Monday, October 13, 2008

The (Gay) Bookstore

Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia is celebrating its 35th birthday this year, and The Philadelphia Inquirer has an article about the landmark store. This gay and lesbian bookshop is one of the oldest in the country (its slightly older sibling The Oscar Wilde Bookshop is here in NYC on Christopher Street). I've been to Giovanni's Room a few times in my life, and I've enjoyed each trip. My most memorable experiences are with the speakers I've heard there. One time I was with my friend SC when the lesbian photographer Tee A. Corinne gave a fantastic presentation of her work. (I had the privilege of getting to know her over the next few years, and she was always supportive of my art historical work on the Solomons.) Corinne's presentation that night was eye-opening, not only because of her provocative lesbian imagery, but also because of how much I learned about a period in American lesbian history about which I knew nothing. I also was there once for a book signing by Christopher Rice; the house was packed with his fans.

Much has been written over the past decade about the demise of gay and lesbian bookstores. I'm not sure that their passing has been higher in number than that of other bookstores for specialized audiences, such as women's bookstores or mystery bookstores. However, I am convinced that the demise of local bookstores--gay or not--is one of the great tragedies of the world of books.

Following the release of my novel Pierce in 2007, I was honored to be interviewed by GaydarNation, an online gay and lesbian arts and literature site based in the UK. One of the things they asked me about was the relevance of gay bookstores today. Are they relics of the past and no longer needed by the gay community? I responded by pointing out that if you removed "gay" from that question, you were left with a rhetorical question: do we still need bookstores? Of course we do. What makes an adjective (gay, Asian, Black, women's) any different? I went on to say: "Specialized books and stores have existed to cater to the needs of specialized audiences. The issue here is not whether gay books and bookshops are relevant or needed. The issue is that large-scale corporate publishers and bookshops are monopolizing the market and eliminating these things because they perceive that they are no longer relevant or needed. Their decision is based on commercial sale value, not the needs or desires of the people. ... In addition, environments like gay bookshops are still necessary because they provide a community in which like-minded people can come together and share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. ... I admit it - I buy most of my books from Amazon. I do it to save money. But when I want to browse for gay books or buy gay fiction, I want to go to a store."

My thoughts haven't changed. I still believe gay bookstores--all bookstores for that matter--serve a needed purpose. What happened to browsing? What happened to simply holding a book, opening its cover as the binding creaks, flipping through pages, inhaling the scent of new pulp or musty pages, reading the first few pages, trying not to read the ending? A book is a book is a book (allusion to Gertrude Stein intended). No online community can replace the tangibility of a book, and no online bookstore can substitute for the experience of being surrounded by books. Gay men and lesbians, like all groups, need to know that these environments still exist for them, that there is a place they can go to listen to their favorite authors read, or meet with other readers to talk about literature, or simply go and look at what you were born to look at without feeling uncomfortable. If homosexuals make up approximately 10% of the world's population, that means there are currently over 30,000,000 gay men and lesbians in the United States. Somehow it doesn't seem fair that they should be forced to browse for their literary needs in a single column with four bookshelves at a local Barnes & Noble.


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