Matt Comer

Oscar Wilde Bookstore, and my first and only visit

Filed By Matt Comer | February 04, 2009 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Media
Tags: gay bookstores, gay business, LGBT community, New York City, NYC, Oscar Wilde, oscar wilde bookstore, queer youth

It is sad, sad news, indeed. The New York Times reports that the Oscar Wilde Bookstore at 15 Christopher St. in Greenwich Village, New York, will close March 29. The current owner cites the economy.

oscarwildebookstore.jpgOpened in 1967, the bookstore has changed ownership several times. The current owner, Kim Brinster, took the reigns in 2006, after D.C.'s Lambda Rising owner Deacon Maccubbin swooped into save the store from similar circumstances in 2003. Brinster says the store will offer discounts and specials to move out its inventory, and continue to take online sales through mid-March.

And, no jumping to conclusions, y'all... it isn't the god-awful New York rent pushing them under. "Even if we were rent-free, it wouldn't be enough for us to cover the bills we have," owner Brinster said.

The Times has a great piece, with some historical perspective. My reminiscences of my first and only visit to the store as a high school sophomore after the jump...

In 2002, right after turning 15 years old, I went with my high school honors choral ensemble to New York City. We had practiced for months on end, readying ourselves for the time we'd get to join a chorus of close to 200 students from around the nation inside the country's premier performing venue, Carnegie Hall.

The trip was full of firsts for me. It was the first time I'd ever traveled to New York City. The first time I'd been so far from home. My first time experiencing life outside of the American South. The first time, ever, that I saw almost all of the general community and society be accepting and embracing of LGBT people.

To be sure, I was a flamer. Actually, flamer really doesn't give my naive, youthful queerness the justice it deserves. Visiting New York City, watching same-sex couples walk down the street hand-in-hand, seeing rainbow flags flying atop office buildings and stores -- it was the first time I'd ever been in a place as accepting and as gay.

During one of the many days where we either didn't have rehearsal for our Carnegie performance or didn't have a pre-planned toursity trip to places like the Statue of Liberty, two of my best friends from high school, David and Cameron, agreed to go with me to Greenwich Village. My aim was to see the Stonewall Inn, the "birthplace" of the modern LGBT equality movement. We had no clue as to where it was headed and only new an address, 53 Christopher St., but addresses really don't help high school-aged NYC strangers on the subway.

We eventually found Greenwich Village. We stopped in a Starbucks coffee at the five point intersection Christopher St. runs through. And, eventually, we found the Stonewall. It was about 11 a.m. and the Stonewall was closed. After all, the Stonewall's happy hour didn't start until much later, I'm sure. Not that I could have gone inside anyway.

After reading some of the historic plaques and seeing the statues in the park across the street, we walked down Christopher and saw Oscar Wilde Bookstore. I desperately wanted to go inside. David and Cameron wanted to go do something fun. But they stuck with me. I was amazed that a gay bookstore even existed. Looking back, I can say my naivete was astonishing.

While the very straight David and Cameron enjoyed the (ahem) lesbian-oriented materials, I quickly immersed myself in the store, skimming through magazines and books. Not having all that much money, I just bought a little bracelet; something, at least, to say I had been there. I think I kept the tiny Oscar Wilde gift bag for months, maybe a year after my New York trip.

I wonder if New Yorkers know or appreciate the value of their historic gay establishments? Do they ever see the wide-eyed 15-year-old queer kids from the South who come to New York in amazement and leave with empowerment?

It's sad. There will be another 15-year-old kid like the one I was. She or he might get to see the Stonewall. Maybe they'll see other parts of the Village. They'll no longer have the chance to see the bookstore. That little, cheap rainbow bracelet and brown Oscar Wilde gift bag meant and symbolized a lot for me. What will future youths find? Will little tokens of a gay world outside their own communities even be needed in coming years and decades?

Farewell to Oscar Wilde. Good journeys to its owner. I only visited once, but I'll remember it the rest of my life.

Cross-posted from Q-Notes' assemBLOGe

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I have one of those dark faded green canvas messenger bags with the "Oscar Wilde" logo on it from a visit there just after I came out.

What a sense of wonder I felt looking around at all of the LGBT themed materials!

With the 'mainstream' bookstores bending more and more from the demands of the Religious Right, gay themed establishments are treasures that are slipping away through our fingers. We need to patronise them and save the few that we have left.

Mainstream bookstores are bending to pressures from the right? How so? (I'm not arguing with you, just wondering what you're referring to.)

Thanks for this wonderful story.

I first saw the Oscar Wilde Bookstore in 1974, when I had recently published "The Front Runner" and did a booksigning there. The store was then so tiny that only a few bookbuyers could fit in.

