Sunday, May 25, 2014

Every Bookstore's Closing Diminishes Me

Rolling Stone ran a story recently about the closing of Giovanni's Room, a GLBT bookstore in Philadelphia.  I quibble with its characterizing Giovanni's Room as "the oldest gay bookstore in America," since the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York City was founded six years earlier than Giovanni's Room, but it closed five years sooner, on 2009. 

Giovanni's Room is only the latest gay-bookstore casualty, as many other such stores around the country have closed.  But so have general-purpose brick-and-mortar bookstores.  I have mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, I always enjoyed visiting a new city and having the local gay bookstore to check out, and I'd often discover new works there that had been unknown to me, or that I hadn't been able to find before.  The loss of these places saddens me, but I remind myself that it's because I'm a bookworm, and there are plenty of GLBT resources left.  So, on the other hand, I'm glad that books on homosexuality are readily available everywhere, and there are a lot more of them now than there were when I was growing up.  To kids growing up outside of cities even now, a gay bookstore in New York or Chicago or San Francisco isn't that much use; it's much more important that they be able to find resources in their local library.  In the small town where I grew up, population about 8000, the public library -- an excellent one, by the way, which speaks well for the town -- has plenty of books and DVDs on GLBT subjects.  When I was a young fagling, there were none except perhaps for books marketed to the mainstream, like Mary Renault's historical fiction.

The Rolling Stone article stresses the value of Giovanni's Room as a general resource apart from, or in addition to, the products it sells.  The owner, Ed Hermance, told the reporter, "The store has played a critical role in so many people's lives ... Coming in the store can be like coming out to yourself."  It can be, and it's important that such places exist, but there's no reason they need to be bookstores.  (Hermance also told Rolling Stone "sales have been declining since 1992.")  "'With all the money in this community,' says Rita Adessa, former executive director of the Pennsylvania Lesbian and Gay Task Force, 'there's no reason for Giovanni's Room to go down.'"  That's true, too, but I hope that with all the money in that community, there are other resources available for people who need to come out to themselves.

I wish I had a better sense of how young gay kids are coming out these days, even in my own city.  Indiana University's Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Student Support Services is doubtless useful to many, and I'm glad it's there, despite my old gay-liberationist distrust of GLBT professionalism.  It's a niche that some people can relate to, so I'm glad it's there for them.  No single resource will appeal to everyone.  Other people come to IU already out from their high school days, and the main thing they need is finding a social environment.  There is one gay bar in town, but it's of limited use to people under 21.  There have been many attempts to build alternatives in the more than forty years I've been in Bloomington, but they soon falter for lack of support, which also means use.  I've often tried to get people to explain what they are looking for in terms of resources, with little luck.  Many people weren't interested in the dances and coffeehouses of the seventies because they didn't serve alcohol; that was never important to me, but it's noteworthy how many people weren't even interested in places where they could meet other gay people without using alcohol.  Booze is, after all, a social catalyst in American society generally, not just among gay people, so that's not surprising.  There wasn't a specifically gay bar in Bloomington until the late 1970s, and it wouldn't have survived if not for the straight people who also went there for the dance music and the ambience.  Many gay men from Bloomington went to Indianapolis and the bars (and baths) there, so that they wouldn't be seen by people they knew -- unless they were also going to Indianapolis.  Despite all the talk about community, not all gay people are interested in community.  I'd like to know how much this has changed, if it has.
But, along with the lopsided competitive advantage, online retailers, Hermance notes, aren't as attuned to the quality, rather than quantity, of the sales they make. Search on Amazon for "gay fiction" and the first result to come back is Sebastian, a book with a shirtless man in cut-off denim shorts on its cover. A few of the other top-10 book titles showing nearly-naked men included: Feeling No Pain and Naked Hero – The Journey Away. There is no contextual guiding hand nor emotional intelligence to these recommendations. 
A look at the photo of GR's stock in the article shows that this isn't an issue limited to online booksellers, and I wonder how often the "contextual guiding hand" and "emotional intelligence" got a chance to do its job in gay bookstores.  There was always a lot of erotically-oriented material, not to mention porn, in the gay bookstores I had the chance to visit, and I bet such material paid the rent better than the more respectable books and magazines.  (In the same way, heterosexual non-chain "mom and pop" video stores that have survived usually have porn in a back room, and they couldn't survive if they didn't rent such material.)

Again, Rolling Stone reports:
"There was a golden age when feminist and gay bookstores helped elevate the quality of reading," says Phil Tiemeyer, Lambda Literary Finalist this year for Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants. "Employees might say, 'Oh, you came in for Sci-Fi but did you also see our Philosophy or History section?"

When Tiemeyer's historical work appeared on the Top Five on the Amazon LGBT nonfiction list, he says it was couched between two sex guides – How to Have Anal Sex and The Ass Book: Staying on Top of Your Bottom. "There's something really problematic about that from an intellectual point of view," he says.
Oooh!  That sets off my bullshit detector.  I'm amazed that Tiemeyer's book -- published by an academic press and not written for a general audience -- appeared in a Top Five bestseller list at all.  As I recall, the best-selling gay male books have always included stuff like The Ass Book.  Lesbian bestsellers have included soft-core porn in the form of romances.  For that matter, the current New York Times nonfiction bestseller list puts Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century at number 1, followed by Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent; the number one fiction bestseller is a mystery by James Patterson with a cowriter.   I wouldn't be surprised if many people who bought Plane Queer hoped for hot parts, and were disappointed to find academic jargon instead; I'd be surprised if most who bought it finished it.  As Mark D. Jordan wrote of John Boswell's famous Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1980, it, "and, to a lesser extent, [Boswell's Same-Sex Unions] are talismans more than books. People own them much more often than they read them, because mere possession is enough to allow one to benefit from the results."  Kinsey's Sexual Behavior books were bestsellers too, but how many people actually read them?

I wish more people would read more serious stuff, but that they don't is not news nor a sign of general cultural (or subcultural) decline.  I stress "more" there, because there's no reason why serious books should be all that people read.  I read more academic writing than most non-academics do, often with pleasure, but I also read a lot of lighter work, as do academics themselves.  One reason why feminist scholars began analyzing romance fiction and Gothics was that they were embarrassed by their own fondness for such fare, and then questioned their embarrassment.  But it doesn't work the other way much, and that's too bad.  I believe that people would get a lot out of history and philosophy and political writing, if they'd just give it a chance, but they won't.  I hear a lot of excuses, some of which are probably true enough (not enough time on top of their job, they fall asleep when they read, etc.), but I don't think they're the whole story.  What to do about this, I don't know.