The Decline—and Rise?—of LGBTQ+ Bookstores

Michael Lowenthal’s acclaimed novel, The Paternity Test, is now available in paperback. Lowenthal is our guest blogger today, the publication date of the paperback edition.

I came of age as a gay writer when LGBTQ+ bookstores were at their peak, with close to 100 in operation across the United States. Now only six such stores remain.

Publishing a novel with a gay protagonist feels entirely different in 2018 than it did when I published my first book, The Same Embrace, twenty years ago. On one hand, so-called mainstream culture has grown much more welcoming to a diversity of LGBTQ+ artists and stories; on the other hand, a once-thriving infrastructure that specifically supported LGBTQ+ literature has been largely erased.

I came of age as a writer—as a gay writer—in an era when the OutWrite conference for LGBTQ+ writers attracted 1,500 participants annually; when most cities in America supported a weekly LGBTQ+ newspaper that published robust coverage of gay arts; when “the Gay Book Boom” was a hotly discussed topic; and when LGBTQ+ bookstores were at their peak, with close to 100 in operation across the United States. Now only six such stores remain.

For her recent master’s thesis “LGBTQ Bookstores: Past, Present, and Future,” Emerson College student Stephanie Nisbet interviewed me about my experiences. On the occasion of the paperback publication of The Paternity Test, I’d like to share some of our discussion:

Stephanie Nisbet: What was the first LGBTQ+ bookstore you visited, and what do you remember about the experience?

Michael Lowenthal: Glad Day, in Boston, which at that time was located on the second floor of a building just across from the main branch of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. To get to the store you walked up a narrow stairway, and on the way up I had to squeeze past a man who was on his way down, and that moment of contact set the tone for the whole experience: thrilling, terrifying, full of sexual frisson but also a sort of bookish bonding.

At the time, I was a college student in a small town in New Hampshire, probably 19 years old, recently out of the closet, and I had never been to a gay bar or community center or pride parade. The only public gay gatherings I had been to were my college gay-student group meetings. So I was fantastically nervous (had anyone seen me walk into the building? I felt like I was glowing in neon) and at the same time giddy with excitement.

Once I was in the store, I could barely look anyone in the eye; I mostly kept my gaze glued to the books. But when I did look up, I saw that everyone else was glancing around in a way that seemed both furtive and, shall we say, quite friendly. The store was really small, with not much space between shelves, so there was a lot of nudging past people and close breathing. The back of the store had more porny stuff, magazines and videos, and I was too scared to go back there. Two queeny young bookstore employees were joking at the register, talking too loudly, almost as if they were making fun of the hush-hush atmosphere, and I wanted to get to know them. Or to be them. I think I bought an Edmund White book, The Beautiful Room Is Empty.

When I left I was exhausted from the tension. I couldn’t wait to go back!

SN: Is there any one LGBTQ+ bookstore you feel particularly connected to?

ML: Definitely Glad Day, since Boston was the city I visited most often when I lived in rural New England, and since I moved here in 1994 and have lived here ever since. In fact, when I was moving to Boston, the first place I went was to Glad Day, to look at the big bulletin board in the hallway outside the store, which was where gay guys tacked up “seeking roommate” notices. Answering those ads was the only way I even considered finding a living situation. (Remember, this was before Craigslist, before apps.) So that’s how I found my first place in the city.

When I became a writer, Glad Day was the first bookstore where I ever gave a reading. I became friends with John Mitzel, the longtime manager (who later opened his own gay bookstore, Calamus Books), who was a witty, brilliant (if troubled) old-school raconteur. Because I was a book reviewer, I got sent lots of books by publishers, and I would often bring stacks of them into the store to sell. Wanting to support a young writer, John would pay me way more than they were worth, in cash, and then take me next door to his regular bar, where he would drink me under the table (while discussing politics, literature, and sex, not necessarily in that order), even though he had two martinis for every one that I drank. So, Mitzel, and Glad Day, gave me a big chunk of my gay education.

Image Credit: AP

While I felt particularly connected with Glad Day, I will note that I have also been to gay bookstores in New York, DC, Baltimore, Rehoboth Beach, Norfolk, Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Arizona, Toronto, Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid, Taipei . . . and probably many more that I’m forgetting. In many of these stores, I gave readings. But in others I was just a visitor. It used to be that when I was traveling to a new city, the first obvious stop would be the gay bookstore, to meet locals who could tell me all the right places to go and things to do. The bookstore was a community center, travel agency, pickup spot, and so many other things, all rolled into one.

SN: As of 2016, Boston no longer has an LGBTQ+ bookstore. Do you believe there is still a place for another Calamus, for example, in the city?

ML: I do think there’s room for an LGBTQ store in Boston, but the concept would need to be adjusted and updated, I imagine. I think LGBTQ people are hungering for community right now, because there are so few places/occasions for us to gather. Most of the bars have closed, and with some of the key civil rights battles won (for now), there are very few public marches or demonstrations, aside from our once-a-year pride parade, which is now mostly reserved for banks, politicians, and churches. Most people don’t read a weekly LGBTQ newspaper, the way we used to. So there’s an empty spot where we used to share a common ground. Folks feel isolated, or connected only to their own small circle of friends. If there’s an upside to the Trump era, I think it’s that it’s reminded people of the power, solace, and joy of gathering together with likeminded strangers and neighbors in relatively public places. I think people are looking for spaces and ways to harness the kind of spirit that we see at the Women’s Marches and trans-rights marches and anti-Muslim-ban marches and anti-gun-violence marches and Black Lives Matter demonstrations. I think a new LGBTQ bookstore that not only sold books but also offered, say, a coffee shop and an evening events venue for story slams, would attract a lot of people and energy.

Michael Lowenthal is the author of three previous novels: Charity Girl, Avoidance, and The Same Embrace. He is a core faculty member in Lesley University’s MFA program in creative writing and lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

 

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