Authors and activism: A history of LGBT bookstores

Giovanni's Room.

“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.”

Until the 1970s, when LGBT publishing first began and activists like 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, getting ahold of quality LGBT titles was a necessity. 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.”

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 NYU, and for 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-meeting space, hosting gatherings for the Homophile Youth Movement and keeping a bulletin board for group and event listings. On the shelves were titles ranging from lesbian pulp fiction to poetry to psychiatric writings that disputed the bigoted medical 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 writers such as Tennessee Williams and Patricia Nell Warren, who gave readings.

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 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 and Rehoboth Beach.

The shops, who supported each other by sharing news, ideas and stock, 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 the anti-war, anti-status quo 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 U.K.

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 its siblings around the world, the shop and staff endured verbal and physical harassment, so much so that wooden shutters were put up each night to protect the windows. But the extent of the threats did not begin nor end with bricks: Her Majesty’s Government had a larger, more dangerous legal challenge aimed at the store.

In 1984, British 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 (who 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 of whom 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.

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 HIV-positive, 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. 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 ’80s and early ’90s, 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 novel), which at times had fallen out of print in the U.S., were reprinted and celebrated. And openly gay celebrities wrote memoirs, among them the diver Greg Louganis, whose 1995 effort “Breaking The Surface” became the top seller for many queer bookstores that year. Many store owners recorded their highest sales ever during the decade between 1987 and 1997. At its peak, Giovanni’s Room totaled nearly one million dollars in annual sales.

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

“I well remember the Oscar Wilde Bookstore in downtown NYC,” Allison said, “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. That was a tiny but wonderful bookstore. Without gay and lesbian bookstores, and the many feminist bookstores of 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.”

In the mid-’90s, as the first HIV drug cocktails emerged, chain booksellers like Borders had spread across the country and, coveting a foothold in a burgeoning market, opened gay and lesbian sections in their stores. They began to capture more of the LGBTQ market, which in turn led to an unfortunate tipping point for many queer bookstores. The subsequent decline, felt in full by the late 2000s and hastened with the arrival of 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 café 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.” 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 Craig Rodwell, Ed Hermance and booksellers past.

“One lesson I’ve learned is that you’re nothing without the people around you. 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.”

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