PROVINCETOWN — Soon after Michelle Axelson got the bad news — the building that houses Womencrafts, her business at 376 Commercial St., was to be put on the market — there was good news. The sellers of the building, Kathryn Livelli and Wendy Hinden, who had also owned Womencrafts before selling the business to Axelson in 2015, invited her to purchase the entire three-unit building for less than their asking price of $1.6 million.
Axelson scrambled to come up with the money. To purchase the unit upstairs, which is Axelson’s apartment, she turned to a mortgage. To purchase the basement unit, which is a currently vacant retail space, she turned to a private loan. To purchase the unit the shop is in, she turned to friends, family, neighbors, and strangers.
Axelson launched a crowdfunding campaign on the online platform GoFundMe on July 2 with the headline “Save Womencrafts.” The target was the $200,000 down payment for the shop’s condo unit.
“The GoFundMe is only for the part of the building that benefits the community,” she said. “It’s not to help with my apartment or the extra bottom unit.”
Less than three weeks later, on July 21, Axelson had raised that $200,000.
“When I’ve walked down the street this week, people have yelled ‘Congratulations!’ to me,” Axelson said. “It really was amazing to see the community taking care of its own.”
Womencrafts was founded in 1973 as a lesbian and feminist bookstore, though that descriptor calls to mind something a little more 20th-century than the store’s current iteration as a “queer, intersectional space.”
Axelson moved to Provincetown from Boston in 2010 and told the Independent in an October 2020 interview that working at Womencrafts had been a “get well” job after working for many meaningful but stressful years as a social worker. She eventually bought the business from its founders — but that did not include the real estate.
As of this writing, the GoFundMe campaign has raised a little over $211,000 from over 1,300 donations, some as little as $5 and one for $15,000.
Axelson is leaving her listed goal at $200,000, but she is keeping the GoFundMe page live and continuing to accept donations toward the $700,000 total sale price of the store’s unit. At Women’s Week in mid-October, she plans to end the campaign and host a celebration thanking the community.
Initially, Axelson hesitated to ask for help. “That was shame talking,” Axelson said. “I thought I wasn’t allowed to ask.”
She thought back to the early months of the pandemic when many small businesses, forced to shut down for months, turned to GoFundMe. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I love small businesses, I want to support these other people — people would and could support Womencrafts.’ ”
The first donations came from friends of the shop, but after that Axelson said she didn’t recognize many of the names of the donors.
She also worried, when her fundraiser was described in a Cape Cod Times story, that people from more conservative corners of the Cape might not be sympathetic. But having more people know about her quest has been mainly positive. “I ended up getting four nasty comments about being a lesbian,” she said, “and one ‘Jesus saves.’ ”
The experience has reminded Axelson how supportive the lesbian, queer, and Provincetown communities can be. And those nasty comments are an important reminder of why Womencrafts exists in the first place, she says: “We’re in danger all the time. And we have to take care of each other because of that.”
The shop has a wealth of information for LGBTQ people and those trying to support them. “Right now, it’s family members coming in asking about their kids and grandkids who are trans,” she says. She’s glad the store is the kind of place where people can ask those questions.
At the same time, in Provincetown and nationwide, spaces for lesbians are increasingly hard to come by. According to the Lesbian Bar Project, a nonprofit based in New York, there are only 21 lesbian bars left in the country, none of which are in Massachusetts.
“There used to be places where lesbians could dance,” Axelson said. “Those don’t exist anymore.
“My priority is always to be intersectional,” she adds. “But I’m a lesbian and the shop is lesbian- originated, owned, and operated. That community feels less and less visible here.
“If, one day, it was ever so awesome in the world that there didn’t need to be a space that focuses solely on works made by women and trans folks, then, hey, I’d be happy to close the shop,” she says. “But I don’t imagine that happening in my lifetime. So, for now, more art, more books, more activism, more Womencrafts.”