Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop Opens as First Gay Bookstore Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop was the first bookshop to specialize in books of interest mostly to gay men. The store provided a communal gathering place, helping to advance gay pride and political activism. Other gay, as well as lesbian-feminist, bookstores soon opened around the United States.

Summary of Event

The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, the oldest gay bookshop in the United States and quite possibly the first such bookshop anywhere, opened in the fall of 1967 at 291 Mercer Street in New York City, in Greenwich Village Greenwich Village near New York University. Providing titles in its early days mainly for gay men, the shop was named for the nineteenth century Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, who had been imprisoned for sodomy. [kw]Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop Opens as First Gay Bookstore (Fall, 1967) [kw]Wilde Memorial Bookshop Opens as First Gay Bookstore, Oscar (Fall, 1967) [kw]Bookshop Opens as First Gay Bookstore, Oscar Wilde Memorial (Fall, 1967) [kw]Gay Bookstore, Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop Opens as First (Fall, 1967) [kw]Bookstore, Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop Opens as First Gay (Fall, 1967) Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop Bookstores;Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop Political activism;and bookstores[bookstores] [c]Economics;Fall, 1967: Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop Opens as First Gay Bookstore[0680] [c]Literature;Fall, 1967: Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop Opens as First Gay Bookstore[0680] [c]Publications;Fall, 1967: Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop Opens as First Gay Bookstore[0680] Rodwell, Craig Lingle, Larry Maccubbin, Deacon

When the bookshop opened, it had less than one hundred titles, and it had a large window decal that proclaimed “Gay is Good.” The store began its service as an activist center two years before the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969. Indeed, what was the first of many pride marches commemorating Stonewall Stonewall Rebellion began at the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in 1970.

In 1973, the store moved to a row house at 15 Christopher Street, in the West Village at the intersection of Christopher and Gay Streets, close to the renowned, although by this time closed, Stonewall Inn bar, which was the scene of the Stonewall Rebellion.

Craig Rodwell, a gay activist and former lover of San Francisco city and county supervisor Harvey Milk, founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop as quite possibly the first business not related somehow with either sex or alcohol (as in, for example, bathhouses and bars) that was geared toward gays and lesbians. Rodwell opened the store with very few titles because he refused to carry pornography, which effectively brought to light the scarcity of gay- and lesbian-oriented literature and other works. In addition, from its earliest days, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop served as a community center, and its books provided queer people with personal insights and affirmations of their identity.

Bookstores featuring lesbian and lesbian-feminist titles soon opened as well. Amazon Bookstore, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, opened in 1970. Others followed. Deacon Maccubbin, at his Lambda Rising Bookstores;Lambda Rising bookstore in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1974, began selling The Advocate, the well-known GLBT newsmagazine, and a small number of books. Lambda Rising became a hub of radical activism, housing at different times the Gay Switchboard as well as the Gay Blade (later the Washington Blade) newspaper. Other bookshops, such as Giovanni’s Room Bookstores;Giovanni’s Room[Giovannis Room] in Philadelphia, We Think the World of You Bookstores;We Think the World of You in Boston, Outwrite Books Bookstores;Outwrite Books in Atlanta, and the Walt Whitman Bookstores;Walt Whitman Bookshop Bookshop in San Francisco, opened their doors. A Different Light Bookstores;A Different Light[Different Light] opened in Los Angeles in 1979. Before long, other gay and lesbian bookshops sprang up in other cities. Many of these stores, like the Oscar Wilde, also became community centers and sites for activism.

Rodwell sold the Oscar Wilde in 1996 to Larry Lingle, stating financial reasons for his decision. After thirty years in business, it looked as if Lingle would have to permanently close the famous bookshop’s doors as well, in January, 2003. Fortunately, the shop was purchased by Maccubbin.

Significance

Unfortunately, only a few GLBT bookstores remain in New York City, and many others around the United States have had to close their doors because, as some owners have said, the GLBT community is not supporting them. Books are being purchased at often discounted prices at large chain stores such as Barnes and Noble and Borders. Gay and lesbian literature started to go mainstream at the end of the twentieth century, and with this mainstreaming of GLBT titles came the national chain stores featuring sections devoted exclusively to gay and lesbian literature and nonfiction as well as GLBT works in other sections. The chains often are able to sell books at lower prices because of their high sales volume, much higher than the smaller, specialized bookstores.

GLBT migration out of urban areas and into suburban neighborhoods also has led to diminishing sales at GLBT bookshops. Also, Amazon.com, Abebooks.com, and other Web-based businesses are able to sell a wide variety of new and used GLBT titles to a wide-ranging group of readers online, further taking away business from GLBT bookstores. Also, because many GLBT authors now are more likely to read and sign their work at the larger national chain stores, which advertise prominently and attract far larger audiences, resulting in larger author profits, the GLBT bookstore suffers.

In an attempt to outwit the large, chain, corporate bookshops, several GLBT bookshops have issued catalogs and have established mail-order businesses, but the sense of community that once thrived at GLBT stores continues to diminish. However, even with ongoing economic challenges, many GLBT bookshops are determined to stay open, striving to remain not just bookstores but also community-oriented institutions. Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop Bookstores;Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop Political activism;and bookstores[bookstores]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bronski, Michael. “The Paradox of Gay Publishing.” Publishers Weekly 249, no. 34 (August 26, 2000): 18-20.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gluckman, Amy, and Betsy Reed, eds. Homo Economics: Capitalism, Community, and Lesbian and Gay Life. New York: Routledge 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liddle, Kathleen. “More than a Bookstore: The Continuing Relevance of Feminist Bookstores for the Lesbian Community.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 9, nos. 1/2 (2005).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Santora, Mark. “Plot Twist for a Gay Bookstore: The Last Chapter Actually Isn’t.” The New York Times, February 4, 2003, p. B3.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tobin, Kay, and Randy Wicker. The Gay Crusaders. New York: Arno, 1975.

May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency

1970: Amazon Bookstore Opens as First Feminist-Lesbian Book Shop

June, 1971: The Gay Book Award Debuts

1973: Brown Publishes Rubyfruit Jungle

1973: Naiad Press Is Founded

1974: The Front Runner Makes The New York Times Best-Seller List

1975: First Novel About Coming Out to Parents Is Published

1980: Alyson Begins Publishing Gay and Lesbian Books

October, 1981: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press Is Founded

May, 1987: Lambda Rising Book Report Begins Publication

June 2, 1989: Lambda Literary Award Is Created

1993: Monette Wins the National Book Award for Becoming a Man

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