The History of LGBT Bookstores in the Castro

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Sunday July 17, 2016
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The closing of Books Inc. in the Castro last month and the opening of Dog Eared Books (489 Castro) where A Different Light once existed has gotten me thinking about bookstores and the literary world of San Francisco.

Reading has the function of both acting as a solace and informing. Together with writing as a means of expression, it has been woven into the history of San Francisco from its very beginning. In the nineteenth century it drew writers like Mark Twain to our city. From the beginning gay and lesbian writers have been part of this: the gay poet Charles Warren Stoddard moved here in 1859.

I first became aware of the association between LGBT culture and bookstores in San Francisco when I was a teen. "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg was one of the first books with gay content I ever owned, and it was published by City Lights. The book was a great synthesis of gay history and publishing. The poem was first read on October 7, 1955 at The Six Gallery (3119 Fillmore), a gallery founded by six artists including gay poet Jack Spicer and gay painter/poet John Ryan. Shig Murao was arrested for selling the book at City Lights on June 3, 1957. Through the subsequent obscenity trial, the link between LGBT culture and bookstores was forever cemented.

The desire to have a community-owned source for LGBT books predates the first gay bookstore. Dorian Book Service was a mail order catalog published by Mattachine Society member Hal Call's Pan-Graphic Press starting in 1958.

The catalog included a variety of titles such as "I Am A Lesbian" by Lora Sela, "Sex Without Guilt" by Albert Ellis PhD, the transcript of the KPFA broadcast "The Homosexual In Our Society" and books by Mary Renault. Call would go on to open one of the first gay bookstores in the country, Adonis Books, at 348 Ellis in 1967.

Paperback Traffic was the first bookstore in the Castro to have significant gay content. It opened at 558 Castro in 1972 (it would later move across the street to 535 Castro). I asked Donn Tatum, who opened the bookstore with his partner Steve Lowell, to tell me about the store.

"We had readings of then-current gay literature (such as the Violet Quill group) and carried publications by gay writers that were just emerging from major publishers, as well as more radical publications from Gay Sunshine Press and Fag Rag (out of Boston)," said Tatum. "We also carried emerging women's literature. We also hosted avant-garde jazz sessions and sold general literature that would be of interest to San Franciscans. We had author readings and signings, introducing, among others, Armistead Maupin and poets such as Tom Gunn."

Aside from the readings and jazz sessions, Paperback Traffic also hosted art shows (radical faerie artist Marshall Rheiner had an exhibition there in 1977) and housed Small Press Traffic when it got its start in 1974. Paperback Traffic closed in 1982.

Noe Books and News (2233 Market Street) was opened by Paul Boneberg and Joe Norton in the early 1980s. Boneberg said that at the time it was difficult to find books and magazines of interest to the community.

"We ordered every LGBT book we could and every magazine, including queer newspapers from other cities," said Boneberg. "For activists, this was the only way to follow in depth what was occurring in other cities. This was particularly important when the AIDS pandemic began, as we carried the New York queer papers and others that provided coverage of the beginning of the pandemic in those cities. In big cities, you could find bookstores that carried them. But for people from elsewhere, having a store where you could find hundreds of LGBT publications was unique. Many tourists came by to shop and talk and get a feel for the city and LGBT scene. Some didn't even know they were a block from the Castro and we had to say, "You are in the Castro now. Just keep walking.'"

Konstantin Berlandt, a member of the collective that started Gay Sunshine, staffed Noe Books and News on Sundays. The store had an in-store author event with Randy Shilts for his Harvey Milk biography, "The Mayor of Castro Street," which was wildly popular, selling a couple hundred copies of the book in a day.

Walt Whitman Bookshop moved to 2319 Market St. from 1412 Sutter in 1982. It was opened as a gay bookstore on Sutter Street by Charles Gilman, a former teacher in the Oakland schools, in May, 1978. It not only sold new books, but used books and antiquarian books as well. Walt Whitman was known for its author events.

Christopher Isherwood had an event at the Sutter St. store in June 1980 for My Guru and His Disciple. Author events at the Market Street store included signings by William S. Burroughs, Anne Rice, Joseph Hansen, James Broughton, Daniel Curzon and Edmund White.

