyone knew everyone else. 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 Brown approached her that year about opening a women’s center, Bassham was more than willing to help.
In 1975, Bassham helped finance the opening of Women Unlimited, the center of the feminist movement in Gainesville. Occupying a white house, the center contained the Sexual Physical Resource Abuse Center, a newsletter, a counseling center, and the bookstore. 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 says.
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 it, Bassham says.
That was a problem when the county discovered government money was going to fund a feminist bookstore run by radical lesbians. 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,” Bassham says. “In some ways we did, and we were. And in other ways, the backlash has been incredible.”
Over the next decade, feminist bookstores across the country met the same fate as Women Unlimited, when the grants ended after the election of Ronald Reagan.
In 1985, a member of the Free Congress Foundation (today the American Opportunity Foundation) stalled a $625,000 grant from the Justice Department for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, at the time a coalition of 877 shelters across the country, when he said, “I don’t think pro-lesbian, hard-core feminists should be getting a grant from the Reagan Administration.”
Combined with the defeat of Equal Rights Amendment, the magical era seemed over.
But Wild Iris carried on. After Women Unlimited shuttered 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 it stocked lesbian literature like Rita Mae Brown’s 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 risque at the time,” Bassham says.
But “independent bookstores are a real challenge,” Bassham added. “We just never really made any money off of it.”
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 continued to patronize the bookstore, no matter who owned it or what it was called. She shopped at the store so regularly that on the day she went to say goodbye to Wild Iris, she couldn’t find a book she didn’t already own.
Merrell moved to Gainesville from Miami to be with her boyfriend, who is now her husband, in 2007. She had been selling books for six years, and by that point, she was already a self-identified feminist. “I had never been in a feminist bookstore, and it blew my mind,” she says. After two years of volunteering while she worked at the corporate Books-a-Million, 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.
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.
Merrell took over full leadership of the store in 2012. She took the efforts toward intersectionality from a theory people could read about to something the store could practice. There was no transgender section before she started working there. The store remained a vibrant and inclusive community in a conservative part of the state.
Sterling Davenport, a 28-year-old gay man raised in Jacksonville, Florida, says Merrell and Calhoun were the first people he commiserated with when he had family troubles after coming out. At Wild Iris he found a community, he says.
“Living in Gainesville we’re surrounded,” Davenport says. “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.”
“And so we feel the need of that type of space very deeply,” he says. “Or we did.”
“I’m gonna miss being a part of what is a movement, just being a part of a feminist bookstore,” one volunteer, Kira Christmas, says. “It’s dying out as the numbers dwindle each and every year for feminist bookstores.”
Now that Wild Iris has closed, there are only 12 feminist bookstores in the country. These bookstores never profited off their books or foot traffic alone, augmenting sales with novelty items and partnerships. 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. In theory, this would allow students to search for the cheapest option available on the market—that is, what was available online.
In practice, this law hurt independent bookstores. Professors were no longer allowed to require students to shop at Wild Iris, or any other independent bookstore in Gainesville.
And in any case, “students,” Davenport says, “are not sustainers.”
At least Wild Iris was on the university town’s main thoroughfare at that time, 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.
Then, in 2012, Wild Iris was approaching its 20th anniversary, and the first wave of re-development on University Ave hit as builders began to eye the area as a potential location for student apartments and fast-food chains. Calhoun and Merrell received word that 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, which 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.
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. Wild Iris raised more than $6,000, which financed the move to a cheaper location in the courtyard of Gainesville’s progressive reading room, the Civic Media Center.
Yet as much as Wild Iris fit into the courtyard, Merrell says the more tucked-away space affected sales.
For her day job, Merrell is the finance director for Peaceful Paths Domestic Abuse Network, the domestic violence center that SPARC eventually became. What she does is numbers and math, she says, 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 says. “Something would kind of always show up. But I think in my heart I knew—I mean, I’ve known this day was coming.”
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.
On December 26, Merrell and a handful of volunteers were back in the store, packing up the remaining inventory. It took two or three hours every week until late January to pack all the books into eight boxes and sort through storage.
Calhoun says that over the years, as other feminist and LGBTQ-friendly spaces in Florida have closed, they’ve sent their resources to live on at Wild Iris. Now, Wild Iris is doing the same, donating inventory to other organizations in town.
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.
Then on January 26, the movers came for the bookshelves.
“It feels backward,” Merrell says, 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.”
Wild Iris’s legacy will be remembered for a long while. “To know that we were key in the feminist battle is an awesome thing,” says Wild Iris volunteer Crystal Sorrow. “Abortion wasn’t legal, women’s health wasn’t discussed. And we put that into the community.”
This story was adapted from “A New Chapter,” originally published in Gainesville’s The Fine Print Magazine. It is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more from our Think Local series here.