Buy the Book
When I moved to New York as a 20-year-old baby gay ready to start life in the big city, one of the first places I went was A Different Light bookstore, then located on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. Walking through its door, I found myself for the first time in a place where books about people like myself were front and center, instead of hidden in the far recesses of a Sexuality or Gender Studies section of a larger chain store (if they were there at all). And instead of one or two titles, I found hundreds.
I found many other things there. A schedule of meetings for the recently-established ACT UP, which would become my introduction to queer politics. Information about The Center, where I would soon become a volunteer. A bulletin board overflowing with fliers about so many happenings and events that it made my head swim. Later, I would find my first boyfriend there. But that first day, I went home with a bag stuffed near to bursting and a heart filled with joy.
I still remember the first books I purchased there. Larry Duplechan’s Blackbird. David B. Feinberg’s Eighty-Sixed. Larry Kramer’s Faggots. And editor George Stambolian’s Men on Men: Best New Gay Fiction, which would introduce me to a roster of voices including Dennis Cooper, Edmund White, Felice Picano, and Andrew Holleran. I spread these treasures out on the bed in my tiny studio apartment and read pieces from each, too excited to focus on any one of them.
Filmmaker John Waters infamously said (although a bit more colorfully), “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t sleep with ‘em!” In New York in those days, this was rarely a problem. Gay men read. A lot. Almost every home you went into had a bookcase filled with favorites.
Going home with someone often ended in discovering both new erotic possibilities as well as a list of titles to pick up on the next visit to the bookstore. And if you wanted to keep up with the conversations at social gatherings, I discovered, being able to talk about books was as important as having opinions about the newest Broadway shows or what was happening in Washington.
Somewhere along the line, things changed.
Maybe I notice this more because books are my livelihood. When I first started publishing, there were dozens of LGBTQ bookstores. On my first book tour, I visited more than twenty of them. I was reviewed and profiled in LGBTQ newspapers in every city I visited. My books were brought by the InsightOut Book Club and promoted heavily in the LGBTQ sections of chain stores such as Borders.
Then those things began to disappear. The newspapers folded. The stores closed. InsightOut was dissolved by its parent company. The small gay presses (particularly the early feminist/lesbian presses) that had been instrumental in getting queer voices into print struggled to survive.
A lot of this had to do with changes in how readers found and bought books. The internet replaced stores and Amazon “other books you might like” algorithms replaced booksellers recommending titles to their customers. But it also had to do with changes in the LGBTQ community itself. With greater acceptance and political gains, and with the worst of the HIV/AIDS crisis behind us, we became perhaps less insular, less inclined to make and support art specifically about our queer lives.
According to a recent report issued by the Pew Research Center, the typical American reads four books a year. I like to think the typical gay American reads far more than that. But I don’t know.
My ex-partner never read books, even mine. He preferred television. And of course, while my writer friends read and talk about books, I find that more and more of my friends are more interested in things like movies. Ironically, and frankly, sadly, they’re frequently the ones who balk at paying $20 for a book but will eagerly plunk down $30 for a movie ticket, some popcorn, and a soda. Not to mention the cash they shell out for associated t-shirts, plastic toys, and the DVD when it comes out.
Summer is here now, which means vacation time for some of us, or maybe weekends on the beach. As you look for ways to keep yourself entertained, I encourage you to pick up some books. Preferably by LGBTQ writers. Preferably new ones you actually pay for, so the author can receive some royalties and maybe be able to afford to write the next one.
Equally important, or maybe even more important, I encourage you to talk about what you’re reading. Tell people about the books. Make reading and discussing books a part of your life, or a bigger part if you already do. We’ll all be better for it.
Oh, and if you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, lend them one of yours. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. More Michael Thomas Ford