LGBTQ History Month: Authors and activism: A history of LGBT bookstores

  • by Jason Villemez
  • Wednesday October 2, 2019
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Gay's The Word opened in London in 1979. Photo: Jason Villemez
Gay's The Word opened in London in 1979. Photo: Jason Villemez

Until the 1970s, when LGBT publishing began and activists like the late Barbara Gittings pushed for representation in libraries, the few queer books available were limited mostly to anti-gay medical texts. So, as the first wave of bookstores like Giovanni's Room opened in Philadelphia, getting hold of quality LGBT titles was a necessity.

"It was unbelievably fun," Ed Hermance said about his time operating Giovanni's Room, one of the first queer bookstores in the world. "You weren't there for the economics, and it would be exhausting if you were in it for the politics. We were starved."

According to Hermance, "Every book in the store from 1973 into 1976 the owners had bought for cash at a wholesaler in the West Village, where Craig Rodwell helped them pick out the few dozen titles available on gay subjects."

When Hermance and Arleen Olshan bought Giovanni's Room in 1976, the two continued to make trips to New York and received the same guidance. "[Craig] knew everything, really," Hermance said.

Rodwell, who had moved to New York in 1958, did much more than help booksellers like Hermance find stock. A longtime activist and organizer, he opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in 1967, the same year as the Stonewall Inn about a mile away. The store occupied a space on Mercer Street in the heart of New York University, and for those students and professors who passed by, everything could be seen.

"Unlike most gay bars," said Ellen Broidy, one of the first to work in the bookshop, "the Oscar Wilde had a standard-issue plate glass window, so once you were in, you were visible from the street. We actually had more than one 'customer' say they were there doing a sociology or psychology project."

As the first of its kind, the shop served as part bookstore and part gathering space, housing meetings for the Homophile Youth Movement and a bulletin board for group and event listings. On the shelves were titles ranging from lesbian pulp fiction to poetry to psychiatric texts that disputed the anti-gay establishment. Broidy, who co-organized the first gay Pride march along with Rodwell, remembers well the Alma Routsong novel "Patience and Sarah," which generated excitement at the time "because nobody died at the end."

Within a few years, the shop increased its offerings and Rodwell opened a second store on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, right in the center of the city's gay beating heart and surrounded by the counterculture that infused the activism of the era. Visitors included locals and tourists, people from abroad and gay writers such as Tennessee Williams and Patricia Nell Warren, who gave readings. (Warren died in February at the age of 82.)

Another of the Oscar Wilde's early visitors was Jearld Moldenhauer, a Cornell University student who traveled from Ithaca during school breaks to peruse the shelves and walk the Village streets. Moldenhauer founded the Cornell University Student Homophile League in 1968 and, after moving to Canada a year later, the University of Toronto Homophile Association. He was disappointed that Canadian bookstores failed to stock the new wave of post-Stonewall books, so he ordered the titles himself and began to sell them out of his knapsack at various community meetings. The knapsack period was the first for the Glad Day Bookshop, which then operated out of Moldenhauer's apartment along with The Body Politic, one of the country's first gay periodicals.

"The reality was that I was a full-time gay radical," Moldenhauer said, "one who wore many hats at the same time."

After finding a more permanent space for Glad Day in Toronto, he went on to open a Boston location in 1979, the same year that A Different Light in Los Angeles was co-founded by his former staff member. After early success, iterations of A Different Light soon appeared in San Francisco and New York. Lambda Rising, which first opened in Washington, D.C. in 1974, followed a similar expansion strategy, creating a store in Baltimore and later on in Norfolk, Virginia and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

The shops, which supported each other by sharing news and ideas, became cornerstones of the communities they served, hosting political organizations and providing safe spaces for people to explore and embrace their sexuality. Such inclusiveness, along with the spirit of anti-war, anti-establishment revolution that fanned out before and after Stonewall, encouraged others to build upon the idea started by Rodwell and the Oscar Wilde. By the mid-1980s, queer bookstores were in more than 20 cities across North America, as well as venues in Germany, France, Australia, the Netherlands, and the UK.

Gay's the Word, London's queer bookshop, opened in 1979 on Marchmont Street, a few blocks from the British Museum. Like the Oscar Wilde and all of its brethren, the shop and staff endured harassment both verbal and physical, so much so that wooden shutters were put up each night to protect the windows. But the extent of the threats did not begin or end with bricks: Her majesty's government had a larger, more dangerous legal threat aimed at the store.

In 1984, customs officers raided Gay's the Word on multiple occasions and confiscated all imported publications. The shipments, many of which had come from Giovanni's Room (which had begun wholesaling to stores abroad), included 144 titles such as novels by Gordon Merrick and Armistead Maupin; "The Joy of Gay Sex" by Charles Silverstein and Edmund White; a French weekly newspaper; and a 14th-century devotional book authored by a nun. The shop's directors and assistant manager, whose homes were also raided, faced 100 charges including "conspiracy to import indecent and obscene material." It took two years for the case to go through the courts before the staff was acquitted. During a pre-trial hearing, the leader of the operation admitted that officers were given guidelines to confiscate work dealing with homosexuality.

Such seizures, which relied on archaic customs laws, happened to bookstores in other countries, including Glad Day and Little Sister's Bookstore in Vancouver — both took their cases through Canadian courts. The censorship came during a time when queer booksellers distributed items that could be found no place else, including information that much of society wished to remain hidden.

