"February 3, 2009, 3:00 pm
Venerable Gay Bookstore Will Close
By Sewell Chan
The Oscar Wilde Bookshop, at 15 Christopher Street. (Photo: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)
Updated, 4:12 p.m. | The Oscar Wilde Bookshop in Greenwich Village, which is believed to be the oldest gay and lesbian bookstore in the country, will close on March 29, its owner announced on Tuesday, citing “the current economic crisis.” The announcement came nearly six years after the store was about to close, only to be given a last-minute reprieve when a new owner bought it.
The store was opened in 1967 on Mercer Street by Craig L. Rodwell, who was influential in the gay rights movement. It later moved to 15 Christopher Street. Mr. Rodwell, who inspired similar owners of gay bookshops around the country, and who helped organize the city’s first gay pride parade in 1970, died of stomach cancer in 1993.
Then, a store manager, Bill Offenbaker, bought the store. A third owner, Larry Lingle, bought the store in 1996.
In 2003, after Mr. Lingle said he could no longer afford to keep the store open, Deacon Maccubbin, the owner of Lambda Rising Bookstores in Washington, agreed to buy the store and keep it afloat. Then, in 2006, Kim Brinster, the store’s manager since 1996, became the store’s fifth owner.
The bookstore, which currently occupies a storefront not much bigger than a typical Manhattan studio apartment, became a landmark institution for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.
Ms. Brinster wrote in an e-mail message to customers on Tuesday afternoon:
It is with a sorrowful heart that after 41 years in business the Oscar Wilde Bookshop will close its doors for the final time on March 29, 2009. We want to thank all of our customers for their love and loyalty to the store over the years. You have helped make this store a world wide destination and all of us at the store have enjoyed welcoming our neighbors whether they are next door or half way around the world.
In 1967 Craig Rodwell started this landmark store that not only sold Gay and Lesbian literature but also became a meeting place for the LGBT community. Over the years it grew into a first-rate bookshop thanks to the loyal, smart and dedicated staff. There are not enough words to thank these dedicated booksellers for making the OWB one of the world’s finest LGBT bookstores. I feel very honored to have gotten to work with them.
Unfortunately we do not have the resources to weather the current economic crisis and find it’s time to call it a day. So thanks to all who have been a part of the Oscar Wilde family over the years, you have truly been a part of a great global community.
The store said it would continue to take orders through e-mail and through its Web site until mid-March. Ms. Brinster said the store would extend special offers and discounts to liquidate its inventory.
“What a shame,” said Martin B. Duberman, an emeritus professor of history at Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, when he heard of the store’s closing.
Professor Duberman knew the store’s founder, Mr. Rodwell, and wrote about him in his 1993 book “Stonewall.”
“Craig struggled very hard,” Professor Duberman recalled in a phone interview. “He had no real backing from other sources. It was pretty much always hand to mouth. In the early years, some people objected because he refused to carry any pornography. He eventually relented, though I can’t tell you how long it took, but I’m sure that helped him move from a marginal life to at least a semi-prosperous one.”
Professor Duberman called the store “clearly pioneering,” saying, “It demonstrated for the first time that it was possible to own a bookstore, however small, that catered to a gay public. At the same time, by its very existence, it helped to demonstrate that there was such a public, which in turn might well have had some influence on gay writers – suggesting that there was an outlet for that kind of work.”
The current owner, Ms. Brinster, who is 51, started as a manager at the store in 1996 when Mr. Lingle was the owner. Raised in Texas, she moved to New York City in 1979 to get a master’s degree in religious education at Fordham University and later worked as a letter carrier until moving into the book business.
In a phone interview, she said sales had declined by double-digit percentages, compared with a year ago, each month since August. On Tuesday, she noted, the store had only two paying customers.
“People are hemorrhaging, and we’re no exception,” she said. “People really are nervous.”
Ms. Brinster said the economy “is worse than it was after 9/11.”
Independent bookstores have faced relentless challenge from big retailers like Barnes & Noble and online book sellers like Amazon.com, and there is growing interest in electronic books. Ms. Brinster also estimated that some two-thirds of the store’s customers were foreign tourists, and said the decline in the value of the euro — and the general reduction in tourism — had hurt the store.
The store sits below two apartments and above a massage parlor. Ms. Brinster said she paid $3,000 a month in rent, which she said was already below market value.
“Even if we were rent-free it wouldn’t be enough for us to cover the bills we have,” she said. “This is one instance in New York where it’s not a case of the landlord gouging the tenant. Our landlord has always been remarkable with us.”