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Jesse's Journal: Gay bookstores, a dying breed

BY JESSE MONTEAGUDO

Like many lesbians, gay men, bisexuals or transgender people, I came out of the closet with the help of gay books and gay bookstores.  Though we didn’t have a gay bookstore in Miami when I came out in the early 1970s, I took advantage of the mail order services provided by the newly-established bookshops.  My first visit to the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in Greenwich Village (1977) was like a religious pilgrimage; an experience that I repeated two years later when I first visited Lambda Rising Bookstore in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC.  Both Oscar Wilde and Lambda Rising were part of a chain of independent bookshops that dotted the gay ghettoes of North America: Glad Day in Boston and Toronto, Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, Outwrite in Atlanta, A Different Light in West Hollywood and San Francisco, Little Sister’s in Vancouver and, of course, Lambda Passages in Miami.

Sadly, the quantity and quality of exclusively gay bookstores have declined during the first decade of the 21st Century.  In 2009 the Oscar Wilde Bookshop drew its last breath; and just last month Deacon Maccubbin, the founder and still co-owner of Lambda Rising Bookstore, announced plans to close his stores in Washington, D.C. and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  Maccubbin’s reasons are understandable: he and Jim Bennett, his partner and co-owner, want to retire after 35 years in the book business.  But their departure will leave a gap in our community that may never be filled.

The demise of Oscar Wilde and Lambda Rising bookstores (among others) leave behind only a handful of exclusively GLBT bookstores, including Giovanni’s Room, Outwrite, Little Sister’s and Lambda Passages, all teetering on the edge of insolvency.  These and other stores can not compete with major chain stores like Barnes & Noble or Borders, or mail order houses like Amazon.com.  Though the existence of a GLBT book section in a major chain store is of course a step forward for our community, it cannot take the place of our small, independently-owned, queer bookshops.  Long before B&N and Borders took notice, our community bookstores were making GLBT books available, supporting GLBT authors and fostering good GLBT literature.  Deacon Maccubbin himself criticized gay writers who put links to Amazon and other online sellers on their Web sites:  “I wonder if they really think they would have been published at all if not for the gay bookstores that sprang up around the country in the 1980s and 1990s. . . . In the 1970s, that literature barely existed.”

But gay bookshops do more than sell books.  According to Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia, “gay and lesbian - and feminist/women’s - bookstores have traditionally served as informal community centers, offering everything from space for bulletin boards to tourist information to legal and medical referrals.  Many also provide space for meetings, performances, and readings.”  The late John Preston, writing in The Big Gay Book (1991) called gay bookstores “the one single most consequential element in the development of gay culture.  These stores have been willing to stock our books when others wouldn't have them.  They represent a distribution system for our journals and newspapers.  They are often the first stop that isolated gay men [and lesbians] make when they get to a major city, desperate for a gay cultural fix."

Preston’s statement holds true almost two decades later. The surviving GLBT bookshops, especially those that have coffee shops, provide a social outlet for our community members, especially queer and questioning youth.  Unlike bars, bookstores are alcohol- and stress-free and are accessible to all segments of our community.  They provide us with hard-to-find items produced by gay-owned, small book, audio and video publishers.  In lesbian and gay bookstores we get personalized service from knowledgeable, gay or gay-friendly staff members who know their merchandise and who are part of our community.  Many of these shops have Web sites and/or catalog services that makes it is as easy for us to buy from them as it is to buy from Amazon.com.

Sadly, the rise of gay-friendly chain stores and online sellers has been fatal to gay bookshops everywhere.  Many surviving shops have had to diversify in order to survive, by selling or renting DVDs, t-shirts, greeting cards and jewelry along with books and magazines.  Independent gay bookstores, like other "Mom and Mom" or "Pop and Pop" businesses, can only thrive by providing their customers with products and services that the major chains can't or won't provide -- such as adult videos or DVDs that are not available elsewhere.  Only that - and a loyal customer base - will allow our few remaining bookshops to live long and prosper.

Jesse Monteagudo is a freelance writer and gay book lover who lives in South Florida with his life partner.  You may reach him at jessemonteagudo@aol.com.

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