PROVINCETOWN — Michelle Axelson came to town in November 2010, for a break.
A Boston-based social worker by training, she had loved working at Mass. Correctional Institution — Framingham, a women’s prison, as well as with substance abuse patients at a gay community health center. But she felt burnt out by the disease of addiction, and she was grappling with the end of a relationship.
In short: she felt as if her life was falling apart. So, she allowed herself a winter season in Provincetown to put herself back together. That was 9 years, 11 months ago. Axelson’s still here.
“I absolutely fell in love with Provincetown,” she told the Independent. “Living here is a lot about letting go — about not measuring yourself and comparing yourself to others and living life on life’s terms. Who wouldn’t want to live on the ocean, in response to the tides?”
But it wasn’t just about a new way of living: Axelson fell in love with her stopover gig.
“In the mental health and substance abuse fields,” she said, “if you have reason to take a break, you call your next job your ‘get well job.’ ” For Axelson, that “get well job” was at Womencrafts, a lesbian-owned landmark at 376 Commercial St. that is one of just 13 remaining feminist bookstores in the U.S. and, since 1976, has been promoting female creators of all kinds — authors, artisans, and musicians. Working there, Axelson immediately felt at home.
“Womencrafts basically is a community center,” she said. “In here, you’re at home and you’re safe, and we see you. I realized really quickly that it was a lot more than a retail job. I felt like a social worker.”
Axelson used Womencrafts to host protest planning sessions, a feminist fight club, and a book club of feminist titles. She used it to do what she does best: listen.
“I’ve always been very attuned to bearing witness,” she said. “I grew up in an alcoholic household — I don’t mind sharing that — and, from a young age, I have focused on trying to help and take care of others. I think listening to others’ stories is in me, and that’s a lot of what I do here at Womencrafts.”
Born in 1977, Axelson is a year younger than the establishment, and she was conscious, she said, of her worldview as an out lesbian being affected by the same forces that had shaped the shop, originally a lesbian-separatist space.
When customers come in, Axelson urges them to share their memories of the store, and what it means to them. She hears the same themes over and over: Womencrafts as a cultural touchstone, as a safe space, as a place where lesbians come to proclaim and celebrate their sexuality out loud.
“The stories longtime customers share are so important,” Axelson said. “It’s so important to connect intergenerational communities.”
Kathryn Livelli and Wendy Hinden, the couple that owned Womencrafts and hired her, agreed. And so, three years after she started her “get well job,” they approached Axelson, a generation younger than they were, with an idea: she loved the store — did she want to buy it?
Axelson was floored. “I thought people who owned stores were all wealthy,” she said. But Livelli and Hinden mentored her through the process. And in buying the store, Axelson bought herself a way to stay in the place she loved — a way “to make sense here,” to continue bearing witness and shape Provincetown’s lesbian community.
One of the highlights of Axelson’s time at Womencrafts? No question: Women’s Week.
That one week usually generates as much income for the store each year as the entire month of July. “People buy books to last them a year,” Axelson said. “They’re upfront with me that they could get the books cheaper online, but it’s important to buy it here. For a long time, it was one of the only places you could find lesbian titles on the shelf.”
Though the financial boost is important (“We’re not a nonprofit — we’re a barely profit,” she said), Women’s Week offers much more.
“It breaks my heart when people come in and ask where all of Provincetown’s women are,” she said. “Provincetown is male-dominated, and Women’s Week is just a special time. It’s a place where underrepresented, unappreciated people are rock stars.” And where stars often mingle. “So many of the women who come have been central to so many of our coming-out stories and our experiences — living legends, really, like Cris Williamson,” Axelson said. “It’s an opportunity to understand why getting together in women’s spaces is so important to the older generation.”
And, thanks to Covid, there’s not a lot of getting-together happening right now. Only five customers are allowed into Womencrafts at a time. For Axelson, whose “favorite thing” is seeing her store packed with people reading, the situation just “sucks.”
As she spoke, a customer was ready to be rung up. Axelson processed the transaction and handed a bag across the counter.
“Thank you,” the customer said. “You’re a true goddess among women.”
Women’s Week 2020
Friday, Oct. 9, through Sunday, Oct. 18
Whale Watch Dolphin Fleet:
MacMillan Pier; daily, 9:30 a.m. & 1:30 p.m.; $55; whalewatch.com or 508-240-3636
Art’s Dune Tours:
Off-road tour through the dunes of the National Seashore; daily, 10 & 11:30 a.m., 1:15, 2:45 & 4 p.m.; 800-894-1951
Truro Vineyards & South Hollow Spirits:
11 Shore Road, Truro; daily, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., trurovineyardsofcapecod.com
Bay Lady II:
MacMillan Pier; sails daily, 12:30 p.m.; $40; or at sunset, 4:30 p.m.; $45; sailcapecod.com or 508.487.9308
Suede in concert:
Crown & Anchor poolside, 247 Commercial St.; 4 p.m., sold out; 8 p.m., $65; onlyatthecrown.com
Virtual events: Screenings, performance: womensweekprovincetown.com