Ed Hermance shown standing in front of Giovanni's Room in the 1980s. Photo: Courtesy Ed Hermance.  

AIDS years
In the early years of the AIDS crisis, most medical and government establishments refused to share the most up-to-date information for fear of promoting or associating with homosexuality. Groups such as ACT-UP created pamphlets that explained transmission, symptoms, and how to get tested. Giovanni's Room printed a bibliography of all known books on the disease. A person caught with such literature, even if they were not infected, could be fired from their job or ostracized in their community, so bookstores such as Gay's The Word, according to longtime manager Jim MacSweeney, gave people a protected environment to take in the information.

"Sometimes, when people came in and asked about different books, they were also perhaps outing themselves as being HIV-positive, knowing that they were doing it in a safe, non-judgmental space," he said. "At the height of the epidemic, when newspapers and society were savage in their fear and loathing of gay people and people affected by HIV/AIDS, we managed to retain our sanity and provide a welcoming environment."

The AIDS crisis reminded the community to rally around each other, both in times of celebration and in times of stress. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, as queer bookstores continued to help people weather the storm, a new generation of publishers and writers came into its own.

Giovanni's Room often hosted up to 50 writers a year, including stalwarts like Rita Mae Brown, whose novel "Rubyfruit Jungle" went on to sell over 1 million copies; Alan Hollinghurst; and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. LGBT publishers like Alyson Books began to widen their scope of releases to include history texts, more work by queer women, and children's books. Classics like "Giovanni's Room" (the 1956 novel by James Baldwin), which at times had fallen out of print in the U.S., were reprinted and celebrated. And gay celebrities wrote memoirs, among them Olympic diver Greg Louganis, whose 1995 effort "Breaking the Surface" became the top seller for many queer bookstores that year. Many storeowners recorded their highest sales ever during the decade between 1987 and 1997.

Dorothy Allison, whose 1992 novel "Bastard Out of Carolina" was a finalist for the National Book Award, credited LGBT bookstores with shaping her work and her life.

"I well remember the Oscar Wilde Bookstore in downtown NYC, wandering in there as a sort of baby dyke and being closely observed by the gay man behind the counter. I was concerned that he thought I was a shoplifter but actually he was admiring my leather jacket," Allison said. "That was a tiny, but wonderful, bookstore. Without gay and lesbian bookstores, and the many feminist bookstores of my youth, I would never have found my people, my community, never had the encouragement and commentary of other gay and lesbian writers. I would not be who I am without those voices, those closely watching eyes, those critical and understanding perspectives."

Chains proliferate
In the mid-1990s, as the first HIV drug cocktails emerged, chain booksellers like Borders and Barnes and Noble had spread across the country and, coveting a foothold in a burgeoning market, opened gay and lesbian sections in their stores. Their proliferation caused the number of LGBT bookstores to reach its tipping point. The subsequent decline, felt in full by the late 2000s and hastened with the arrival of Amazon and online bookselling, led numerous outlets, including A Different Light, Lambda Rising, and the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, to permanently shutter.

"It was devastating when Borders opened in Philadelphia," Hermance said. "Virtually every issue of the Inquirer [newspaper] had some story that included Borders. Something like a dozen bookstores in Center City closed."

The shops that remained were forced to adopt new strategies to survive. Several decided to open cafe spaces and sell items far-removed from queer books. Giovanni's Room, which nearly closed for good in 2014, was purchased by the nonprofit Philly AIDS Thrift and now operates as part thrift shop, part bookstore. And a number of shops launched fundraising campaigns within their communities to help encourage sales, donations, and sponsorships.

Even the newest queer bookseller, Category is Books, which opened in 2018 in Glasgow, Scotland, has had to find fresh perspectives on what a queer bookstore can be. Owners Charlotte and Fionn Duffy-Scott said that understanding the neighborhood and clientele has been imperative to their early success.

"We have a pop-up queer barbershop on our closed days because there isn't something like it anywhere else in Scotland. We also run drag king scratch nights, again because we love drag and there's a king community in the city, and we stock local zines and weekly comics, which maybe wouldn't traditionally be in a bookshop but is something we are passionate about," Charlotte Duffy-Scott said.

The shop, whose best-selling item over Christmas was the zine Queering the Map of Glasgow, also has quirky sections including "Lesbian Detective" and "Books with Maps at the Beginning."

Throughout the changes in the industry, the shifting tastes of consumers and the rise and fall of brick-and-mortar shops, the hallmark of queer bookstores serving as a gateway for their communities has endured.

Alan Chelak, the current manager at Giovanni's Room, said that in the aftermath of the 2016 election, people came en masse in search of political and feminist books. This year, too, has been busy with tourists and school trips due to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. But despite the recent excitement, Chelak always remembers those people the store was built to serve. He had similar advice for anyone wishing to follow in the footsteps of Rodwell and booksellers past.

"One lesson I've learned is that you're nothing without the people around you," Chelak said. "I am incredibly lucky to be doing this, but it's the people around me that have helped me get to where I am. So, if you're looking to start an LGBT bookstore anywhere, I think you have to work with your community and listen to your community, because if you do that, you can't go wrong."

Jason Villemez is a short story writer and a former journalist for Philadelphia Gay News and PBS NewsHour.