A recent article posted at the website CarnalNation.com is titled “Queer Books Saved My Life.” It is worth a read.
I can totally relate to the idea of queer books saving lives, my own included, as well as many up and coming queers I've known over the 35 years that have passed since I came out. And I think the time has come for us long-term survivors to remember and appreciate the people who have struggled to create the environment that brought queer books and queer authors out of the closet. Let us not forget those brave and determined queer pioneers who began to venture into the commercial book world nearly half a century ago and ultimately drew queer literature into the mainstream market where you may find it today. More or less.
To many of us Queers of a Certain Age it was a sad awakening indeed, the day we realized that the phenomenon of the Queer Bookstore, so important to our queer development, has become an endangered species. A dying breed. Almost anyone who wants to buy a queer book today seems to follow an automatic impulse leading them to log on to Amazon.com or, if they’re feeling adventurous, to seek out a Borders Bookstore in some nearby mall. Do they even know how the modern queer book market that everyone takes for granted owes its very existence to an all-but forgotten network of local lesbian-and-gay-focused shops that began to open then in cities across the US and, in fact, around the world?
Is it just me or does anyone else think it's important to preserve the memories of those heady days when it seemed that wonderful new queer bookstores were springing up in every city you'd visit? Queer bookstores were dependable spots to find all the information you'd need to get your bearings in any new locale. This was long before the rise of the mega-chains and their hostile takeover of most storefront book selling and before Amazon.com came along to sack what remained of the market originally created by those now mostly bygone independent booksellers. In those days, kids, only a smidgen of the mainstream bookstores would dare risk carrying the few lesbian and gay titles that came into print before 1973. And few queer book buyers would have even thought to look to the mainstream stores for what they wanted: there were no sections in straight bookstores designated for queer titles. Most positive queer books of the time only came to be by way of self-publishing or in very limited print runs put out by the random independent small press in search of their niche market. The big publishing houses were often tinged with homophobia and, in any case, could not be convinced that there was any real money in queer books.
Into this virginal, but surprisingly fertile field stepped a few bold lesbians and gay publishers with a passion if not a mission. They came looking for themselves as much as to try and fill a vacuum in the market. They risked everything to take chances on a new generation of emerging authors who had begun to create contemporary queer genres – chances the big publishing houses dared not take. As yet unknown and untested, the potential profit in these authors and genres would only be noticed by the big publishing houses after a return on investment was proven through a sound track record of sales. The only place those sales were happening was out of the storefront bookstores that gay people had opened in gay neighborhoods of most major cities. These early shops included Oscar Wild Bookshop in New York, Glad Day Books in both Boston and Toronto, and Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia.
“The gay bookstore movement began in 1967, two years before Stonewall, when Craig Rodwell opened the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York City. By the late '60s and '70s people were opening gay bookstores in other cities at a time when censorship laws were being repealed. ’After Stonewall, gay bookstores began opening up in different places across the country, and I think that interestingly, gay bookstores grew up at the same time that the phenomenon of the adult bookstores came into being’ says Michael Bronski, an occasional contributor to Bay Windows who is an author, journalist, and scholar of LGBT studies. Around the same time women's bookstores began to spring up around the country, and lesbians began gravitating towards these stores, particularly since they were often underserved by the predominantly male-oriented gay bookstores. Bronski says all of these stores became hubs of different branches of the LGBT community as de facto community centers and as cruising areas, sometimes both at the same time.”
-- From a 2005 article by Tom Jackson @ gaybookblog.net.
Today, Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto, the first such Canadian store, is the longest surviving lesbian and gay bookstore worldwide. A critique in a Toronto city guide says of Glad Day, it is “a pain to find and no fun to browse… (quite cramped), but it does have an astonishing range of queer titles.” This description could have been applied to nearly every queer store at one time, even before there were enough books to fill more than one wall of shelves. Small, cramped spaces were the rule, not the exception, as real estate affordability has always been an issue. Profits from retail book sales, even in the best of times, always limited the status of queer bookselling to that of a labor of love, a de facto not-for-profit enterprise.
Back in time and on US soil, Giovanni’s Room opened shop in a typically cramped South Street storefront in Philadelphia, when rents were still low enough to make a go of it there. It was 1973, almost twenty years after the first appearance of the novel Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, perhaps the most prominent author of the 1950s to deal openly with the subject of homosexuality from a personal perspective. No less typical of books at the time with its bleak portrayal of gay life (Giovanni, a murderer, sits awaiting the guillotine throughout the story) but for once, gay men were presented as complex characters with some room for sympathy.
By 1979 Giovanni’s Room, the book store, had moved to another small, first floor space on Spruce Street, in closer proximity to the gay bar area, though not yet beyond the reach of homophobia. In their wisdom the storeowners would soon decide to take advantage of Philadelphia’s relatively inexpensive real estate market of the time. They signed a mortgage that year on a charming corner-property, a century-old shop in a nice part of town that some would eventually refer to as the “Gayborhood.” This gave the store a permanent home that could not be pulled out from under them for reasons of anti-LGBT discrimination. This happy outcome followed a hateful eviction from their rented space after the Spruce Street property changed hands. Philadelphia landlords were free then to exercise blatant homophobia by overtly refusing to extend a lease if they objected to the renters’ (or customers’) sexual orientation – a practice that was outlawed in the City soon after (1982). For whatever reasons, queer bookstores in other locales facing similar situations did not follow the lead of Giovanni’s Room. No other storeowners chose to invest in property ownership as a hedge against further disruption of business, no doubt due to the commitments required of their time and money. By one (unverified) count I heard recently, there now exist only six queer bookstores in North America.
