Why We Need to Save the World's Last Remaining LGBT Bookstores

01/09/2012 03:35 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Not many places in the world can be considered gay landmarks, but certainly LGBT bookstores have played a big part in cultivating our history, serving as resource centers for queer and questioning youth and fostering relationships in gayborhoods beyond one-night stands and drunken blackouts.

Unfortunately, when it comes to making ends meet, these independent bookstores are barely hanging on by a thread.

Earlier this week Queerty wrote about Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto going up for sale. Currently the oldest gay bookstore in the world, Glad Day has been a beacon of freedom of expression for over 31 years. In 2003 the bookshop won a federal lawsuit defending their right to sell movies, adult or otherwise, without the approval of the Ontario Film Review Board. (You can help save Glad Day by shopping online.)

But despite these strides, LGBT bookstores worldwide continue to struggle against online retailers. Ironically it was the biggest online retailer of them all, Amazon.com, that once classified gay and lesbian titles as "adult" material. Books with LGBT content, including Brokeback Mountain and an Ellen DeGeneres biography, were stripped of their rankings in what was later corrected as a "technical glitch."

That all happened in 2009, the same year New York's Oscar Wilde Bookshop, D.C.'s Lambda Rising, and West Hollywood's A Different Light announced they were going under.

A year later, Nashville's OutLoud bookstore got quiet, and a year after that, the last of the three A Different Light locations in the heart of the gay mecca itself, San Francisco's Castro district, went dark.

Since then, Amazon has made some amends. Last year they donated $25,000 to Lambda Literary's writers retreat. In an exclusive statement, executive director Tony Valenzuela and board members Don Weise (former publisher of Alyson Books) and Richard Labonte (former owner of A Different Light) expressed the following:

Getting grants, like from Amazon, allows us to award many more scholarships for emerging writers to attend our retreat who otherwise would not be able to. For this, we are grateful. The physical space that LGBT bookstores provided as cultural community centers, to place fliers if you were an activist, to host queer readings... this central role has been dispersed. What's lost, of course, is an institution that serves as a meeting space, a business run by folks passionate about books that carefully curate what's on the shelf so that we can find great queer lit.

That's way more than we can afford to lose. While working at A Different Light in the Castro, I met young people from all over the world hungry for stories and characters they could relate to. They were bewildered by the variety of books we carried -- stuff they could only dream of finding back in their hometowns. 

Sure, resources and information are now more readily accessible than ever online, but sometimes you have to browse in-person to find just what you were -- or weren't -- looking for.

Books have a way of finding us, too, when we least expect them but just when we need them most.

So if every LGBT bookstore in the world is set to fade (a frightening yet viable possibility), who will proudly stock our queer, oftentimes "unpublishable" stories? Who will help us validate our fight against mainstream censorship? What will be our gayborhoods' living rooms? Amazon.com certainly won't.

With that in mind, check out the following list of 10 still-vibrant brick-and-mortar LGBT bookstores all over the world. Make sure to stop by whenever you're in town, or visit them online, for no one is going to preserve our community for us.

Outwrite (Atlanta): In 2011 this 18-year-old gay bookstore and coffeeshop hosted book signings with Chelsea Handler, Don Lemon, and Alan Hollinghurst. But Outwrite is still in trouble: after a fundraising campaign, the store is is currently in the process of moving from its home in Midtown (in a former disco!) to a less expensive space to continue operations. Need proof gay bookstores are more than retailers? When the local police department wanted to mend its reputation after the botched raid on the Atlanta Eagle, it held a Q&A at Outwrite. (Help save Outwrite by shopping online.)

Giovanni's Room (Philadelphia): Ed Hermance opened Giovanni's Room in 1973 and is credited with helping launch the careers of literary greats like Edmund White, Dorothy Allison, E. Lynn Harris, and Leslie Feinberg. The shop is currently the oldest operating gay bookstore in America, and in October the Pennsylvania Historical Commission commemorated the bookstore as a state historical marker. (Help save Giovanni's Room by shopping online.)

Gay's the Word (London): Located in the literary hood of Bloomsbury, Gay's the Word put up its own fight against censorship in 1984 when Her Majesty's customs agents raided the store and took hundreds of titles on the grounds of indecency. The gay community  protested the raid and the charges against the 32-year-old store's owners were eventually dropped. Gay's the Word's history is explored in a fascinating short documentary, which includes an interview with noted queer author Felice Picano.

Libreria Nuestras Letras (Costa Rica): This scholarly store, the only LGBT bookshop in Costa Rica, still offers a great selection of queer-theory titles, but the cost of shipping books has become overwhelming. Libreria Nuestras Letras' owners are considering selling off their entire store at cost to a single buyer interested in opening an online store or new retail location. (Help save Nuestras Letras by sending your order to nuestrasletras@hotmail.com.)

Les Mots à la Bouche (Paris): Located in the heart of Le Marais, Paris' gayborhood, this quaint bookshop -- the name roughly translates to "tip of the tongue" -- is stocked with new and classic LGBT titles (a nice chunk of which are in English, merci). It's also a good place to find flyers, gay-interest magazines like Blue and Carol's Girlfriends, and, downstairs, some risqué offerings.

Libreria Complices (Barcelona): This spacious libreria has been selling lit and non-fiction in English, Spanish, and Catalan -- and helping gay and lesbian visitors with handy travel guides -- for over 17 years. It's even established a press to publish queer narratives often ignored by mainstream publishing houses. Recently, Televisio de Catalunya filmed a short segment on Complices.

Calamus Bookstore (Boston): Named after Walt Whitman's collection of man-love poems first published in Boston, this cozy book nook considers itself a marketplace of ideas. Steps away from South Station in Boston's gay district, Calamus draws major gay authors like Andrew Holleran and Christopher Bram and publishes its own line of queer titles for e-readers. (Help save Calamus by shopping online.)

Little Sister's Book & Art Emporium (Vancouver): Definitely not your sister's bookstore -- unless your sister is Kate Bornstein -- this sprawling space opened in 1983, making it quite the veteran by gay-bookstore standards. Of course, it's done far more for its customers than just provide queer lit, kinky toys, and ephemera: in 2000, Little Sister's challenged the customs bureau for seizing an issue of The Advocate at the border. The owners took the case all the way to Canada's Supreme Court -- and won. (Help save Little Sister's by shopping online.)

Prinz-Eisenherz Buchladen (Berlin): It took just four men to establish this progressive literary institution in 1978. Over 30 years later, Prinz-Eisenherz continues to be a meeting place for like-mended gay men and lesbians in Berlin. Although you'll find a limited selection of adult material, this LGBT bookstore has a stronghold on serious queer fiction and gay rags from all over the world. (Help save Prinz-Eisenherz by shopping online.)

Obelisk Shoppe (San Diego): Although Obelisk closed last summer after a devastating fire destroyed the historical building it was housed in, the owners hope for a grand reopening in time for Pride 2012. Located in the heart of Hillcrest, it definitely offers a wide selection of books -- they've hosted signing with Christopher Rice and RuPaul, for example -- but also boutique-type fare like skin products, watches, swimsuits and designer underwear.

A version of this post originally appeared on Queerty.