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[whitespace] J.J. Wilson
Photograph by Michael Amsler

A woman's place: J. J. Wilson, an SSU instructor, co-founded the Sitting Room in 1981 as a place for those interested in books "by, about, and of interest to women." Today, the Cotati storefront is a quiet haven for women's lit buffs.

Sitting Pretty

Sitting Room celebrates 20 years as book nook

By Guy Biederman

TELLING the world about the Sitting Room is like telling everyone about your favorite fishing hole, then drawing them a map. But that's part of what makes the Sitting Room, a woman's lending library in Cotati that celebrates its 20th birthday on April 1, a special place.

Open to anyone who is genuinely interested in books "by, about, and of interest" to women, it is a haven for individuals seeking a quiet place to read, as well as a lively venue for literary workshops, book discussion groups, and other artistic events.

I first heard about the Sitting Room from a student of mine a few years back. I was in-between teaching classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, holding short-story workshops in the living room of a woman named Virginia. My student told me about this "feminist reading room" filled with books and overstuffed chairs--a cozy place where anyone could read or write or take a writing workshop. Best of all, she said, you could just ask for a key at this little bar up the road.

I was intrigued. At the time I was living in Marin, dashing up and down 101 to teach wherever I could--a tenure-track member of the Freeway Faculty. I didn't know many people in Sonoma County, and few knew me. Not only was I a stranger, I also happened to be a man. I had no idea whether I would be welcomed or feel comfortable in this place that sounded almost too good to be true.

So I didn't know what to expect when I walked into the Sitting Room one weekend and met co-founders J. J. Wilson and Karen Petersen working away. They were friendly and open, and even offered me a bowl of hearty soup and a cup of tea on that blustery day. They listened as I explained what I was doing and what I was looking for--namely, a clean, well-lighted place to teach my short-fiction classes. Wilson immediately checked the calendar and, just like that, penciled me in for Tuesday evenings.

On the night of my first class, we sat in comfy chairs, surrounded by books, writing furiously in our notebooks. My eye wandered to a book on the top shelf: MANKILLER. I had to laugh (turned out Mankiller was the last name of a Native American author).

AS A LIBRARY with over 6,000 books, the Sitting Room has some delightfully unusual policies. You can talk without raising the disapproving eyebrows of some silent, stuffy scholar. And you can even eat while you read. In back is a kitchenette and a small frig for snacks and coffee and tea. Potluck meals are held to plan events and celebrate literary accomplishments. Perhaps best of all, there is no dreaded telephone to yank you away from a good read or thoughtful conversation.

One bookcase is devoted to literary magazines, chapbooks, and books by small presses. A bulletin board posts notices for contests and other literary events. The Sitting Room's own newsletter announces community events at Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College, as well in-house events and other literary and artistic happenings in the community.

Started by Wilson, a Sonoma State English professor, and Petersen, a Santa Rosa Junior College librarian, the Sitting Room began as an idea for a reading room. Wilson and Petersen had written a book called Women's Art, and when the book proved successful beyond their expectations, they decided to literally give back to the local literary community.

With the help of other founders and countless friends, the Sitting Room was born in two ordinary office rooms in Cotati. It has expanded to include a third, secluded room for quiet study and writing, and over time it's been transformed into an inviting, cozy literary space. Help also came from outside sources such as Clairelight Books, and continues today with ongoing support provided by North Light Books in Cotati and the Sonoma County monthly newspaper Women's Voices.

The roots of this marvelous place go all the way back to Wilson's childhood, when as a young girl she opened her own lending library on her back porch to the other kids in the neighborhood. As she puts it, "I had so many books, others so few, and with no public library nearby, it seemed a natural."

As an 11-year-old girl, she too employed an informal but effective honor system, keeping a sign-out notebook with a pencil attached by a string next to the books.

Today the Sitting Room has its own "blue dot" version of this system. Designated books can be checked out, while others are for reading on the premises only. It all seems to work. There is an easy, almost fragile quality to the Sitting Room that is based upon trust and goodwill and community spirit. It's a refreshing example of what can be done when caring, dedicated individuals work (but not too hard) toward a common dream.

For two decades now, the Sitting Room has grown and thrived without the help of government assistance--an amazing concept when you think of the difficulties our own public schools always seem to encounter when it comes to funding art, libraries, and literary activities. Relying on donations of books, financial contributions, and the volunteer work effort of many, the Sitting Room has evolved into a supportive community for readers, writers, and people interested in the arts. It has become, to quote Virginia Wolfe, " a house that fits us all."

I doubt that J. J. Wilson or Karen Petersen would wish to be singled out for all the work they've done over the years to create, promote, and maintain the Sitting Room because, indeed, there have been many, many supporters--often anonymous--along the way.

But these two women, with their generosity and their plethora of skills, from cataloging of books to their knowledge of women's history and literature, have truly made the Sitting Room what it is today.


The Sitting Room at 170 E. Cotati Ave., Cotati, celebrates its 20th birthday on Sunday, April 1, with a party and public readings by local writers from 2:30 to 5 p.m. Everyone is welcome. Feel free to bring a present--"anything made of paper." For details, call 707/795-9028.

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From the March 29-April 4, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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