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Gay and Lesbian Bookstores  
page: 1  2  


Although most gay and lesbian bookstores in the United States were established after the battles for freedom of expression in print were won, and most of them were located in gay and lesbian ghettoes, some nevertheless faced harassment from city officials and neighbors. They also sometimes had to fight attempts at censorship.

The situation abroad was worse. Perhaps most shockingly, the Thatcher government in the United Kingdom targeted gay bookstores in the mid-1980s. For example, on April 10, 1984, Customs and Excise agents raided Gay's the Word, London's only gay bookstore, and confiscated thirty percent of its stock. Police held the store's directors and manager for questioning without access to lawyers. Later that same month, a similar raid was conducted in Edinburgh against Lavender Menace, then Scotland's only gay bookstore.

In November, the eight directors and the assistant manager of Gay's the Word were indicted for conspiracy to distribute obscene material, despite the fact that virtually all the titles submitted in evidence were also available in mainstream bookstores. Only after a highly-publicized campaign by civil liberties groups were the charges dropped.

Similarly, Glad Day bookstore in Toronto was repeatedly harassed and raided during the early 1980s. Canada Customs made a practice of confiscating Glad Day's stock of books and magazines imported from abroad even when they were freely available in mainstream bookstores.

Little Sister's versus The Queen

Gay book retailers in Vancouver, British Columbia, also became the object of Canada Customs' discriminatory enforcement of Canadian obscenity legislation. The result was a long-standing legal battle. In 1988 Little Sister's bookstore challenged Canada Customs' practice of seizing publications sent from the U.S. that the agency deemed pornographic. Among items routinely seized were issues of The Advocate, Deneuve, and works of authors as diverse as Jane Rule and Pat Califia.

Even though Little Sister's asserted that the core issue was Canada Customs' discriminatory policy against gay businesses, the agency insisted on arbitrarily enforcing its own definition of pornography. This included anything referring to "anal penetration," by which it justified its seizures of AIDS education materials.

In December of 2000 the Supreme Court of Canada determined that Customs had discriminated against the store and imposed restrictions on the agency's seizure practices, but failed to address the larger issue of what constituted obscenity under Canadian law. The lawsuit is the subject of Aerlyn Weissman's 2002 documentary Little Sister's vs. Big Brother.

Similar disputes over gay imports also arose in New Zealand.

European bookstores, such as Vrolijk in Amsterdam, Les Mots à la Bouche in Paris, and Pan Bogcafé in Copenhagen, have operated in more benign climates and have experienced little harassment.

An Uncertain Future

Ironically, the growing acceptance of culture in the mainstream has had mixed results for gay and lesbian bookstores. In the early 1990s organizations such as the Publishing Triangle, a network of gay-oriented publishers, advocated for inclusion of their products in mainstream distributors' catalogs. They initiated marketing drives such as the National Lesbian and Gay Book Month in June of 1992.

By the turn of the century such efforts had given rise to "gay and lesbian" sections in general interest bookstores. Moreover, the growing power of national chains and online marketing also affected gay and lesbian bookstores negatively. Like other independent retailers, many of the pioneering gay and lesbian bookstores found themselves unable to compete against the chains and were forced to close. Similarly, by 2002 the network of feminist bookstores was down to 60.

The decline of the number of gay and lesbian bookstores has spurred an effort to raise awareness about the need to support gay-owned businesses.

Gay and lesbian bookstores have responded to the crisis affecting independent booksellers by attempting to be more responsive to community organizations. They have also moved to stock general interest titles alongside titles of special interest to glbtq customers. Said Paul Rehme, proprietor of We Think the World of You Bookstore in Boston in 2002, "I knew we were on the right path when a heavily tattooed and pierced biker-type from Maine bought every S & M book and every Martha Stewart title we stocked."

Other stores have completely reinvented their purpose. In 2002 the former New Words Bookstore in Cambridge became the non-profit Center for New Words to further the use of written and spoken media to empower women's causes. A Room of One's Own in Madison, Wisconsin added a coffeehouse in 1997 and started a non-profit foundation in 2006.

In 2003 the Oscar Wilde shop almost became a casualty. Just before going out of business it was bought by Lambda Rising owner Deacon McCubbin who told the New York Times, "We think this store is way too important to let it close. It is more than a store; it is a part of our history."

Gay and lesbian bookstores that have survived into the twenty-first century face an uncertain future as publications pertinent to glbtq culture continue to permeate mainstream retail trade.

To survive, many have expanded their inventory beyond books to hard-to-find DVDs and CDs by independent artists, one of a kind items such as autographed photos and posters, mementos, rare editions, experimental works, and specialized erotica too outré for chain store shelves. For example, in 2003, the Faubourg Marigny Bookstore became FAB, the Faubourg Marigny Art and Books store, reflecting both new owner Otis Fennel's interest in art and the need to diversify.

