Bil Browning

The future of local LGBT bookstores

Filed By Bil Browning | April 20, 2009 5:30 PM | comments

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Over on Bilerico Project, there has been a few posts about the faux controversy surrounding Amazon.com's employee mistake that marked several feminist, LGBT, and health books as "adult." Prominent lesbian author and Wildcat Press owner Patricia Nell Warren recently offered up a vigorous defense of Amazon.com that also touches on the state of independent LGBT bookstores.

OutWordBound.jpgThe owner of Indianapolis' only gay bookstore, Out Word Bound, sent out an e-mail blast yesterday afternoon to the store's customers. The two make lovely, well, bookends on the situation.

On Tuesday of this week the Wall Street Journal published a short article. It reported that ALL of the LGBT books on the Amazon.com website were labeled "adult" and therefore, in effect, taken off the site (poof, they were gone.) Oh, it was a mistake..."an embarrassing...cataloging error", but it showed glaringly what can happen if the largest "bookstore" stops carrying our books. 57,310 books to be exact...not only LGBT books, but also some health, mind and body, reproductive and sexual medicine, too. Amazon states they are taking steps to "make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future". "Less likely" doesn't make one feel any better.

I have been buying LGBT books since the late 70's when I found Rita Mae Brown. I don't know, I probably have a couple of thousand books. I bought them long before I ever dreamed of co-owning a bookstore. I bought and kept them because I felt that there was a good possibility in the future that I wouldn't be able to get books like them anymore.

More after the jump.

Earlier this year the Oscar Wilde Bookstore in New York City closed...it had opened in 1967.

If all the LGBT bookstores go out of business and the local Barnes & Noble and Borders have an ever shrinking LGBT selection, then we are left relying on the Amazons online to carry LGBT books. What if the Morman church buys Amazon.com next week? Do you really think they will carry our books?

We know that sometimes it's easier to go online to buy your books than to drive 15-20 minutes to Out Word Bound. And sometimes there might be better prices online (I don't really know, I don't have time to shop online.)

We also know that many people do make that trip to the store and we can't tell you how much we appreciate it. All of you who do come down have kept us open for 11 years now and hopefully you will keep OWB open for many years to come. Tammara and I believe that Out Word Bound needs to be there--for you, for us, and for the next generation. We love books; we love the connection that the bookstore affords. (And I'm still going to be keeping my books just in case I'm not able to get them in the future!)

While I agree with the store about supporting locally owned and operated businesses over mega conglomerates, I feel obligated to point out that Amazon.com is a publicly traded company. The Mormon church can't buy the website; it's a red herring argument that isn't needed in an otherwise excellent missive.

I also appreciate the honesty shown to customers when Mary acknowledges that it's sometimes easier or cheaper to shop online. It's the main reason I don't shop locally all the time. Today, for example, Jerame was watching a movie on the computer that mentioned three books he wanted to buy. He flipped over to Amazon, bought some of the new and some used, got free shipping and submitted the credit card numbers. None of the books were about LGBT topics, but it made me realize that I could have ordered the books through Out Word Bound and picked them up just as quickly as it'll take to have them shipped to me by Amazon or their resellers.

Patricia Nell Warren's take on the situation seems much more resigned to the inevitable loss of local LGBT bookstores.

To those LGBT fellow citizens who advocate buying books only from independent bookstores, I say, "By all means, follow your heart." There are still around 60 community stores left in the United States where you can shop. Several online bookstores remain active. Among them is the pioneering website owned by Lambda Rising Bookstore in D.C. And Alternaqueerbooks, a newer site owned by Suspect Thoughts Press.

Of course, it would have been nice to see more advocates leaping into action 10 years ago, when there were still quite a few LGBT bookstores in the U.S. More community dollars would have helped them survive. Every time another store closed, the book professionals got themselves interviewed by the media and pleaded for more community support. But the buyer response was never enough. The fact is, our people shop less and less at a gay or lesbian bookstore in their city, if there is one. Some of our citizens apparently buy fewer books than formerly. So... one or two at a time, our indie stores have been going Chapter 11. It has been heartbreaking to see them go -- some of the owners are friends of mine.

When my own publishing company first launched in 1994, the combined U.S. mailing list of "gay and gay-friendly" stores was around 400 names. Now, according to a list kept by the Lambda Literary Foundation, there are fewer than 60. Count 'em. And stores continue to close. Boycott Amazon? The waning book-purchase performance of the LGBT community over the last 10 years tells me that a boycott wouldn't make much of a dent in Amazon's pocketbook.

As much as I hate to say it, it does seem likely that the days of small community bookstores are over. Perhaps they'll fold into combined community centers and shared spaces with other small local businesses/charities? What do you think the future is for the local gay bookstore?


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Bent Pages | June 19, 2009 11:41 AM

hile it may seem that the day of the small community bookstore has passed, we are excited to let you know that we (Robin Garber and Katie Cumiskey) have taken a stand against the chain store shrinkage of available LGBT literature. We have opened what is now NYC's only remaining LGBT bookstore - specializing in gift-quality, out of print, gently used, and brand new LGBT titles - all at used book prices. We regularly schedule readings, book signings, Scrabble tournaments, performances and serve as a meeting space for small community groups.

We are an out, married lesbian couple (one a NYC SPecial Ed teacher, the other a college professor) and we carry books in other genres as well - including children's book, books in foreign languages, poetry, science fiction and fantasy. LGBT titles cross almost all our genres and we love to introduce our customers to unfamiliar authors! Our services are far more focussed and informative than those offered in the small chain store LGBT sections. Next time you are in NY, come visit us!