Shop-owner Erin Dougherty has one of those super contagious laughs–the kind that bursts forward in total earnest every time she sees someone she finds delightful pop through the doors of Eleanor’s Norfolk, her feminist and intersectional book and bottle shop tucked into the Colley Ave shopping district. The store is almost always bubbling with energy, as Eleanor’s has become one part gorgeous wine, gift, and book store and one part staging ground for meet-cutes between engaged citizens who are absolutely determined to transform the world into a better place. It is a wholly unique destination: a shop our community never knew we needed but now can’t live without.
As the world was cursing the sky upon realizing the Hot Vax Summer of 2021 was not to be, Erin was buzzing with energy, ideas, and nerves as she readied herself to fulfill her longtime dream of opening a book store. It took a year of planning and real skill to unspool the mysteries of city permitting, bottle sales, and COVID mitigation while keeping a straight face as commercial landlords asked for eye-watering rents. Every entrepreneur will tell you that cutting your teeth on your first venture can be grueling, but starting a small business during a pandemic that left society roiling from multiple seismic social upheavals is a whole new kind of challenge. Erin chose to rise to the moment that was calling to her, which showed.
Customers and the shopkeeper weave among neatly curated shelves of books in a neon dream spectrum of colors, featuring hand-drawn fonts and shadowy, saturated photos. Eleanor’s sells the kind of books that you can almost feel vibrating off the shelves. They teem so busily with unique thoughts: small papered lakes full of electric ideas that zip around like the tiny water strider bugs that glide across the tops of Norfolk’s estuaries.
Though great local bookshops are a rarity in today’s cloud-based existence, when you stumble across a gem, you know how immediately grateful you feel to have found a place where conversation fireworks explode. Warm, modern, and comfortable, Erin set out to make Eleanor’s a place of gathering. She wanted customers to become more than consumers of goods; she wanted them to consume ideas and, even more impactfully, become active participants in the spread of positive societal change.
The shop brings the concept of a salon (critical to the education of women outside of the home during First Wave feminism) into the modern feminism of today, a Fourth Wave that started around 2012 embraced inclusivity and the intersectionality of feminist identity. Fourth Wave feminism stands behind core principles of:
- Guarding many kinds of human rights against ambushing.
- Highlighting how our identities overlap.
- Deepening a commitment to more robust resources for families and caretakers.
Now well into the first year of operation, Erin has watched our world tenuously blossom again, and you can find her busily managing her stylish, sun-filled shop like a community conductor. She welcomes in an ever-growing cadre of unique local do-gooders, then orchestrates connections with the hope of sparking hyperlocal solutions at a time when society, she feels, has allowed social ills to spiral completely.
Eleanor’s now serves as a networking point for local mutual aid groups, which are small coalitions of citizens working to meet each other’s everyday needs. The core idea of mutual aid is rejecting top-down charity in exchange for solidarity amongst citizens. The bright pink period and hygiene pantry on Eleanor’s front porch proclaims: “Give what you can. Take what you need.” No shame, no paperwork, no begging – just receiving help when needed and returning the favor when you’re on your feet. No government social program will help you fix your car when you’re broke, but mutual aid groups will help you crowdsource the funds and give you a ride to work if you need it.
A radical at heart but a pragmatist in mind, Erin rings up customers while transitioning seamlessly into solution-based discussions about how citizens can help dismantle oppression. She’s a practice-what-you-preach kind of person, making the community she’s helping build much more compelling. And the feeling goes both ways. She shrugs off my question about how her shop changed our community and instead noted how the community changed her. She describes, with some emotion, how fulfilling her dream made her a bolder, braver person with a more profound sense of belonging.
Like a chrysalis, Eleanor’s holds everyone in its cocoon and helps transform them into something a bit more colorful and true—creating a sanctuary where you never feel the need to turn your volume down. Not even Erin is immune to the impact of the welcoming space she’s created. All of us want to find our people, and Eleanor’s gives us a perfect place to go searching.
The store has become a nucleus for readers, thinkers, yogis, storytellers, activists, educators, writers, and strivers. Whether it’s a phenomenally mind-opening book club, a mineraly bottle of wine from a female vintner, or incredibly cheeky gifts of art for your favorite person, there’s something here for everyone. And no conversation at Eleanor’s is complete without at least one charming introduction to someone intriguing who’s dropped by to say hi, find inspiration, or unload about the state of the world.
It’s probably this last one that happens to Erin most. As we wrap up our interview and the many conversations we’d stopped to have with others who passed through looking for a sounding board, the store’s wooden door squeals to a slow close, and things go momentarily quiet. Erin pulls in a big breath and blows the bangs of her pixie cut out of her eyes, fanning herself with a notebook and coming back to center before the cycle starts again.
Overwhelmed by the fast pace of the last hour and the seemingly endless number of topics we’ve covered, we laugh and revel in the brief silence. I leave feeling lighter, like most who visit. Later my phone brightens, and it’s Erin texting about our hasty goodbye earlier. “Sometimes I feel like a community feelings manager,” she says with a mix of utter joy and exhaustion.
A ‘community feelings manager’ is what she is, and a great one, too. The kind of retail therapy you can get at Eleanor’s is unlike any other.
806 Baldwin Ave #1
Open Wed-Sat 11 AM-7 PM & Sunday 12 PM-5 PM
Book Clubs are Sundays from 2-5 PM
West Ghent, NFK
Kayce White is a community organizer and advocate passionate about creating unique conversations via artistic and inventive mediums, with the goal of engaging citizens in important local and national civic issues.
Raised in Myrtle Beach, SC, Kayce and her family happily washed ashore in Norfolk after 11 years in Brooklyn, NY. They found a true home for their two little boys and two black cats in West Ghent, where Kayce now heads up the civic league’s safety committee. By day, she runs her sustainable home goods brand HAVEN®.