‘Nathan Burgoine linked to Steve Berman’s Salon article decrying the death of specifically queer bookstores and publishers. Starting with the impending closure of Philadelphia’s Giovanni’s Room, Berman makes the argument that physical bookstores play a critical role for queers as a physical space where they can interact freely with each other and with their literatures. Without them, allusiveness drops.
At a bookstore, you can browse the shelves, open a book, sample its pages as well as those of its peers shelved in the same category or by the same author. With Amazon, if you do not know the author or the title or a great deal of the plot; your chances of finding that book you overheard friends talking about is like a pricking yourself while rolling in a haystack. Good luck. Oh, and during your online hunt, you’ll be forced to look at so many lurid covers — because isn’t gay publishing about sex, sex, sex? — that searching for a book has become, at times, not-safe-for-workplace.
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Some argue that the need for “gay” retailers is disappearing thanks to assimilation — that I am an American first and foremost, who just happens to act a bit fey, so I should just go to a normal bookstore and find the latest Christopher Rice or Sarah Waters. Ahh, the assimilation argument. I would love to walk into a generic bookseller and see LGBT authors prominently shelved. And the major authors, who are published by major presses, already are. David Sedaris. Val McDermid, one of the most read mystery authors in the world. These individuals are assimilated into whatever genre they write in and unless you knew they were gay, you could pass over their books without a second thought. Thank you, America, for hiding the authors’ and the characters’ sexuality. (I promise that none of these covers will be lurid — don’t tell me David Levithan’s “Two Boys Kissing” is lurid. Young adult literature is growing more accepting of LGBT themes, but how many stores have Levithan’s latest spine out?)
In Barnes & Noble, the “gay” shelf is often a single shelf of mixed erotica and university presses with maybe a memoir or a book about Matthew Shepherd. If you wanted to read a gay book — assuming you are not so assimilated that you only want to read about everyday Americans, the vast majority of whom are somewhat favorable to your “lifestyle” and enjoy laughing at fey or butch minstrel characters on television — you have to special-order the book. Which means you are essentially coming out to the busy clerk at the help desk. Can you? Will you? Or will you retreat back home and search again and again for something on Amazon that sounds like a book you want.
Then there’s the argument that the community has failed the local bookstore. Alas, this comment is almost always true. I remember working the front counter of Giovanni’s Room and men and women entering the store at all hours asking to hang posters or leave fliers for their LGBT event or cause. We always agreed and gave them space. And how many of these individuals would then walk around the store. None. We would get people associated with functions and charities and socials approaching Ed for gift certificates to offer as door prizes or silent auctions. And he would never refuse. And after he handed the certificate over, out the door they went.
I question Berman’s assumption that these bookstores played a role for anyone other than a small minority of non-heterosexuals out there, but his wider point is quite worthy.