November 10, 2000
A neighborhood woman dropped into Calamus today to buy a book I'm selling by one of the local residents (the book is THE BIG DIG, about the famously expensive project whereby a surface highway is being put underground). She runs a hair salon across the street. She looked at me as she bought the book and said: So, who was it who came up with the idea of a gay and lesbian bookshop?
I didn't miss a beat. "It was [the late] Craig Rodwell who opened Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in Greenwich Village in New York in 1967. Since then, many cities feature bookstores based on his model serving our communities." She liked the answer. People like satisfying answer.
In the many years I have been a bookseller, for 16 years at Glad Day Bookshop in Boston, and now at Calamus Bookstore, I get this question all the time. Why a GLBT bookstore? Even my dear friend, the novelist David Plante, once posed this question: What was the need for a gay bookstore?
For those of us who have created these spaces, the answer is self-evident. Early on, most of the gay bookstores were founded by gay activists, just as, in the women's community, community activists founded most feminist bookstores. A bookstore serving the community was simply seen as an extension of our developing cultures, just as with publications, theatre groups, publishers, and on.
It comes down to the business of custodianship. Someone must be the vendor, archivist, warehouser, etc. of our community's efforts. I hear horror stories all the time of people in situations wherein they must remove their collections of gay literature and erotica. One guy told me, that in cleaning out his house after he sold it, he—who had been an early Colt model, and possessed a fabulous collection of Colt photos from decades back—just chucked them in the trash before a friend recommended he bring them to the bookshop to find some new owner for them.
Think of the problems over the past three decades that prospective donors have found in trying to set up archives for our community's literature. There are notable exceptions, and some university libraries are now collecting. A lot of stuff just disappears. And it's not coming back. For many years, there was the issue of "gay invisibility." Well, of course, a community will be "invisible" if you it has no document stream. Think of all the letters burned, journals destroyed, paintings trashed when the gay man dies and his relatives come to clean up his estate. Either the family members don't understand or are embarrassed by it all. This was the situation when the generation of gay activists, to which I belong, came on the scene.
We came out of a time when the active opposition to gay publishing was still strong. The case of ONE MAGAZINE versus the US Mail loomed very large. The Sixties provided an opening, and the 70s saw an explosion of publishing for our community. Only a bookstore with a commitment to our community, its diversity, and the significance of it all, could fully serve its purpose. It is all important—from that little poetry chapbook published back in the 70s, to today's famous author's first book of short stories published by a small, and now defunct, gay press—to...well all the rest of it. Each book, each pamphlet, each and every publishing effort is that one small step along the way. In totality, we have created a critical mass. A bookstore like Calamus takes as its mission the task of cherishing what has come before, celebrating the continuing strength of the writers and the publishers, and doing what booksellers should do best: getting the material into the hands of the readers, most intended, some first-timers, for whom, at least some of them, new doors open.
I will end on a personal note. So much of our history has developed because individual men and women could no longer tolerate a society of injustice and lack of access. I was born in 1948. In the 60s, as a teen, I was a devoted shopper of bookstores. I was aware of titles of "controversy," the nascent gay literature. Looking back, I can only imagine how useful a bookstore like Glad Day, Giovanni's Room, Different Light and, now, Calamus, would have been to me. Gay friendly, stuffed with books—which, admittedly, would have been a little thin in 1967, though, somehow Craig Rodwell made it work as a successful shop back then—and the development of the culture to which we are creating every day. We cannot trust our culture to "the marketplace." Selling itself is not everything, but to "the marketplace" it is the only thing.
George Orwell once wrote: "People write the books they can't find on library shelves." I'll take that further. People create the bookstores not available to them when they were young.
This is our mission.
John Mitzel, Proprietor