|Commerce and Community Before Stonewall: Gay Book Clubs and “the Freedom to Read”|
|The history of the gay bookstore in the United States is usually seen as beginning with the founding of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York by Craig Rodwell in 1967 and now approaching a sad end. But this narrative ignores early bookstores such as the Adonis bookstore in San Francisco and Jay’s Place in Philadelphia that included physique magazines and other material Rodwell considered tawdry and pornographic. It also ignores the long history of mail order book services targeting gay men, including those run by Donald Webster Cory, the Daughters of Bilitis, the Guild Press, Directory Services, Inc. and a host of other entrepreneurs and organizations. So while the gay bookstore may soon exist only as an online phenomenon, such a virtual network is not unlike the one established over fifty years ago through the U.S. mail.
This paper will discuss the history of gay commercial booksellers before Stonewall and their formative impact on gay consciousness. It is part of a larger project that outlines the development and history of a gay consumer network and how the production, marketing, and purchasing of magazines, paperback novels, greeting cards, and other items available through gay-oriented mail-order catalogs fostered a sense of community. Building on the work of art historian Thomas Waugh, I argue the development of this commercial market by a small group of pioneering entrepreneurs was a key, overlooked catalyst to the rise of a gay movement in America. By examining how a minority group used the marketplace to gain political and economic power despite intense opposition from federal and local law enforcement agencies, this study raises issues about the role of consumer culture in identity and community formation. It offers a corrective to scholarship that pits gay activism against gay consumerism and privileges Leftist movements from the 1960s and identity politics as the halcyon origins of the movement (D’Emilio, Faderman, Sender, Chasin).
Through content analysis of brochures, catalogs, and magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, along with oral history interviews and archival research in the papers of publishers and court records, I demonstrate that physique magazine publishers and other mail-order enterprises explicitly targeted a gay consumer market and how these consumer items provided a means for gay men to understand themselves as belonging to a national, even international, community. The ability to purchase these items validated their erotic attraction to other men and provided particular class-based models for what it meant to be gay. By bringing not only stories of the gay culture of Greenwich Village but also an opportunity to purchase the fashions and books available in Greenwich Village stores, these mail-order catalogues created an “imagined community.” At the same time, some of the producers of these catalogs used an explicit language of freedom and rights in their open challenge of censorship laws that was more anti-establishment and less assimilationist than the nascent gay political groups of the time.|