Business Briefing: Booksellers uncover market for LGBTQ titles

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday March 27, 2024
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Douglas Stewart stands next to his poster for Harvey Milk's 1975 campaign for San Francisco supervisor at the California Antiquarian Book Fair, held last month in the city. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko
Douglas Stewart stands next to his poster for Harvey Milk's 1975 campaign for San Francisco supervisor at the California Antiquarian Book Fair, held last month in the city. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko

One of the items Australian rare bookseller Douglas Stewart had prominently on display at his booth at the 56th California Antiquarian Book Fair held for the first time in years in San Francisco in February was a campaign sign from Harvey Milk's ultimately unsuccessful bid for supervisor in 1975. The 22 by 28 inch screenprinted sign on heavy card had metal grommets at its corners for mounting it and some scuffing of the blue painted "K" in the last name of the gay leader.

Milk would go on to win a supervisor seat two years later, becoming the first out elected official in both the city and state of California. Tragically, he was killed 11 months into his term along with then-mayor George Moscone by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White.

Stewart was selling the sign for $4,000. It had been owned by Paul V. Turner, a professor emeritus of architectural history at Stanford University who was friends with Milk and had displayed the campaign sign in a window of his residence near the city's LGBTQ Castro district. Stewart had purchased it from San Francisco-based Bolerium Books at its booth during last year's fair held in Pasadena.

"Obviously, Milk was most pertinent to the people of San Francisco, but he has implications for people around the world," Stewart, who is gay, told the Bay Area Reporter when asked why he felt a collector of LGBTQ ephemera would be interested in acquiring it.

Although it drew notice at the fair, no attendee opted to buy it, so Stewart had shipped it back to his Douglas Stewart Fine Books shop in a suburb outside Melbourne. Yet days later a private collector in the U.S. who saw it on Stewart's website purchased the sign.

"We had a great deal (of) interest in the Harvey Milk poster. A number of people stopped and told me stories about that time in the city, a couple of people actually knew Milk and reflected on their experiences working with him," wrote Stewart in an email to the B.A.R. "A couple of people found it a little emotional, remembering the trauma of the assassination and later riots, which disrupted so many people's sense of security. Everyone was positive about it being exhibited for sale, many somewhat startled that such an iconic piece of San Franciscan history was to be found with an exhibitor from Australia!"

LGBTQ-related items from Bolerium Books were on display at the recent California Antiquarian Book Fair that was held in San Francisco. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko  

The Milk campaign sign's ocean-crossing journey reflects how antiquarian booksellers have uncovered an international market for LGBTQ titles and ephemera. A leader in the trade has been Bolerium Books, which first opened in 1981.

John Durham, an original co-founder and senior owner, was acquainted with Milk and worked with the city's gay liberation movement as a political organizer. His father, the Reverend Lewis Durham, ran Glide Memorial Church in the 1960s when it began working with LGBTQ residents of its Tenderloin neighborhood.

Today, the by-appointment-only bookseller at 2141 Mission Street is brimming with boxes of LGBTQ books, newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and other ephemera waiting to be catalogued by its staff. In one room are bookstacks filled with titles arranged under topic sections such as gay and lesbian.

"There have always been a lot of gay collectors," noted John Durham, who's married to longtime Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club member Susan Englander, Ph.D., a teacher of history at local colleges. "Today, institutions are paying more attention to collecting LGBTQ materials."

Alexander Akin, Ph.D., who became a co-owner of Bolerium in 2013, estimates that 50% of its business now stems from the sale of LGBTQ ephemera and titles. A straight ally like Durham, Akin told the B.A.R. that has not always been the case.

"In the 1980s, it used to be a very lonely road to hoe. It has changed a lot," said Akin, who was just elected president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and helped organize its fair. "It is a lot more mainstream. Dealers have caught on to it."

A regular attendee of the fairs is Joey Cain, a gay book collector in San Francisco who gravitates toward gay British authors, especially those from the late 1800s and early 1900s like Edward Carpenter and Rupert Croft-Cooke.

