On Eve of Marriage Equality, Landmark D.C. Gay Bookstore to Close

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday December 29, 2009

With marriage equality set to take effect in the nation's capital, a landmark gay bookstore is preparing to shutter its windows for good.

Lambda Rising opened three decades ago, when gays and lesbians in America struggled to achieve--and hold on to--even the most basic civil protections. That struggle continues today, with recent setbacks for gay and lesbian families in California, New York, and Maine countered by a victory for marriage equality in Washington, D.C. Throughout those decades of struggle, GLBT culture has depended in part on bookstores like Lambda Rising, oases where gay readers might go to find gay voices telling the story of America's sexual minorities.

Declining readership, a change in focus to electronic rather than print media, and the still-hobbled economy have all put pressure on booksellers of every sort, but that's not why Lambda Rising is closing. Rather, the store's owners simply feel that it's time to do something new, reported National Public Radio's All Things Considered in a Dec. 26 segment.

Lambda Rising's co-owner, Deacon Maccubbin, a longtime GLBT equality activist, told host Guy Raz that he opened the store in 1974, after being told by a bookstore clerk that "those kind of books" were not on offer at the establishment--"Like I was looking for porn," said Maccubbin. "That's what the image was of gay literature at the time. There were porn books that were gay literature, and that was it."

Such is no longer the case. GLBT letters has always has its literary side, of course, but only in recent decades has it emerged as a mainstream genre. "It's really rare to find a general bookstore these days that doesn't carry gay and lesbian literature," Maccubbin said. "It doesn't mean there's not still a need for a gay and lesbian bookstore--I think there is. But the crushing need that was there in the '70s and '80s is less so today."

Maccubbin had taken a hand six years ago in helping prevent the closure of another gay book store--New York's Oscar Wilde Bookshop--but when it came to his own store's closure, he spoke about a personal desire to move on, saying, "I think 35 years is long enough for any one person to do one thing." Selling the business was a possibility, but not one that appealed to him; said Maccubbin, "We had people that wanted to buy the business and continue to run it, but they were mostly investors. They didn't share the same community connection that we had always had. And I just decided I couldn't stomach walking down the street and seeing my store in the hands of somebody else running it a different way."

Moreover, "We could've continued to operate for a number of years," Maccubbin said. "However, we also are realists. We see what's happening to bookstores generally, to independent bookstores in particular, and to the book industry, the way it's shifting in what people buy and how they buy."

When the store first opened for business, Maccubbin told Raz, his customers approached the establishment furtively, "The same way they would've been if they were going into a gay bar or any other gay business," he said. "They screwed up their courage enough to come on into the store, and I think that helped them take those first steps out of the closet."

Now gay readers, along with many gays in general, are well out of the closet, and standing up for their own rights and the rights of their families. Maccubbin spoke to the District's recent legalization of marriage equality, saying, "I feel wonderful. Both Jim [Bennett, Maccubbin's domestic partner since 1982] and I feel fabulous about this. It's something we fought for pretty much all our lives.

"Jim and I have been together for 32 years," continued Maccubbin. "We got married in a church--a church blessed our holy union along with 350 of our closest friends, including some members of the [Washington, D.C. city] council and what have you." Maccubbin added that three decades after that first ceremony, when marriage equality was voted into law by the council, "I went out in the hallway, got down on my knees and proposed to Jim again. And amazingly enough, after 32 years, he said yes again, too. I was thrilled."

The shop's closing might not mean that buyers have nowhere to turn for GLBT literature, since gay-themed books of all descriptions and genres--from erotica to art books to mystery novels with gay gumshoes and scholarly works about the place gays have in history--are readily available at other booksellers, both online and at retail spaces. But for some, the loss of Lambda Rising will be a blow to the local community, since Lambda Rising has long served as a focal point for the city's GLBT culture.

At gossip site Gawker, a posting about the store's impending closure elicited a host of comments from readers about the role played by discount online book vendors in the decline of the neighborhood bookstore. But one poster wrote to say that he had worked at Lambda Rising for a period of time, and that on once occasion the store's role in the fabric of the city's gay community was summed up by a 16-year-old boy who came in not to browse the store's selection of books, but rather because "his family kicked him out because he was gay. He didn't know where else to go. We hung out with him until the gay liaison unit of the DC Police Department could come pick him up and take him to a shelter. The store was a community center moreso [sic] than simply a shop."

Another reader responded to that posting, writing, "So often small businesses like bookstores or cafes have formative influences on communities. It's devastating when these businesses can't compete with chains, corporations that don't engage as readily with the local. Without recognizable access points like Lambda Rising, it becomes harder for people to connect in real space--the way that 16 year old knew that the bookstore would be a safe place for a gay teenager to go, and that the people there would be able to point him to the resources he needed. Sure the internet opens up these resources to some people, but a visible presence like a bookstore might provide an extra level of accessibility..."

Posted another reader, "I think the closing down itself is good news, bad news.

"The good news: you can get gay books in mainstream bookstores now! Even in the podunkiest town, if you have internet access you have access to information!

"The bad news: The freaking bookstore is closing down!!!"

"I know!" wrote still another. "There's something so sad about losing these niche independent bookstores where you can go and browse books surrounded by cool people."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.