Successful proprietors also emphasize the knowledgeable and welcoming customer service that big box outlets cannot provide to glbtq clientele. The other side of that formula, however, will require the ongoing support of a loyal and appreciative customer base if gay and lesbian bookstores are to carry their unique role forward.

Ruth M. Pettis

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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall

After Stonewall, gay male literature became focused as a movement, aided by the development of gay newspapers, magazines, and quarterlies and the founding of serious gay and lesbian bookstores.

literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Lesbian, Post-Stonewall

Since Stonewall various political agendas have dominated American lesbian literature.

literature >> Overview:  Beat Generation

The writers of the Beat Generation, many of whom were gay or bisexual, endorsed gay rights as a part of their rebellion against inhibition and self-censorship.

literature >> Overview:  Canadian Literature in English

Since the 1960s, Canadian gay and lesbian writers have produced a vibrant body of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry.

literature >> Overview:  Censorship

Governments, publishers, editors, and even gay writers themselves have censored gay content in literature from the Renaissance to the present.

literature >> Overview:  Journalism and Publishing

The gay and lesbian press is of prime importance in sustaining a frequently embattled minority and has been crucial in the development of a national mass movement for gay rights.

social sciences >> Overview:  Toronto

Toronto's glbtq community has gone from being a hidden subculture to a power base in politics, the economy, and the arts.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present

Twentieth-century efforts to reform British law and public opinions about homosexuality met with mixed results, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century the United Kingdom has emerged as a leader in recognizing the rights of its glbtq citizens.

social sciences >> Overview:  Vancouver

With a constant influx of immigrants and a vigorous and adaptable economy, Vancouver is a progressive city with a large and active glbtq community.

literature >> Beach, Sylvia

Through her Parisian bookshop and her editorial work, American expatriate and lesbian Sylvia Beach did much to influence the course of modern literature.

literature >> Brown, Rita Mae

Lesbian poet and novelist Rita Mae Brown, best known for the highly successful Rubyfruit Jungle, resists neat categorization.

literature >> Califia, Patrick

Controversial for defending sadomasochism and pornography, gender outlaw and sexual anarchist Patrick Califia, who recently underwent gender reassignment, is widely admired as a defender of individual freedom.

literature >> Ginsberg, Allen

The forthrightly gay Allen Ginsberg is probably the best-known American poet to emerge in the post-World War II period.

literature >> Grahn, Judy

Judy Grahn has been an effective leader the gay rights movement, and her identity as a lesbian and a feminist has infused all of her works, in both prose and poetry.

social sciences >> Lyon, Phyllis, (b. 1924) and Del Martin (1921-2008)

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were among the founders of a lesbian liberation movement that developed and enlarged the very definition of lesbianism.

literature >> Rule, Jane

Though dealing forthrightly with lesbian and gay subjects, the novels and criticism of Jane Rule are deliberately nonpolitical in their commitment to diverse communities and a range of experiences.


Buchanan, Beki, and Maxwell Powell. "The Queer Bookstore: A Study in Nurturing Community." OIA [Out in Asheville] (October 2007): 16;

Bindon, Shelley. "E-commerce Conflict." Lambda Book Report 7.6 (January 1999): 12.

Danford, Natalie. "Shelf Talkers." Publishers Weekly 251.35 (August 30, 2004): 24. 

Hull, Dana. "Bookstore Chain Thrives by Helping Build Gay Culture." The Washington Post (September 30, 1996): F10.

Howell, Kevin. "Difficult Times at A Different Light." Publishers Weekly 246.30 (July 26, 1999): 21. 

Kirch, Claire. "Brotherly (and Sisterly) Love: Philadelphia's 30-year-old Giovanni's Room Is Thriving in the Rough Tides of GLBT Bookselling." Publishers Weekly 251.4 (January 26, 2004): 108-110. 

Mann, William J. "The Gay and Lesbian Publishing Boom." The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review 2.2 (April 30, 1995): 24.

Pela, Robert L. "A Different Fight." The Advocate (August 17, 1999): 117.

Rehme, Paul S. "Gay Bookstores [letter]." New York Times (June 27, 2002): A28.

Rotello, Gabriel. "Get Back to Gay Bookstores." The Advocate 834 (March 27, 2001): 72.

Santora, Marc. "Hard Words for a Bookshop: The End." New York Times (January 7, 2003): B3.

_____. "Plot Twist for a Gay Bookstore: The Last Chapter Actually Isn't." New York Times (February 4, 2003): B3.

Summer, Bob. "A Niche Market Comes of Age." Publishers Weekly 239.29 (June 29, 1992): 36-40.

_____. "Bookselling as Cultural Politics: Twenty-five years after Stonewall, Gay and Lesbian Bookstores Are a Mainstay of the Movement." Publishers Weekly 241.26 (June 27, 1994): 29-31.


    Citation Information
    Author: Pettis, Ruth M.  
    Entry Title: Gay and Lesbian Bookstores  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2007  
    Date Last Updated November 20, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2007 glbtq, Inc.  


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