LGBTQ Bookstores RIP

Yesterday, December 31, 2018, marked the official last day* for Common Language Bookstore in Ann Arbor.  In November, owners Keith Orr and Martin Contreras announced they were closing up shop at the end of the year.  In mid-December, Between The Lines hosted a farewell party to thank Martin and Keith for their years of devotion, keeping the store open long after most other queer bookstores in the country have gone out of business.

For the first time in more than four decades, Michigan has no LGBTQ bookstore.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, “The Gay Shelf” at Young and Welshan’s in Flint served as something of a lifeline for me as a young person coming out as gay in my 20s in the mid-1980s.

Around the same time, I began traveling as much as I could on the cheap, taking the Greyhound or Amtrak and staying with friends or in youth hostels.  Whatever city I visited, I made a beeline to the gay bookstore.

I remember finding the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York, the grandparent of all queer bookstores, founded by Craig Rodwell in 1967.  I probably bought my pristine used copy of Jonathan Katz’s Gay/Lesbian Almanac from Rodwell himself.

When I visited my friend Steve in the late ‘80s, then in rabbinical school in Philadelphia, I discovered Giovanni’s Room.  I later roamed the shelves and book displays at A Different Light in West Hollywood and A Different Light in San Francisco, noticing other shoppers, maybe half cruising in all my shyness.

The three OutWrite conferences I attended in Boston in the early ‘90s always included a stop at Glad Day Bookshop on Boylston Street near the Boston Public Library.  Copies of Bay Windows and all the freebie local literature could be found just outside the entrance at the top of the stairs.

Walking to find People Like Us in Chicago, I spotted a Quisp t-shirt in the front window of a nearby pop culture store.  The shirt has since become trademark garb for me.

The there’s Lambda Rising in DC, probably the gold standard.  Catching the Washington Metro to Dupont Circle, riding the long escalator up, and orienting myself up top to find Connecticut Avenue and the walk down the block to Lambda Rising became a regular pilgrimage.  What fun the store was for the 1987 and 1993 marches, jammed with queer folk.

Save for Giovanni’s Room, none remain open.

Common Language sign
Common Language Bookstore.  (glbtbooks.com)

Feminist bookstores paved the way for the familiar LGBTQ bookstores we came to know.  Among the earliest in Michigan was Hershelf Bookstore in Highland Park, which operated from 1976 to 1980.  In the late 1970s, Ann Arbor had A Woman’s Bookstore, which didn’t allow male customers.  From 1977 to 1990 Lansing had Motherwit.

The 1990s were something of a heyday for gay and lesbian bookstores in Michigan.  I vaguely recall visiting Chosen Books, opened by Bill Ashley and John Cook in Detroit in 1983, in its original location at 940 West McNichols.  I certainly went aplenty after Chosen relocated to Royal Oak.  That location closed in 2006, reopened on Hilton in Ferndale in 2007, and closed for good in 2012.

I’m happy to have been to the two Sons and Daughters stores, one in Grand Rapids, opened in 1990 by Jeff Swanson and Dennis Komac, the second, opened a year later in Southfield.  My bookcase holds the paperback volumes Donald Vining’s A Gay Diary snagged at the Grand Rapids shop.

In its early days, Between The Lines held publication board meetings at the former home of Affirmations in the Pioneer Building on Nine Mile Road in Ferndale.  Beforehand, I inevitably popped into A Woman’s Prerogative, opened by Kelly Smith and Amy Blake next door in 1992.

Now that I’m a Lansing resident, I truly miss the Real World Emporium on Turner in Old Town, opened by Cheryl Van De Verkhove in 1994.  It closed in 1998.

All of them are now gone.

And then there’s Common Language.  It opened as Common Destinations in 1988 on South Fourth in Ann Arbor.  Kate Burkhardt and Lynden Kelly bought the store in 1990, rechristened it Common Language, and moved it across the street in 1993.

I have two favorite memories from the Kate and Kelly days.  Eli Clair held a reading to a packed crowd there one evening in the late 1990s, so riveting and precise.  Also, I once visited there with Anne Tracy, bibliographer extraordinaire, as she purchased books to add to Special Collection at the Michigan State University Libraries.

After Creating a Place for Ourselves was published in 1997, Kelly always made sure to keep a copy in stock.

Keith and Martin took over in 2003 and moved Common Language to Braun Court in 2005.  In the new site, located in an old house between the aut Bar and the Jim Toy Center (formerly the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project), Common Language has been more than a mere bookstore.  It’s been a vital community hub.

When the Supreme Court made its ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, extending same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015, plaintiffs April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse joined in celebration in the courtyard outside the store’s entrance.  Last year, openly lesbian Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who represented the couple in the case, announced her candidacy just across from the store.

My friend Miriam Frank held a reading for her book Out in the Union around picnic tables in front of the store, among dozens and dozens of authors who have showcased their work at Common Language.

Since leaving Ann Arbor, I stopped in whenever I was in town, and always tried to buy something.

Alas, no more.  In the U.S. and Canada, LGBTQ bookstores are now rarities.  Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia is still open as Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni’s Room.  Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto is still open.  And Women and Children First in Andersonville Chicago is still open.

Online retail has changed the economics of bookselling.  Growing social acceptance has altered how and where we seek community.  Not always in brick and mortar stores anymore, not always in pages of books.

In changing times, we do have LGBTQ-friendly stores to meet our book-buying needs, which wasn’t so true when Chosen Books opened in 1983.

In terms of independent bookstores, Schuler’s Books in Grand Rapids and Lansing both have an LGBTQ section, as does Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor and Horizons Bookstore in Traverse City.  Barnes and Noble carries our books, as well.  The selection cannot compare to what a bookstore can offer.

We’re now back to having The Gay Shelf.

It’s hard to fathom the loss.

Tim Retzloff

*Update as of January 3, 2019: Per a Facebook posting from Keith, the store is still open for another two or three weeks, with remaining inventory 75% off.

2 thoughts on “LGBTQ Bookstores RIP”

  1. Lovely post and especially engaging to think through all of the LGBTQ bookstores of Michigan. I find it especially curious at the moment when independent bookstores are growing and expanding and there is greater investments by communities in independent bookstores combined with the extraordinary literary cultural production happening in queer communities right now that we are not seeing a bookstore renaissance. I do not know how to account for these disparate realities. Telling the stories of what existed in the past though may inspire people to create new spaces and places for LGBTQ readers.

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  2. Beautiful post and the importance of the gay and lesbian bookstore those of us coming of age in the late seventies and early eighties can not be overstated. Chosen Books was such a remarkable enterprise and brought so much to Detroit’s LGBT Community. Bill Ashley was a high school friend and as 1981 approached he was my personal tour guide into the (then and briefly) vibrant Detroit Gay Scene. And then the plague came. I’ve just begun work on a dramatic/cinematic treatment (Working Title CHOSEN) of those heady days and would grateful to hear from anyone who knew Billy and Peter Cook and might bring more light to what it meant to be dancing at Menjo’s with the soon to become Madonna, have a three a.m. Omlette at Peter Mel’s Backstage Deli, or otherwise understand what it was to be “Chosen.”

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