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12.19.2009

Lament for a Bookstore

Losing a good bookstore is like losing a friend. Lambda Rising in DC recently announced that it will close in early January. Likewise, their Rehoboth Beach store will go too. In a three-part annoucement, titled "Mission Accomplished," the Lambda Rising website stated that Lambda Rising was started "as a demonstration of the demand for gay and lesbian literature." The announcement goes on to detail the 35 year history of the bookstore and its part in the LGBT community, framing it as a successful period of growth for LGBT literature.

But is it mission accomplished?

Many bookstores--the major ones--carry a selection of LGBT books. LGBT books have indeed made their way into the mainstream as a section, usually located in the social sciences, barely taking up an entire shelf, where readers can find the major titles: Best (Gay/Lesbian) Erotica of 200X, maybe a book or two from Cleis Press, a paperback from Kensington Books. It's there--but what a limited selection!

Where is Leslie Feinberg, and if ze's there why is ze's story grouped with the lesbian fiction (if we must make categories)? Where is Mabel Maney's campy renditions of Nancy Drew? Erotica from independent publishers like Starbook Press? Or gay poetry for that matter, from Mark Doty or Justin Chin; you can't find Justin Chin in any bookstore. For me, Lambda Rising was a space of exploration into alternative literature, outside what society deemed as mainstream and acceptable. These were the words of my people--and boy, were they good! No mainstream bookstore would carry any of this. Not regularly at least. And what is the point of going to bookstore if you have to order it, if you have to know what you want; the point of the bookstore (what seperates it from online shopping) is the carousing about, the browsing about, for weird covers that catches the eye, and synopsis that shouldn't exist, but there it is in your hand, proof on paper.

For queers like me, mainstream society still doesn't get us. They're focus on Penguin and Harper Collins and Random House, who while do publish gay authors, that seems to come secondary, which it should be, but as a teenager seeing someone--a writer--who was queer, I felt a connection.

And that was what Lambda Rising (and any community bookstore) is about: Connections. You can shop online for books for all I care, but bookstores are about community. Something like Lambda Rising, doubly so. You can't go on Amazon and make a community.  Do you think a group of queer philosophers can meet at the local Barnes and Noble? Not likely, not if they didn't set it up before hand. At independents, it's people knowing what you read, it's going there knowing people are kinda like you.

In an identity based society (you know you wanna call me a gay asian man, but personally I'm just human), such spaces are important. To say mission accomplished would be to state that we are nearing a post-identity market: Where it is okay by booksellers to have a black author in the literature section, when it's okay to have a gay mystery writer in the mystery section and not it some gay mystery section. Where the identity is not important, just the word.

Perhaps this is wherewe're heading if we are to close such queer book store, but it's doubtable. The major bookstores are not likely to remove the gay seciton or the lesbian section or the African American literature sections. It makes more money. It's segreation--segbookgation. But it makes money. They'll probably stay that way, the same smallish size too. Abandoned except by a few who go in secret because they're kinda embarrassed.

Lambda Rising wasn't about embarrassment. It was about being there--you were there--and being proud of who you were, being proud that you found this cool new author from some small press that no one will ever learn about, but at least you feel good as you go up to the counter and pay for it, a little bit of your money going to that starving artist.

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