Gilman had some rather amazing events at the small space, including Armistead Maupin reading from "Mrs. Miniver" for Mother's Day and actor Robert Coffman reading from Truman Capote's "The Thanksgiving Visitor" and "A Christmas Memory" for the holidays.

David Lamble, who worked at the bookshop, told Mark I. Chester in a B.A.R. article in May, 1989, "It was the center of numerous literary functions. If you were gay and had a book to talk about in San Francisco, you probably came to the Walt Whitman. Everybody who wrote books in the early to mid-'80s came to the Walt Whitman as a matter of course. There was a lot of history in that shop."

The bookshop survived Gilman, who died in 1987, but only for a few years. After a move to 1429 Polk Street, the store closed in the summer of 1980.

Love That Dares Bookshop had a brief but lively life at 506 Castro Street. It was opened by four ex-New Yorkers who moved to San Francisco and opened the store on September 1, 1987. The shop had a signing with Randy Shilts on November 16, 1987 which required armed guards because of death threats to the author of the AIDS history "And The Band Played On."

The store also featured many author signings including Dorothy Allison, N.A. Diaman and Eric Marcus, and community events with Ben Schatz (then of National Gay Rights Advocates) discussing AIDS and medical insurance.

Unfortunately, the bookshop was on the block which burned the Elephant Walk and other businesses in December 1988 and never recovered.

Different Lights

A Different Light opened at 489 Castro Street in December 1987 and shortly thereafter the neighborhood's literary community hit its stride. The first store was opened in Los Angeles' Silverlake district, the second in Manhattan, and San Francisco's was third. Richard Labont´┐Ż took over as manager of the San Francisco store in January, 1989 and subsequently several literary series took place.

The gay writers series featured Kevin Killian, Darrel Yates Rist, Thom Gunn, Adam Klein, Steve Abbott, D.L. Alvarez and others. The lesbian writers series featured Kitty Tsui, Suzette Partido, Dorothy Allison, Katherine Sturtevant, and Katherine Forrest.

Artwords was a series of openings by performance artists, musicians, photographers, painters and others. The Community Space Series opened the bookstore to groups and organization like ACT-UP, HomoCore, and GLOE (Gay & Lesbian Outreach and Engagement). The Social Studies Series featured lectures by authors like Tobias Schneebaum.

Ken White, a former manager of Books Inc. in the Castro, and publisher of the new Query Books, wrote on his new press' blog about his time working at A Different Light.

"In those years of the '90s, the Castro was the center of an angry but vibrant community of artists, activists and writers. Dorothy Allison taught fiction to a writing group of baby dykes one day a week. Justin Vivian Bond, future cabaret artist extraordinaire, staffed the front counter. Employees Betty and Pansy partnered on the 1993 tell-all travel guide, Betty and Pansy's Severe Queer Review of San Francisco."

It was an amazingly vibrant time. A Different Light changed ownership in 1999 and remained in business till 2011. When it closed, it was the last LGBT bookstore in California. Branches in Los Angeles and New York City also eventually closed.

Since 2000, the bookstore business has become even more difficult. Even before the Internet, it was rough.

Said Lamble, "So much has happened that worked against the independent bookstore. It's like Russian Roulette without the Russians."

Reflecting back on his bookstore, Boneberg said, "The bookstore business is brutal."

However, all is not lost. The relationship between authors and bookstores has actually improved.

Writer Kevin Killian said, "It has improved in incredible ways. Now bookstores are realizing that writers can be an asset to their business, instead of being unsightly if necessary signposts to the whole procedure of making money."

We have lost much, but much still remains. Books Inc. Opera Plaza has welcomed the Perfectly Queer: LGBTQ Readings series, and both Dog Eared Books and Books Inc. have LGBT book groups. The Mission-located Modern Times Bookstore had, and continues to host frequent LGBT events. Castro health center Magnet, now Strut, hosts queer reading events, and gay and straight bars frequently host LGBT literary events.

Publisher's Weekly reported that last year was the first year that bookstore sales rose for the first time in eight years. We are no longer in the gay publishing boom, but the bust may now be behind us as well.

The author would like to thank Donn Tatum, Paul Boneberg, David Lamble, Kevin Killian and the MSU Special Collections.