Monday, March 16, 2009

Hidden History: Goodbye, Gay Bookstore

TNG contributor Philip submitted this post. Hidden History appears biweekly, exploring the nooks and crannies of the gay and lesbian past.

With a friend, I made my final pilgrimage to Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop on a cold and sunny day in February. I had heard it was scheduled to close at the end of March, a victim of declining sales. As we walked down Christopher Street in the West Village, I spied a rainbow flag hanging loosely. Closer to the building, I could see the familiar, purplish sign screwed into the bricks. “Est. 1967”: years before I was even born.

I don’t have a long history with Oscar Wilde—I only first went in 2005, when I was up in New York City for a GLBT literary awards presentation—but I have tried to go each time I’m in the Village. I’ve found little gems there, including issues of a 1970s gay poetry magazine, Mouth of the Dragon, and a copy of Essex Hemphill’s Conditions chapbook, but my desire to go is only partly spurred by book hunting.

More specifically, it is a sense of place and community that has caused me to return so often to Oscar Wilde. It is the same sense of place and community that founder Craig Rodwell (1940-1993) was trying to engender when the store opened in 1967.

Rodwell had been one of Harvey Milk’s early, pre-fame boyfriends—historian Martin Duberman suggests that Rodwell’s founding of Oscar Wilde served as inspiration for Milk’s opening the San Francisco camera shop from which he ran his successful political campaigns. He then survived a suicide attempt before involving himself with gay activism in New York City through work with the New York Mattachine Society.

Wanting to find new office space for Mattachine, Rodwell hit on the idea of combining an office with a bookstore. This would create more accessible space for gay community members who might want to join Mattachine. Unable to draw others into his plan, he would work the summers of 1966 and 1967 on Fire Island, squirreling away what funds he could to assist in opening a bookstore on his own. One thousand dollars later, he rented a storefront on Mercer Street, purchased the few gay and lesbian titles then available that fit his ideal for the store, and opened up for business over Thanksgiving weekend in 1967.

With a stock of roughly 25 titles, Oscar Wilde was miniscule compared to later stores such as Washington D.C.’s Lambda Rising, Philadelphia’s Giovanni’s Room, or the multi-city A Different Light. While there were more than 25 gay and lesbian books available, many didn’t support Rodwell’s plan. He wanted the store to reflect a more consciously literary vision of gay life, and thus turned down stocking the era’s gay and lesbian pulp novels. Additionally, anything pornographic or anything that hinted of intergenerational sex was out. This led to confrontation with those who thought his anti-pornography stand was indicative of a sex-negative attitude, but Rodwell would continue his highly personal vision of what Oscar Wilde Bookshop should be for the rest of his time owning the store.

Almost immediately upon opening, Rodwell was forced to deal with death threats, anti-gay graffiti and smashed store windows, homophobic phone calls, and an angry landlord who had been told he was renting space to a bookstore without the nature of that bookstore being revealed. Although the landlord was eventually appeased by the clean-cut nature of most of the store’s customers, these issues were indicative of the overall environment, even in a neighborhood with the bohemian reputation of the West Village. This was still three years before Stonewall and the first New York City gay pride march and six years before Oscar Wilde would relocate to the burgeoning gay mecca of Christopher Street. Operating the store was potentially dangerous for Rodwell, and similar to young gays and lesbians now who might be nervous about being seen in a gay bar or club, some potential customers were scared to enter. The costs of being known as gay or lesbian, even in an urban environment, could be very high.

The store was met enthusiastically, though, by some in the developing gay press. Jack Nichols and Lige Clarke, lovers who had relocated from Washington D.C. to New York City and traded picketing in front of the White House for writing a gay-positive column, “The Homosexual Citizen,” in Al Goldstein’s hetero-oriented Screw magazine, praised Rodwell’s daring. A whole column in 1969, “Stalls of Balls,” promoted the store, as Nichols and Clarke noted, “It takes guts to open a business and base one’s cash and credit on books to be sold for public enlightenment about our ‘shadowy,’ ‘furtive,’ and ‘much-feared’ group.”

From these beginnings, Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop became a fixture of life in the heart of gay Greenwich Village, serving, in journalism historian Rodger Streitmatter’s words, as “an unofficial community center.” It survived for 41 years and through four changes of ownership, the longest continuous run by any gay bookstore in the United States, before sharply declining sales forced its current owner, Kim Brinster, to announce the store’s imminent demise. Some might attribute this decline to the current state of the economy, but Oscar Wilde had undergone a previous closure scare in 2003, before Deacon Maccubbin, owner of D.C.’s Lambda Rising, stepped in to save it temporarily.

Instead, this has been a slow development. Although some would look at it positively, as evidence that, with increasing mainstream acceptance, GLBT people no longer need a bookstore to function as the heart of their community, I believe such a view to be dangerously short-sighted. The death of the gay bookstore—Los Angeles’s outpost of A Different Light is also closing this spring—herald two very dark trends. First, many readers buy from generic Internet retailers like Amazon, choking independent bookstores. Second, while mainstream culture may now acknowledge a gay presence, and most mainstream bookstores may now have a gay section, mainstream culture does not know or care about the health or history of the gay community.

The co-opting of the gay community by market forces could (and should) be an entire separate column, but suffice to say that as there are fewer outlets for a range of GLBT books, fewer diverse and vital voices are going to be heard. Large publishers are unwilling to risk presenting any but the safest gay and lesbian topics (and few enough of those), and independent gay presses, many of which have attempted to nurture outsider voices, will find it harder and harder to operate without gay-specific sales venues. Reader by reader lost, Internet sale by Internet sale made, we destroy our culture.

None of this was specifically on my mind that day in February as my friend and I browsed Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop for what I knew would be the final time. The tiny store was packed with buyers drawn by news that it would soon close; I could not help but think that if only these readers had patronized Oscar Wilde while it was a going concern, there would have been no need for closure.

I picked up a copy of Tennessee Williams’ Collected Poems, and we made our way to the counter. We bantered a bit with two pleasant clerks, and when I turned down a paper “Oscar Wilde Bookshop” bag for my purchase, my friend joked, “You should take one; they’ll be collector’s items now.”

Steeling ourselves for the cold, we exited the store, and it was gone.

Thanks to Chris Bram for taking the photo; I'm glad my final visit was with you. Some research for this column comes from Stonewall by Martin Duberman and Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in Americaby Rodger Streitmatter.

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j anthony said...

Good post Philip. A short history of a thing is always a good reminder of what not to take for granted.

Unfortunately in this case it's the path of least resistance, people will do what's easiest; that means using Amazon for books instead supporting the local bookshop. Is anyone still reading this stuff?

I guess the only thing you really lose is the interaction with like minded folks...I'm afraid of other people so it's not that big a deal for me.

One of the best part of the local gay bookstore is the information board. It's a direct connection to the community within a community. Maybe some G bookstores would be in better shape if they really were meeting spaces and nerve centers for whatever is on the Queer mind and those that want to share it. A bookstore like Lambda Rising with lounging space would be sweet...

Inside Voice: You're rambling

Whitney said...

Thank you for this piece, Philip. I only visited Oscar Wilde once, just a few months ago, but feel fortunate to have experienced this treasure before it closed. As someone saddened by the decline of LGBT/feminist/alternative bookstores, I appreciate your providing some historical background and present context.

Anonymous said...

The only cheer in this bad news is that at least someone like you has a good sense of history. Sometimes I think people will forget how HARD it was to get even where we are now. Books helped a lot of us.
--Daniel Curzon

Anonymous said...

cute pic.