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Gay and Lesbian Bookstores  
 
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A network of independent gay and lesbian bookstores arose concurrently with the flourishing of gay and feminist literature in the 1970s. While many of them offered gay-related erotica, they differed markedly from older sexually-oriented adult bookstores and magazine shops in their focus on political and gay-positive literature.

By providing venues through which glbtq authors and publishers could market their work, these bookstores served as incubators for the literary and cultural development of the modern gay rights movement in the United States and abroad.

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Independent booksellers have always played an important role in cultural movements. In Paris Sylvia Beach's store Shakespeare & Company supported the works of Lost Generation writers in the 1920s. In San Francisco Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookshop served as a hub for Beat Generation poets. His championing of Allen Ginsberg's Howl won a crucial First Amendment case in the 1950s.

The earliest self-styled gay and lesbian bookstore was the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York, founded by activist Craig Rodwell in 1967. Rodwell (who was one of the organizers of the first Gay Pride march three years later) displayed a sign proclaiming it as "a bookshop for the movement" and featured a "Gay is Good" sticker in the window. Because he refused to stock pornography, at first his entire inventory comprised only about 25 titles.

That situation soon changed as independent gay presses and lesbian-feminist publishers formed and started generating new work as well as reissues of out-of-print classics.

Rodwell's shop became the model for similar businesses such as Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia (opened 1973) and Lambda Rising in Washington, D.C. (1974). By 1994 there were at least 45 such venues in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Notable among these were Walt Whitman Bookstore in San Francisco; Glad Day, with stores in Toronto and Boston; Lambda Rising, which expanded into a four-store chain on the East Coast; Faubourg Marigny Bookstore in New Orleans; People Like Us in Chicago; and A Different Light, which had outlets on both coasts.

Functioning as virtual community centers, these stores were comfortable places for many in the first steps of coming out. As public spaces they provided a much needed alternative to gay bars and porn shops. Bulletin boards, newsletters from gay organizations, and ads from gay-owned businesses helped build a sense of community.

Gay men and lesbians from small towns trekked to these outlets for information unavailable at home. Because many of these bookstores had mail order departments, they also served glbtq customers who lived in rural or culturally isolated areas.

They served other functions as well. Giovanni's Room, for example, acted as consultant for its local school board regarding library materials and for a children's hospital on literature for diversity training. In 1984 A Different Light initiated author appearances through their Lesbian Writers Series, followed by a similar series for gay male writers. In addition, book signings became a prominent feature of gay and lesbian bookstores.

Feminist Bookstores

An important parallel development to the rise of gay and lesbian bookstores was the rise of feminist bookstores during the same era. Some of the feminist bookstores were founded by lesbians and virtually all of them were lesbian-friendly. They stocked seminal feminist literature, classics by female authors, new nonfiction inspired by emerging Women's Studies programs, radical-feminist tracts, and, of course, poetry, lesbian romance, and mystery fiction.

The inventory of lesbian titles at this time typically comprised works by Judy Grahn, Jane Rule, Rita Mae Brown, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. As with gay male literature, however, the number of titles mushroomed as publishers like Naiad and Daughters, Inc. got underway.

The earliest of these stores was the Amazon Bookstore Cooperative in Minneapolis, founded about 1970. Still in operation as of 2007, it is the oldest independent feminist bookstore in North America. In 1999 it brought suit against Amazon.com for trademark infringement, but reached an out of court agreement with the online giant to share use of the name.

Among other early stores were Sisterhood Bookstore in Los Angeles (opened 1972), Lammas in Washington, D.C. (1973), and New Words in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1974). By the late 1980s the number of feminist bookstores in North America had swelled to 120.

In addition to nurturing feminist and lesbian communities, these spaces also provided early venues for women writers of color, disability activists, and other grassroots spokeswomen to present their work.

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