"I fell into it," Cain, a former leader of the city's Pride committee, told the B.A.R. as he strolled this year's fair held at the Pier 27 port terminal for cruise ships. "It is like coming to a museum. You get to see a (first edition) copy of a book you may own a reprint of that is going for $490,000."

Acknowledging he is a "a niche within a niche" collector, Cain said he doesn't find an abundant amount of books by authors he is interested in as he checks out the various fair booths.

"You never find a lot, but Bolerium in San Francisco is a godsend," said Cain.

Eight years ago at a rare book fair in Boston, Akin said he didn't come across much LGBTQ items for sale. Today, he encounters more sellers carrying such titles, even though at times they may not realize it relates to LGBTQ topics.

Some of the LGBTQ-related books available at Bolerium Books in San Francisco. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko  

"Part of it is the mainstreaming of gay culture. Another is a younger audience coming to the events," said Akin, who plans to bring the Golden State's fair back to the city in 2026. "Also, a lot of money is being spent by institutions trying to make up for lost time."

Last year, Bolerium sold a collection of items from out DJ Page Hodel to the Cornell University Library's Human Sexuality Collection. As its website notes, it focuses on U.S. lesbian and gay history and the politics of pornography.

Ahead of this year's fair the UC Riverside Library's Special Collections & University Archives bought the original cover art for Ursula Le Guin's award-winning 1969 androgyny-themed novel "The Left Hand of Darkness" for its Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy, as the B.A.R. reported in January. Mill Valley bookseller Mark Funke had it on view at his booth before shipping it to the Southern California university, where it should go on public display this summer.

At Bolerium's booth fair attendees could find all sorts of LGBTQ items to purchase, from copies of magazines like "One: The Homosexual Viewpoint" and "La Culture Physique" to posters such as one lambasting the depiction of people living with HIV in movies that featured an Oscar statuette partly covered in red surrounded by the text "AIDSPHOBIA PROTECT YOURSELF FROM HOLLYWOOD."

"We tend to bring a lot of ephemera to the fair because of the small space of our booth," explained Akin.

Much of its business these days is conducted online. Via its website Bolerium has more than 70,000 items for sale running the gamut from LGBTQ to the labor movement and radical politics. People can search the holdings using keywords, such as gay pulp novels or lesbiana (or lesbian, gay studies, or queer theory).

"We are pretty omnivorous," Durham said of the materials and titles it is willing to acquire. "There is something for everybody."

Bolerium also sells to customers from "all over the U.S. and also worldwide," said Durham, who noted it routinely sells to Australian dealers.

Stewart, 43, told the B.A.R. he started dealing in rare books at age 13 and started his own business when he turned 17. Over the years he has seen interest in LGBTQ-related materials spike, particularly among academic institutions and collecting museums. The National Gallery of Australia acquired from him a photo collection tracing the evolvement of how the male body was captured from the 1950s through the early 1990s.

"It showed the changing way men were portrayed in photography," said Stewart, from being more covered up and progressing to full nudity.

Last year, he sold an edition of the board game "Gay Monopoly" released in 1983 to Stanford University's library. Stewart routinely donates items to the Australian Queer Archives in Melbourne, as he is one of its community members.

He credits the growth of the LGBTQ rare book trade partly to the LGBTQ community coming out of its closet in recent decades and showing an interest in its own history. At the same time it has led to greater acceptance of LGBTQ people and their history by institutional leaders, who now want to bolster the LGBTQ holdings in their organizations' collections, Stewart added.

"One of the joys of this business is to handle so many interesting historical objects, of course I can't own every piece forever, but while it is in our possession we get to learn about the stories and share them with others at the book fairs," noted Stewart in his email. "While I was in San Francisco I visited some of the bookshops which specialise in queer culture, and acquired a variety of interesting books, magazines and ephemera which document gay history in San Francisco and the United States. We will be listing these on our website over the coming months and hope to find good homes for them in Australia and beyond."

Got a tip on LGBTQ business news? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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