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North America’s Oldest Gay Bookstore Struggles to Avoid Closure

by Kilian Melloy
Monday May 31, 2010
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The downward trend in book sales overall, and the increasing popularity of online shopping has hit independent bookstores hard, including gay booksellers. North America’s oldest gay bookstore, the Glad Day Bookshop, located in Toronto, Canada, is struggling to stay afloat and may close before summer is out, reported Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail.

Founded four decades ago, Glad Day still constitutes what its co-manager Sholem Krishtalka calls an "active archive" of GLBT history. "On the shelves of Glad Day we have books whereby you can essentially trace Toronto’s queer history from the early days to now," Krishtalka told the media. "It’s this very important recording of queer culture."

Business has been falling for some time, and co-manager Prodan Nedev said that Christmas sales had not been good. Aside from online shopping and falling sales for print media in general, the article noted, several other factors have affected the business climate for gay bookstores. Many gay magazines have shifted to online-only publication; moreover, as gay neighborhoods dissolve, with GLBT residents no longer concentrated in gay-friendly pockets, local customers are no longer right in the area.

New York City’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop had opened earlier than Glad Day, the article noted, but that shop--which opened two years before the Stonewall Riots--closed in March of 2009.

Another Toronto GLBT bookstore, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, was also struggling, noted the article, as was Little Sister’s, a shop in Vancouver that took on censorship laws and endured bombing attacks. Co-owners Jim Deva and Bruce Smythe opened the store in 1983; two years later, the store’s owners were embroiled in a legal battle with the Canadian government over banned books that resulted in two long court cases and shed light on discriminatory censorship practices.

The loss of GLBT bookstores--long an anchor for GLBT culture and even havens for gay youth without resources--has been an ongoing phenomenon in recent years. Late in 2009, even as Washington, D.C. prepared to usher in marriage equality, another long-time gay bookseller, Lambda Rising, was preparing to shut down. But it wasn’t the economy or a tough business environment that was the reason. Rather, the store’s owners simply felt that was time to do something new, reported National Public Radio’s All Things Considered in a Dec. 26, 2009, segment.

Lambda Rising’s co-owner, Deacon Maccubbin, a longtime GLBT equality activist, told host Guy Raz that he opened the store in 1974, after being told by a bookstore clerk that "those kind of books" were not on offer at the establishment--"Like I was looking for porn," said Maccubbin. "That’s what the image was of gay literature at the time. There were porn books that were gay literature, and that was it."

Such is no longer the case. GLBT letters has always has its literary side, of course, but only in recent decades has it emerged as a mainstream genre. "It’s really rare to find a general bookstore these days that doesn’t carry gay and lesbian literature," Maccubbin said. "It doesn’t mean there’s not still a need for a gay and lesbian bookstore--I think there is. But the crushing need that was there in the ’70s and ’80s is less so today."

Maccubbin had taken a hand six years ago in helping forestall the closure of another gay book store--New York’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop, which eventually did go out of business--but when it came to his own store’s closure, he spoke about a personal desire to move on, saying, "I think 35 years is long enough for any one person to do one thing." Selling the business was a possibility, but not one that appealed to him; said Maccubbin, "We had people that wanted to buy the business and continue to run it, but they were mostly investors. They didn’t share the same community connection that we had always had. And I just decided I couldn’t stomach walking down the street and seeing my store in the hands of somebody else running it a different way."

When the store first opened for business, Maccubbin told Raz, his customers approached the establishment furtively, "The same way they would’ve been if they were going into a gay bar or any other gay business," he said. "They screwed up their courage enough to come on into the store, and I think that helped them take those first steps out of the closet."

Now gay readers, along with many gays in general, are well out of the closet, and standing up for their own rights and the rights of their families. Maccubbin spoke to the District’s legalization of marriage equality, saying, "I feel wonderful. Both Jim [Bennett, Maccubbin’s domestic partner since 1982] and I feel fabulous about this. It’s something we fought for pretty much all our lives.

"Jim and I have been together for 32 years," continued Maccubbin. "We got married in a church--a church blessed our holy union along with 350 of our closest friends, including some members of the [Washington, D.C. city] council and what have you." Maccubbin added that three decades after that first ceremony, when marriage equality was voted into law by the council, "I went out in the hallway, got down on my knees and proposed to Jim again. And amazingly enough, after 32 years, he said yes again, too. I was thrilled."

The closures of Lambda Rising and the Oscar Wilde Bookshop followed another longtime shop’s struggles to stay open. Last July, Philadelphia gay bookstore Giovanni’s Room, named after the gay-themed James Baldwin novel, faced expensive renovation work and issued an appeal to the community to help it stay in business. And the same month that the Oscar Wilde Bookstore shuttered, West Hollywood’s A Different Light announced that it, too, was going out of business, although the store’s San Francisco and online outlets remain active.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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