Eric Leven

Three Shelves

Filed By Eric Leven | February 07, 2008 4:17 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Media
Tags: NYC, pride, short stories

I got out of work earlier than expected and Wayne wasn't available for another hour and a half. I headed out of my office, got on the subway and eventually jumped off at West 4th St. figuring I'll slum around the West Village until he gets home. The weather was unusually warm and a light drizzle would come and go as if Mother Nature herself could not decide upon her mood. The city is out. People are getting home, going to dinner and music plays out from the restaurants and onto the streets. I sucked the city in deeply through my nostrils and headed in an aimless direction into the depths of the West Village.

Call it instinct or a natural gravitational pull but I always find myself on some end of Christopher St. The streets narrow and the boutiques hip and artistic. Rainbow flags fly and neon signs blip and buzz. As Manhattan changes again and again it always seems as though this part of the city is, and always will be, quaint and unique. Narrow tree lined streets, old and gorgeous brownstones and a feeling of vibrant history rattling beneath the pavement.

In the distance I notice The Oscar Wilde Bookshop. Actually, I don't notice the little independent bookstore because it blends in with the rest of the buildings and boutiques but I notice the giant rainbow flag waving outside. Having been there before I know that's the calling card of the bookstore, letting everyone know that despite it's size, it's there. Colorful, loud and proud. It's the only queer focused bookstore in the city and one of the only few surviving independent bookstores that has yet to be gobbled up by the corporate book and music malls.

The inside is quiet and clean and you can always expect to hear some acoustic music playing. Dylan, Cat Stevens, Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco... A smooth green carpet matches well to the light brown bookshelves filled with paper back and hard cover books. Dangling from many of the shelves are yellow tags alerting customers to staff picks and critic's choices. There are never more than 5 customers in the store at one time. Today there is only one. I'm happy I saw the store in the distance, it reminded me to pick up a copy of James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room" for the first meeting of the book club I recently joined.

I wasn't able to grab the book right away because the section of fiction I needed to pull it from was being occupied by a seemingly frantic and excited young lady pulling out books left and right, top shelf, bottom shelf, flipping through the pages, reading backs, studying the price, compiling piles. I didn't mind waiting and looking at the new arrivals but I couldn't help but wonder what this girl needed or why her interest in so many books. I watched her for awhile. She was nearly out of breath. She would take a pick from the pile she created, study the cover, flip to the back and judge whether or not to put it back on the shelf. "What is she doing," I thought to myself. Judging from the level of stress I saw her putting herself through I could only suppose that whatever it was she needed carried great importance. "A research paper? A thesis?" I shrugged and continued to browse the selections.

Holding a book in the air and showing it to the cashier the young woman asked in a hard accent and broken English, "What about dis vone? Will I like dis vone?" The store clerk advised her there are others she would like more and left the counter to assist her search. As the store clerk approached, the young woman said, "There's just so much! Where I am from there are only three shelves...Just three..."

Upon hearing this my breath caught itself in my throat and my arm grew goosebumps. "Just three shelves," I said to myself. I understood immediately this girl's frantic search and how important it was to her. I waited until the store clerk escorted the girl to another section and grabbed my book off the wall of fiction, catered specifically, to me and my people. I looked around the room. This whole book store, for me. Everything from fiction to non-fiction, biography to auto-biography, gay to lesbian, bisexual to trans, fantasy and reality, porn to prude- everything is here and it's an entire store. Maybe just one store with this specific focus but any store in this city has more than just three shelves!

I hung around the bookstore checking out other sections keeping an eye and ear on the girl and the store clerk. I wanted to know where she was from, what country or place was she visiting from that only allowed her three shelves. I wasn't granted any of that information but hearing what I already heard was enough for me to wish her the best search possible. She stood in front of me paying for her books. Almost 100 dollars in total. A pile that would keep her busy for months, if not a year, and will be with her for a lifetime. Having a few extra dollars left over she asked the store clerk, "What rainbow things you have else?" "Well," the store clerk responded, "we don't have too much this time of year, more in the summer, but here take this bracelet." The young girl took the rainbow colored bracelet and slipped it over her hand and secured it over her wrist. "Oh tank you," she said overjoyed, placing her hand over the bracelet and smiling.

After she left I said to the store clerk, "Wow. Only three shelves, and here we have this entire bookstore. It just goes to show- despite the amount of work we still have have ahead of us, how much we already take for granted."
"Yes," the store clerk responded, frowning, "And I'm not even sure you can find more than three shelves in other places in this very country. I'm not sure if Montana, Idaho, Kansas or North Dakota offers much of a difference..."

I shook my head, realizing the impact of what the store clerk was saying. I thanked the sales clerk for the books and headed out of the store and into the West Village, onto the very street where 39 years ago a group of people stood up, said "we're not going to take this anymore" and have allowed the rainbow flags to fly, without apology, ever since.


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Eric,

Thanks for the interesting perspective. Your comments ring true. I marvel whenever I enter a gay bookstore at how much there is to read, know, see and at how little we really understand about the hostile world in which we live. Had I been in the bookstore, I'm absolutely positive my curiosity would have gotten the best of me and I would have asked the woman what she was searching for, but the I may be of a different generation. At the very least, you noticed and so many people never do.

Thanks for writing this. I live in Atlanta (another of America's gay Meccas but moved here after living in the Village for 7 years. I've shopped in the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore many times, worked on Christopher for years and meandered through the brownstones and side streets there without a thought to those priviledges countless times. Thanks for putting that into perspective. I think I'll start buying my books from there online now, not that I have anything against some of the bigger on-line and off-line retailers, but that is a special place that deserves my support. Thanks again!

You'd be lucky to find three shelves even in a big-box book chain in middle country, but good thing there's the internet for people who don't live near a big city!