“By the mid-'80s the market for independent bookstores as a whole began to take a downturn. [Former gay bookstore owner, John] Mitzel says one of the greatest difficulties faced by bookstores has been the shrinking availability of affordable real estate. [Boston’s] Glad Day closed down, despite strong sales, when the owners of its Copley Square location decided to transform the location into luxury condominiums. When Mitzel was looking for space to open up Calamus [Books], he was told that no one would rent to him in the Back Bay or South End.” -- Ibid.
An aspect of Giovanni’s Room that may speak of something else unique to Philadelphia is an undeniable sense of commitment to the store shown time and time again by the local LGBT community. When the store purchased its new building an army of volunteers came forward to invest hundreds of hours and quality effort into lovingly renovating the space. Scores of volunteers have devoted time to staffing the store on a regular schedule, some continuing to do so over decades of time without compensation. Like all the other queer bookstores who have suffered in the failing economy Giovanni’s Room has been forced to make steep cutbacks in levels of paid staffing, hours of operation, and certain store amenities. But the Philadelphia LGBT Community and our allies have clearly shown that we are far from ready to lose this beloved landmark. We have rallied once again to keep our Giovanni’s Room from fading into obscurity as so many others have. We will not let it fall victim to the times, a bad economy or - as almost happened last year – to the forces of gravity. You may have heard the story.
The local customer base - hit hard as anyone by the bad economy - has thinned considerably, with many presumably won over by the deep discounts that internet-based services offer through aggressive online marketing. How can you blame anyone for counting pennies, trying to save money? But when word got out that the store was facing extremely tough times due to an overwhelmingly expensive but necessary rebuilding of the façade/supporting wall, the community snapped into action once again. Customers may not have been drawn back to the store in massive numbers yet, but over six months time another virtual army of volunteers and contributors have rallied to help plan and participate in an on-going series of fundraising events to benefit the store. Author appearances, readings, dinners with the likes of Edmund White and Christopher Rice, a street fair and a raffle have all been part of the soon-to-be successful effort to reach the more than $50,000 goal, which is the amount needed to pay the construction bills.
Giovanni’s Room’s affable owner, who everyone knows as Ed, is naturally very encouraged by the community’s response and by the support he’s received from customers and authors from near and far. A number of customers who have never even seen the store have pitched in from their homes as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. They learned of Giovanni’s Room’s problem through the store’s website, www.queerbooks.com. Yes, the store has an online presence and books can be ordered through it as easily as they can through Amazon, which continues to undercut all independent booksellers mercilessly with outrageously aggressive advertising. Amazon has volume, volume, volume! But they certainly don’t have the heart of a queer bookstore owner. Nor do they have the queer community’s interest at heart. Nor do they have any interest in anyting about you other than your money.
It is a sad but fascinating exercise to do a Google search for information on Queer or Lesbian and Gay bookstores. What you’ll find are so many websites that contain outdated information about scores of defunct queer stores across the country and lists of links to websites that just don’t lead anywhere anymore. Some of these sites seem to stand as eerie ghosts of queer bookstores past. You quickly learn not to trust their currency and you’ll find more often than not something like “last updated on Sunday, April 20th, 1997” as you can still see at http://www.qrd.org/qrd/www/media/print/bookstores/glbbnets.html.
This particular website stands as a forlorn monument to the golden age of queer bookstores. Words of warning unheeded, pleading, a cry in the desert is frozen there in time as a prophecy fulfilled, much to our detriment...
“Please consider this before you make your next book purchasing decision: Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered bookstores exist in a fragile ecosystem made up of the members of our community who support them with their purchases, the small gay, feminist, and lesbian publishing houses which supply them, the authors who write the books, and the stores themselves. This living web is very fragile and easily disrupted. It could possibly even be destroyed if we let the large "discount" chain stores influence us into "discounting" the efforts of all these people and saving a few cents on the purchase of a book, even the latest Times bestseller, at the expense of our sisters and brothers and friends.
Make no mistake our bookstores are under attack, as are all independent bookstores. The large chains (and there are only a very few) want to control all our book-buying decisions and are deliberately targeting areas where large independent stores have a loyal customer base. You'll pardon me, I'm sure, if I say that I believe feminist, lesbian, and gay stores are under particular assault. A recent issue of Ms. Magazine (May/June, 1995, Volume V, Number 6) had a graphic illustration of this in the form of a photograph of the new Borders Bookstore which "just happened" to open up directly across the street from Sisterhood Bookstore in West Los Angeles, California. Look it up if you haven't seen it. It's scary.
Fight back! If you're browsing in a big chain store and see an interesting title your local store might not carry, jot down the name and author and have your local gay and lesbian bookstore order it for you. They need the business and you need them. Many of these stores, and the publishing houses and authors who depend on them to sell their books, may not be there when you want and need them unless you continue to support them with your purchasing power and with your time.”
RIP Queer Bookstores. You are missed. Long live the surviving stores! Which can only happen with our help, of course. If you're lucky enough to live in a city with one of these gems that has not closed down, please support your local queer bookseller. And when you must buy books online, why not give www.queerbooks.com a look? You may be surprised how good it feels to place an order with one of the last virtual queer bookstores.