Eric Leven

Farewell Oscar Wilde, What Becomes of Stonewall?

Filed By Eric Leven | February 14, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History
Tags: Craig Rodwell, Fire Island, gay bookstores, New York City, oscar wilde bookstore, Stonewall

Farewell indeed. Another piece of gay history bites the dust. From NY Magazine:

oscarwildelib.jpgOne of the subtler pleasures of the movie Milk is its vivid portrayal of those small rooms where the conspirators of the gay liberation movement first came together. Sadly, one of those sanctums, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, announced it was closing last week, after 42 years.

As it happens, the place has a direct link to the film: Its founder, Craig Rodwell, was an early boyfriend of Harvey Milk, at the time a closeted actuary in Brooks Brothers drag. They met cruising on Central Park West and parted after Rodwell, uninterested in monogamy, passed along a case of the clap. By far the more militant of the two, Rodwell had arrived as a teenager, from Chicago, to study ballet, but was distracted by sex and the dawn of "the homophile movement" in the early sixties. In 1967, two years before the Stonewall riots, when most gay activists still used fake names to avoid arrest, he took his savings from cleaning Fire Island hotel rooms and opened the nation's first gay bookstore.

Not that there were many gay books then. The real action was in the cramped back room, where Craig and his staff--he hired men and women in equal numbers--plotted a better future. The city's first gay-pride march was planned there. Strategies for getting the Mafia out of gay bars or confronting police brutality were discussed. When I found my way out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1979, as a teenager, I longed to be in that conversation and one day found the courage to ask Craig for a job. He let me run the register one Saturday a month. My sense of arrival was complete.

But my awe for the place never dimmed. I remember how it felt a few years later when copies of my first book lay in a pile on the floor there and Craig handed me a pen to sign them. Craig died in 1993 (cancer, of all things), a few months after selling the shop. It has gone through four owners since. Kim Brinster, the manager since 1996, bought it three years ago. Shoppers, who for years have consisted more of tourists than locals, disappeared in August. Last week, she told her staff, "I've never been the owner, I'm the caretaker. And unfortunately there's nothing we can do now." Oscar Wilde himself might have been more sanguine. As Lord Henry told Dorian Gray (in a slightly different context), "They spoil every romance by trying to make it last forever."

I suppose this is a good opportunity to bring up a certain idea: Every year, whether rumor or fact, I hear that the famous and historic Stonewall Inn on Christopher St. faces an imminent closure at some point in the near future. My friend suggested that we should start rallying around wealthy gay people and gay organizations to raise money so when that time comes, we can buy out the building which the Stonewall Inn is located, clear it out and turn the space into the Official Gay and Lesbian Liberation Museum. This way, the West Village and more specifically, Christopher St., can go through as many changes and gentrifications as it will yet the gay community will always have that space on that street to call our own.


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The historic Stonewall Inn closed decades ago and was replaced by Bagels And... and a Chinese restaurant. The location can be marked as the site of Stonewall (as it is by a plaque), but the bar is long since gone.

I like your idea of moving the current businesses out and making it a museum of LGBT civil rights. How can we make it a reality though?

This is truly a sad story. Somehow, someone needs to make this museum a reality.

I wonder about making it a museum, since the movement isn't over (or at least I hope it isn't!).

It's really too bad that the stonewall couldn't be sustained as a bar.

One of the problems with the LGBT movement is that we keep on splintering our effort into endless new institutions. We don't need another museum. We need to support the historical institutions that we already have, all of which are struggling in these economically scary times. There is Herstory in New York, the Stonewall Library & Archives in Florida, and the ONE Institute in L.A., to name a few.

And it's always important to emphasize that "gay liberation" didn't start with the Stonewall Bar. That 1969 rebellion just kicked things into higher gear. But more accurately, our movement started not long after World War II.