PAST Out: What is the History of Gay Bookstores?
|by Liz Highleyman|
|From their earliest days, gay bookstores served as community centers, and their merchandise provided many queer people with the first affirmations of their identity. Today, despite the challenges of economic change and an evolving queer movement, these stores remain important community institutions. In the words of gay author Michael Thomas Ford, "There's more to be found in a gay bookstore than just something nice to read."
Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York City's Greenwich Village was the world's oldest gay bookstore. Named forthe late-19th-century playwright imprisoned for sodomy, the store was opened in the fall of 1967 by Craig Rodwell, a former lover of Harvey Milk and a well-known community activist. Initially located on Mercer Street near New York University, it moved to a row house on Christopher Street in the West Village in 1973. The storewhich proudly sported a window sticker proclaiming "Gay is Good"served as a center of gay organizing nearly two years before the Stonewall riots. The first of what would become annual Gay Pride marches commemorating Stonewall was planned at Oscar Wilde in 1970.
The earliest gay bookstores were labors of love, and many of the first queer booksellerslike Rodwellwere community activists. In the early 1970s, Deacon Maccubbin began selling The Advocate and a few gay books from Earthworks, his head shop and crafts store in Washington D.C.'s Dupont Circle area. By 1974 he had enough money and inventory to open a bookstore, Lambda Rising, across the hall in the same building. A hub of radical organizing, over the years the building also housed the Gay Switchboard, the Yippies, the Black Panther defense committee, and the Gay Blade (later the Washington Blade) newspaper. Maccubbin recalls, "We used to joke that the building was only held together by all the wiretaps the FBI had placed there."
In Toronto, Jerald Moldenhauer first sold queer publications from a backpack at gay liberation meetings and later from his communal house (also an early home of Canada's The Body Politic magazine). He opened the first Glad Day bookstore in the city in 1972 and a branch in Boston in 1979. In the 1980s and '90s, Glad Dayalong with Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium in Vancouverwas repeatedly targeted for censorship by Canadian customs officials. After several lawsuits, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2000 that customs had unfairly discriminated against gay-themed materials.
The early world of gay bookstores was a small one. Ed Hermance, who founded Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia in 1973, recalls that Rodwell helped him buy books and even drove them to his store. Later Hermance imported books from Europe for other gay bookstores, including A Different Light, started by Richard Labonte, Norman Laurila, and George Leigh in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles in 1979. Labonte had met Laurila as a customer at Toronto's Glad Day, where Laurila was a manager. The three men would later open branches of A Different Light in New York City, San Francisco, and West Hollywood.
Over the years gay bookstores played a key role in the explosion of queer publishing. When Oscar Wilde opened, the store stocked a mere two dozen titles. Lambda Rising started with an inventory of just 250 books, and A Different Light carried about 900 titles its first year. "Gay books were so hard to find that whenever somebody brought out another title, we were thrilled," Labonte remembers. In 1979 only about 150 new gay books were published.
But as gay literature became more marketable, nongay merchants began to stock queer books, and mainstream publishers began to sign more queer authors. During the "gay book boom" of the mid-1980s through mid-1990s, the number of titles published skyrocketed to 1,500 a year.
Today, large bookstore chains present increasing competition to independent booksellers, and the Internet allows customers to purchase queer literature discreetly, regardless of where they live. Gone are the days when queer people in small towns had to stock up on gay books and magazines during occasional trips to the big city. Many gay bookstores have closed, though the ground-breaker, Oscar Wilde, scheduled to close on January 19, 2003, has been rescued by Lamda Rising's Maccubbin.
Yet gay bookstores are far from being relics of the past. Just to enter one is still a milestone for many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people as they come out, and queer tourists still often make the local gay bookstore their first stop when visiting a new city. Lambda Rising (now with five locations, including one in Rehoboth Beach), A Different Light in San Francisco and West Hollywood, and Glad Day in Toronto are among a number of stores that remain successful.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached in care of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth or at POcolumn@aol.com. She would like to thank Richard Labonte and Norman Laurila for information they provided for this column.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 13, No. 1, February 7, 2003