America’s First Gay Bookstore Closes
The Oscar Wilde Bookshop opened in 1967, when it was still illegal for a man to dress as a woman, or a woman as a man. When the police could--and very often did--raid bars to arrest any men they deemed were cruising. When coming out of the closet usually meant the loss of one’s job, one’s family and one’s residence.
Only a few doors down from the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the bookstore became popular after the Stonewall Riots, which signaled the beginning of the modern gay rights movement in June 1969. In the 1970s, it became a beacon of the new activism as well as a meeting place and a template for other, similar bookstores around the country.
The store has weathered many economic storms. Several years ago, it was threatened by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s decision to expand the PATH commuter train station nearby.
More recently, it had to deal with the dearth of tourists and even New Yorkers to get below 14th Street in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when commerce in the area was greatly affected. It also survived heavy competition from A Different Light, the much larger bookstore that opened a few blocks away on Hudson Street, then moved (along with many of the gay residents) a few blocks north to the Chelsea neighborhood.
A Different Light closed a few years ago, a victim of overconfidence and high rent. But what finally is killing off the Oscar Wilde is not the usual New York story of a small retail establishment being pushed out by high rent.
In fact, the store’s owner-manager, Kim Brinster, told the New York Times, which broke the story, "This is one instance in New York where it’s not a case of the landlord gouging the tenant. Our landlord has always been remarkable with us."
At $3,000 a month, the rent is downright cheap by neighborhood standards. But even that has proved too much for Brinster. "Even if we were rent-free it wouldn’t be enough for us to cover the bills we have," she told the Times.
A Landmark in a Landmark
The Oscar Wilde was the brainchild of legendary owner Craig Rodwell, who opened on nearby Mercer Street and then to 15 Christopher Street. Rodwell opened other gay bookstores around the country subsequently. He also helped organize the city’s first Pride March to commemorate what happened down the street at the Stonewall.
Rodwell has some other interesting spots on his resume. He was an early lover of Harvey Milk, while Milk lived in New York. He is credited with getting Milk interested in gay activism.
After he died of cancer in 1993, one of its managers, Bill Offenbaker, bought it. Then came Larry Lingle in 1996. In 2003, Lingle threatened to close it. He ended up putting it on the market, and several gay bookstores, including Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, looked at it.
It was sold it to Deacon Maccubbin, the owner of Lambda Rising Bookstores in Washington, D.C. And finally, in 2006, Kim Brinster, the store’s manager since 1996, became the store’s fifth owner.
"It is with a sorrowful heart that after 41 years in business the Oscar Wilde Bookshop will close its doors for the final time on March 29, 2009," Brinster wrote in an e-mail message to customers on Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 3.
"We want to thank all of our customers for their love and loyalty to the store over the years. You have helped make this store a world wide destination and all of us at the store have enjoyed welcoming our neighbors whether they are next door or half way around the world. Unfortunately, we do not have the resources to weather the current economic crisis and find it’s time to call it a day."
The Times reports that the store would continue to take orders through e-mail and its website until mid-March. The store will liquidate its inventory.
"What a shame," said Martin B. Duberman, an emeritus professor of history at Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who has written of Stonewall and his own personal struggles with his sexuality.
Duberman knew Rodwell, and wrote about him in his 1993 book "Stonewall." "Craig struggled very hard," Duberman told the Times. "He had no real backing from other sources. It was pretty much always hand to mouth. In the early years, some people objected because he refused to carry any pornography. He eventually relented, though I can’t tell you how long it took, but I’m sure that helped him move from a marginal life to at least a semi-prosperous one."
The current owner started as a manager at the store in 1996. The 51-year-old Texan moved to New York City in 1979 "to get a master’s degree in religious education at Fordham University and later worked as a letter carrier until moving into the book business," according to the Times.
She also said that sales had declined "by double-digit percentages, compared with a year ago, each month since August. On Tuesday, she noted, the store had only two paid customers."
Independent bookstores around the city and the country have been closing at record rates in face of competition from the chains and especially Amazon.com. Brinster said two-thirds of her customers were foreign tourists, and blamed the decline in the value of the euro partly for the store’s demise.