Gay/Lesbian Bookstores Victims of Acceptance

Back in 1967, Craig Rodwell could find only 25 books that could be considered gay and lesbian literature. But he put them on a shelf in Greenwich Village and opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop – the first and best-known gay and lesbian bookstore in America.

Many gay and lesbian bookstores followed, all over the country, as the movement grew in the following years. Many of those bookstores have closed recently, however, including the Oscar Wilde. Many see the disappearance of the stores as a sign of success growing out of the wider acceptance of gays and lesbians throughout society. They don’t need their own special bookstores any more because so many general bookstores carry gay and lesbian books.

The doors at Oscar Wilde closed in the spring of 2009, only weeks before accidentally pushed all books deemed gay and lesbian to the pornography section, a sad reminder of the days when a gay and lesbian bookstore was necessary due to discrimination. It’s worth taking a look back on those days.

Forty years ago, Christopher Street was the center of the Stonewall Inn riots. Today, the street still has problems with theives and vandals, but it still lies in one of the pricest areas of real estate, even for New York. Those riots of the 1960s and ‘70s, when Greenwich Village was the heart of a revolution seem like a long time ago in an age when gay marriage has been passed in Iowa, and when the Oscar winner for Best Picture played gay politician Harvey Milk, who was frequent visitor to the store and, for a time, a boyfriend of Craig Rodwell, the founder.

“You could say it’s really good because it means we don’t need segregated facilities but at the same time there’s something about going to a queer space that gets lost,” said Sarah Chinn, the executive director of the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies at CUNY Graduate Center.

In 42 years, however, Rodwell’s tiny shop became packed with not only books and DVDs, but also people. Located on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village—just one block from the infamous Stonewall Inn—the bookstore became an information center, intellectual hothouse gather place and a home for the gay and lesbian movement.

When the Oscar Wilde Bookshop first opened its doors, the nearby Christopher Street park was home to homeless gay youths, now a statue stands in memory of the Stonewall Inn riots. The Christopher Street Liberation Parade, organized at the Oscar Wilde, is now known as the Gay Pride Parade.

While there was a once a network of gay and lesbian bookstores in New York, the Oscar Wilde was the first and now the last to fall. Other famous institutions such as Creative Visions on Hudson Street and A Different Light in Chelsea all closed their doors in the last decade. The website for Oscar Wilde suggests only three stores for patrons looking for gay titles: Lambda Rising in Washington D.C., Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia and Common Language Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Martin Duberman, the author of the book “Stonewall” and a professor emeritus at Lehman College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, suggested this is part of a trend of gay bookstores closing.

“I’m always sad when a bookstore closes, especially a gay bookstore,” Duberman said.

Rodwell died in 1993, and the neighborhood surrounding his store is no longer the revolutionary one it once was. While up and down Christopher Street, from its western edges near the Hudson to the eastern end at Sixth Avenue, gay pride flags still wave proudly outside many of the stores and the Stonewall Inn still stands, instead of having a notorious reputation, the old articles about the Stonewall riots are framed in the window in order to attract tourists. A Starbucks is now at the corner of Sheridan Square, where young homeless gay youths used to sleep because they had nowhere to go. Christopher Street has become one of the priciest areas of real estate, with tree-lined streets and old buildings that were once dilapidated have been fixed up and for sale for high prices.

In the last few weeks before the store closed, the shop filled with regulars, tourists and reporters.

Cecilia Martin, 39, working the register, called the store a “safe place” for the gay community. She herself remembered her first time visiting the store, which she loved so much she later applied for a job.

“I didn’t even know what being gay was—when I was 16, I thought I was the only one that was,” said Gary Merston, 46, of East Orange. “Since I was 16, I’ve been coming to this store. I love this place.”

Merston stopped by with one his 14-year-old son, one of two children he adopted with his partner. Merston and his son said were saving souvenirs from the bookstore, right down to the shopping.

“When I saw Channel 7 broadcast, I couldn’t believe it,” Merston said. “I said, this is not really happening. We must have watched it 10 times, and repeated the news over and over again.”

Both Martin and the last owner of the bookstore, Kim Brinster, a former manager who bought the place after one of the store’s near-death experiences in 2003, said they felt the store is a victim of the current hard economic times, and the increasing presence of on-line retailers.

