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Penngrove’s ‘Sitting Room’ stands up for literary women


The tale of The Sitting Room is a love story of sorts.

The narrative of the small volunteer-run library that’s nestled among the redwoods in the Penngrove home one of its “guiding mothers” outlines a history of local women’s undying devotion to books, their passion for promoting female authors and artists, and a community’s embrace.

Founded in 1981 by a group of women’s advocates that included Penngrove resident J.J. Wilson and Petaluman Karen Petersen, the community library has long served as “a place of solace and comfort in a brash and busy world,” according to its creators.

Wilson and Petersen, who had been involved with spearheading the women’s studies program at Sonoma State University in the 1970s, co-authored “Women Artists: Recognition and Reappraisal from the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century,” which was released in 1976. Recognizing the lack of access to literature by and about women, they used money from book sales and related publicity to join forces with four local women and one man to create a library that would to serve as a place for eating, conversation, and of course, books that celebrated women.

“We had to have a good place for people to do research and find a retreat from the activism, which can be very exhausting,” said Wilson, who turned 80 this year.

Word about the nonprofit spread, and donated books by women authors poured in. The collection at the library, which was originally housed in Cotati, grew over the years, with nearly 6,000 books now filling the shelves.

“I would say the strength of The Sitting Room is in the literary collection,” Petersen, 72, said. “There are many women writers, poets and critics and so on who have passed through here … they all find the idea of small modest library and reading room very intriguing, as well as coming and talking to people and meeting for coffee. It’s much more like a salon than a library.”

In the last three decades, the library has become a gathering place for a diverse community of authors and literary enthusiasts, drawing famed writers including Jean Hegland, whose book “Into the Forest,” was recently made into a movie and Sonoma County Poet Laureate Terry Ehret.

The library eventually moved to Wilson’s home, where the donated volumes of all shapes and sizes fill the spaces that are adorned with artwork and poems created by women, with books spilling over into baskets and displayed on coffee tables and pianos. An honor system lending library is housed in the front closet and hallway, with rooms with floor to ceiling windows that are filled with eclectic decorations and inviting furniture dedicated to writing and poetry.

The Sitting Room hosts workshops and readings featuring authors and poets from Sonoma County and beyond, field trips, book clubs and its members also produce a yearly publication, with writings on topics ranging from marriage to an ode to The Sitting Room itself. Wilson hosts a birthday party for The Sitting Room each year, with the nearly 70 attendees listening to readings from the publication.

For Wilson, who organized her first free lending library from a cupboard at the Virginia farmhouse where she spent her childhood, The Sitting Room has been the pinnacle of her long-spanning career.

“I’m really proud of it, there’s just no getting around that. I consider it my legacy,” Wilson said.

The nonprofit has existed through a shifting society with evolving conversations around women’s rights, and its curators make an effort to fill it with up-to-date books, with an current exhibit showcasing graphic novels by women and another display featuring literature about gender fluidity and transgender culture tucked inside Wilson’s grandmother’s china cabinet.

Sonoma State University literature professor Chingling Wo, who lives down the street from Wilson, said she uses the library as a place to visit with her students for teaching and as a resource for personal exploration.

“It’s a place that you can enjoy with other people or alone,” she said. “When you’re in the room, there’s an otherworldly creative energy that calms you.”

For Amelia-Marie Altstadt, a 21-year-old liberal studies major at Sonoma State University who’s interning at the nonprofit, the space provides a home away from home.

“I love that it’s so cozy,” she said, adding that the collection of tea that’s piled high in the communal kitchen is her favorite part.

Years after its founding, Petersen said the library still remains a community hub, and despite the uncertain future of print books, Petersen, who serves as a librarian at the Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma campus, said The Sitting Room will play a role into the evolution of the conversations around libraries.

“I think it’s a very unique and special resource that plays a very positive role in many people’s lives,” she said.

For more information, visit sittingroom.org.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.)