In the 15 years since my publishing company, Wildcat Press, has been in business, we have seen the gay and gay-friendly bookstore mailing list shrink from around 400 address to the 60 now listed at the Lambda Literary Foundation website.

There are quite a few reasons why people have stopped buying at LGBT bookstores. They buy online, they buy at chain stores, they buy used books...or they don't buy at all right now, because their money has to go into priorities. Also, many LGBT media don't support the LGBT book business too much -- they're too engrossed with politics and tabloid personalities to care about what happens to our literature. So many LGBT people don't ever find out what's current in books from the gay media.

But even the chain bookstores are struggling right now. So it's a cloudy moment for books in general, and LGBT books in particular.

Meanwhile, hail and farewell to Oscar Wilde Bookstore...and the store's epic fight to survive. A special hat tip to Lambda Rising for buying the store a few years ago and keeping it open as long as they could.

John R. Selig | February 4, 2009 7:45 PM

As more LGBT bookstores close and more LGBT publishers and writers face hard times our history and culture become lost to the next generations coming out of the closet. The Internet is great and I spend many hours each day online. but nothing compares with curling up with a good book!

The closing of the Oscar Wilde Bookstore is tragic.

This is too bad. I never got to visit.

I've been there and to be honest I won't miss the place at all. The wealthy white gay male elitism and disdain for those not their exclusive little club was so thick there you could cut it with a knife. Hopefully, once we get through this recession, these kinds of "LGBT" bookstores will finally be a part of history and replaced with bookstores that truly to have a right to call describe themselves with the terms "community" and "LGBT".

I recommend Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia, a true LGBT community bookstore, still going strong and serving our community with both a vision and an inventory that's truly inclusive. I try to make it a point to stop in and pick something up every time I'm in town. It's a great place to spend some time and a truly LGBT-inclusive business worthy of our support.

The first time I went to the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop was in 1976 as an NYU freshman. In those days, and for many years thereafter, there was no Internet and no community center. If the gay community was a town instead of a concept, Oscar Wilde was the barber shop.

I'd go there several times a week, and not because I had a large book budget. You went to Oscar Wilde to find out what was going on in the community. Was there a demonstration? A town hall meeting? A march? A dance?

Anyone who had something that needed to be publicized to the community brought their flyers to Oscar Wilde, who had an area set aside for the rows of announcements.

They also had a wide array of gay and lesbian publications which I would scoop up with relish. Of course you'd also have to check if there was some new supercool button or bumpersticker, and I'd check to see if there was a new Rita Mae Brown novel. Then if they weren't busy, hang out with whomever was at the cash register to hear the latest gossip.

Maybe the community grew beyond the need for a gay bookstore. When a gay section turned up in mainstream bookstores, I had mixed emotions about it. The good news was that our literature would find a far wider audience, and people who didn't have access to "gay ghettos" or were afraid of go there, had an alternative. Of course the bad news was that we no longer needed to support our own institutions.

Having a community center which is set up with a far larger range of space and services than the "gay barbershop" is clearly more desirable. And now the omni-everything that is the Internet, and it's access to information, communications, and goods, overwhelms the capabilities of any neighborhood shop.

But it shouldn't be forgotten that Oscar Wilde played a critical role in the development and nurturing of our community, regardless of its ability to survive in today's reality. It is a sad thing that this part of our history will be lost.

I would hope that any independent bookstores could survive, because all types of independent bookstores are having hard times. I think that a "general progressive and literary" format would be both able to attract a wider customer base (therefore financially viable) and stock LGBTQ and feminist books that used to be the province of LGBT and women's specialized bookstores. Our local independent store is one of these "progressive/literary" stores, and is expanding.

There is a great non-profit community center/book store/cafe in Chapel Hill, NC, Internationalist Books, that operates on the progressive/literary store type. I've never been but I've interviewed one of their folks for a story and talked to patrons and members. It seems like a great place and it seems they have an awful lot of meet ups there, including a queer youth drop in.

Larry Lingle | October 16, 2010 2:15 PM

I was somewhat astonished reading one person's comments about Oscar Wilde and "white elitist males". I must have missed that even though I owned Oscar Wilde from 1996-2003. When I bought it and asked Kim Brinster to manage it for me while I stayed in Texas and ran my bookstore there, we did the store over and opened the small space to allow nearly twice the selling space as before. How that made it a white male elitist place is beyond me, I for one may be white and male but hardly elitist (especially now that I live in poverty and am 74 years old). Gay and lesbian bookstores are now fairly much only a part of our past history but at least for awhile they served a very useful purpose.