“Unfortunately, we do not have the resources to weather the current economic crisis and find it’s time to call it a day,” Brinster said.  “So thanks to all those who have been a part of the Oscar Wilde family over the years, you have truly been a part of the global community.”

Rodwell had been one of the more militant members of the homophile movement in the early 1960s, but by 1966, he was fed up with the Mattachine organization, the leading group fighting for gay rights across the country. Rodwell wanted to open a bookstore that would be an intellectual gathering place for gay people, and in fact, he banned the sale of any pornography in the early years. In order to save up the money for the bookstore, he worked summers at a motel at the Fire Island Pines, the popular vacation spot for gays on Long Island.

After two summers, Rodwell had saved enough money to rent space at 291 Mercer Street, the first location of the store. It moved two years later to its famed home on Christopher Street. The Mercer Street location, according to Duberman, was the cheapest place Rodwell could find.

Duberman profiles Rodwell in his book and wrote Rodwell struggled in those early days—and even had to ask his own mother to help set up the store the night before it opened due to a lack of resources. Rodwell later relented on the pornography ban in order to make some money, Duberman said.

When the bookstore first opened, the mainstream press either ignored it or attacked its existence. According to Duberman, a columnist for the New York Post compared it with see-through dresses and topless flicks, despite Rodwell’s hatred of pornography. Some gay activists were not happy with the store because it did not stack pornography, and other claimed it was stinted more toward men. Still, Rodwell put in 70-hour weeks and ran the store by himself for the first 18 months.

In addition to the bookstore, Rodwell also began his own gay and lesbian organization, called the Homophile Youth Movement—later amended to Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods, so the acronym would be HYMN and less gender-specific—and used the store as the headquarters. He published a newsletter called The New York Hymnal, where he called for homosexual law reform in New York State. Rodwell even hung a banner in the front window proclaiming “Bookshop of the Homophile Movement.” He would later replace it with a bumper sticker proclaiming “Gay is Good.”

During the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the police attempted to raid the Stonewall Inn, located at 51 Christopher Street, only a few doors down from the new location of the bookstore. But the raid did not go as planned and turned into a full-scale riot. Rodwell, who personally hated the Stonewall Inn because he thought it was unsanitary, could see the riot going on from Oscar Wilde and called the newspapers and three New York papers—The New York Times, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News—all covered the siege. For the next few nights, people gathered on Christopher Street to protest—and Rodwell printed leaflets from the bookstore to help organize. From the back room of the bookstore, Rodwell encouraged a boycott of the Stonewall Inn, which closed only a few weeks after the riot.

One year later, Rodwell organized “Christopher Street Liberation Day” from Oscar Wilde, now celebrated each year as “Gay Pride Day.” The gay rights revolution had been born.

Rodwell died of stomach cancer in 1993, and one of the store’s managers, Bill Offenbaker, bought the store. After Offenbaker struggled to keep it afloat, Larry Lingle took over in 1996.

But Lingle could not save it either, and he announced he would have to close its doors in 2003. At the last minute, Deacon Maccubbin, the owner of gay bookstore Lambda Rising in Washington D.C., bought the store and rescued it at the last minute. Three years later, Brinster, then one of the store’s managers, took over.

While rents in Greenwich Village have increased over the years, Brinster said the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop paid only $3,000 a month, well below market value. But that was still too much.

Sarah Chinn, the gay and lesbian center director at CUNY, said she thought the world around Oscar Wilde had changed too much for it to survive.

“Now you don’t have to schlep all the way to the Village to buy a gay book—you can just go on-line and order it,” Chinn said. “I think someone could see it as a good sign. That we’re not totally marginalized, but at the same time, community-run institutions have a place and they have a value beyond what’s available. It’s essentially a shame that it’s the oldest gay bookshop in the United States and it’s closing.”

Martin said the full force of the bookstore’s closing hadn’t hit her yet.

“I think it’s definitely a loss,” Martin said. “It’s like, you may realize someone is dying, but you don’t understand the real impact…and they won’t until they don’t have us as a resource—the regulars who come in every week.”

One month before the scheduled closing date, the last meeting of the Lesbian Book Club still met. Instead of Rodwell’s famous “Gay is Good” sticker in the front windows, they were covered in “Final Sale” stickers. The club was meeting to discuss “Aimee and Jaguar” by Erica Fisher.

On the last day, the store officially closed at 7 p.m. The doors were locked, but the club members lingered in the trailblazing store for just a little while longer.

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