Less than a year ago, the LGBTQ books section at the Barnes & Noble in Eugene, Ore., occupied a paltry half shelf. Now it fills several, and additional books with LGBTQ content are a growing presence in other sections throughout the store. The shift is part of bookseller Ben Brock’s mission to get LGBTQ books into the hands of more readers.
“I’m a trans man, so all of this is very personal,” Brock says. “When I was growing up there weren’t books [for me].” He’s trying to change that, and he’s not alone. Across the country, booksellers are taking steps to make bookstores welcoming places for LGBTQ readers.
“I see [booksellers] actively seeking out ways to work with community organizations, as well as artists, to bring people into the store and also to keep their profile up in our community,” says Tony Valenzuela, executive director of Lambda Literary, the LGBTQ literary advocacy group that grew out of D.C.’s now-shuttered Lambda Rising Bookstore in the late 1980s. “I really think that seems to be fueling the renaissance of independent bookstores.”
For Brock, forging those relationships hasn’t always been easy. He began expanding his store’s section in fall 2016, reaching out to a listserv of hundreds of fellow B&N community relations booksellers across the country for tips. Nobody replied. When he turned to small publishers specializing in LGBTQ books, he says, he received few calls back. “I don’t think [booksellers] have those connections in place yet.”
Undeterred, Brock created them. He asked local high school groups to submit their favorite titles and ordered a third of what they submitted. Meanwhile, he formed close relationships with a handful of publishers, including Bold Strokes Books, one of the largest LGBTQ publishers in the country.
Ruth Sternglantz, editorial and marketing consultant at Bold Strokes, was pleasantly surprised to hear from Brock. “It was very nice for a general interest bookstore to actively reach out and say, ‘How do we develop our collection?’ ”
Though building up the LGBTQ stock “was a long process,” Brock says, “the section now boasts an array of fiction, young adult, mysteries, science fiction, horror, and fantasy titles.”
The Fall and Rise of LGBTQ Bookstores
Sara Luce-Look has spent her bookselling career serving LGBTQ readers at Atlanta’s 43-year-old Charis Books & More. “As a queer-owned feminist bookstore,” she says, the store’s mission is to ensure that “when people walk in, they see that their lives are reflected in our store.”
Luce-Look prides herself on the breadth of the collection and the bookselling staff’s ability to help readers find the books they want. Customers often come in with lists they have put together on Amazon, she says, but the books they find are of varying quality. She helps pinpoint which books will deliver what the customers are looking for.
Stores like Charis have long been central to their local LGBTQ communities. For readers in search of LGBTQ titles, notes Bold Strokes’ Sternglantz, these bookstores were for a long time “the only place that had the books.” And, she says, “for decades the [LGBTQ] bookstore was not only the place where you bought books, but it was the place where you met people.”
Now, however, Charis is one of the few remaining shops of its kind. “It depends on how you count,” Luce-Look says, but today “there are probably around a dozen feminist bookstores and a handful of queer bookstores in the United States.”
The latter include Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee, which opened in 1993 in Milwaukee, Wis.; Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room, the latest incarnation of the venerable Giovanni’s Room, which temporarily closed for a few months in 2014; and Bureau for General Services—Queer Division, which, that same year, moved to its current home at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City after occupying a couple of shorter-term spaces.
“We started the project because there were no LGBT-specific bookstores in New York,” says Greg Newton, cofounder of Bureau for General Services. “We were kind of embarrassed on behalf of New York City, and we thought, it’s a shame—what can we do to make it work?”
Newton wasn’t alone in asking the question. “Many of the bookshops started dying just as there was a renaissance in queer publishing,” Sternglantz says, so a new generation of booksellers has had to form relationships with readers and publishers alike.
A short walk from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., East City Bookshop is adding a gender studies section in response to customer demand. Hannah Sternberg, the store’s director of marketing and events, attributes that expression of interest to the fact that the store’s booksellers have frank and frequent conversations about how to be as inclusive as possible. “You have to begin with a store where everybody is 100% invested in making it a welcoming place,” she says.
Employees regularly discuss their customer interactions and specific handselling techniques. For instance, booksellers no longer ask the gender of a child when giving recommendations. Instead, they ask about the children’s interests. Sternberg says this makes it easier to meet a customer’s needs. “I had a woman come in and say, ‘My grandson is into books about princesses,’ and I thought to myself, well, let’s roll with this,” Sternberg says.
Emily Young opened Dog Ear Books in Russellville, Ark., in November 2016. She believes that it’s up to her to set the tone, in order to increase customers’ openness to exploring the titles they see on display.
When Laura Jane Grace’s memoir Tranny was released in November, Young says, “I put it front and center, because it had just come out, and I love Laura Jane Grace.” Young, who is gay, also says she was interested in seeing how readers in the small Arkansas town would react, with concern that their response would be negative.
Young says, “Nothing happened—we didn’t get a negative reaction like I thought we might.” Instead, she says, people bought the book.
A Question of Category
Among the challenges booksellers face is where to shelve LGBTQ books. East City Bookshop decided to limit distinctions, for both philosophical and practical reasons: all LGBTQ fiction, for instance, is shelved within the store’s three thematic fiction sections: general, mystery, and SF/fantasy.
Sternberg notes that adding a section can be challenging in a store with limited space. But the overriding reason to integrate the titles was to “demonstrate that LGBT voices are relevant to everybody. It’s not just a special interest group where either you read general fiction or you read LGBT fiction. Everybody should be reading it.”
Brock agrees, but has struggled with finding a uniform approach. “If you put [a book] in its own section then the straight people aren’t going to read it,” he says. “And there are more straight people than gay people in the world. We need straight people to read these stories in order for this genre to thrive. But at the same time, [LGBTQ readers and books] also need a home.” So he shelves certain well-known titles, such as John Green and David Levithan’s YA novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by category. With other titles, he’ll order two copies, shelving the second copy in LGBTQ.
This practice is fairly widespread; several booksellers we spoke with said they shelve certain books in more than one spot. Shane Mullen, manager at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, says there will always be a need for dedicated LGBTQ sections. “We have customers who just want to browse and find things on their own,” Mullen says. “Having those sections where they can go and be comfortable is very important.”
Creating an Inclusive Environment
Garrard Conley, author of the 2016 memoir Boy Erased, part of which recounts his experience of being subjected to conversion therapy, observed this firsthand last year. Conley traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., to speak at a benefit for a local AIDS program, and later gave a reading at nearby Union Ave Books.
As the store was preparing for the reading, Conley says, a teenage boy circled his table of books. Conley chose not to speak to him first, instead allowing the teenager the space to approach the book several times. As a result, he says, “I got to watch in real time the thing that I had always wanted to happen, which is that this kid is nervous and doesn’t know if he should pick it up, and ends up picking it up, and he ended up buying it.”
Conley says that the whole experience was a testament to the bookstore’s welcoming approach. It also challenged his preconceptions. “Going to Knoxville I was thinking [the AIDS advocacy group] was probably a little safe haven they have for themselves, and probably [LGBTQ] people don’t stray too far outside of the organizations that were dealing with these issues.” Instead, he says, “I was surprised.”
Brock and Sternberg both see author events as necessary for creating a welcoming environment. Brock regularly hosts LGBTQ-focused events and is adding a drag queen children’s story time in June, an idea he first read about on the events page for the San Francisco Public Library.
“It gets kids used to people looking different,” Brock says. “When they see that, then when they’re older, they’re already used to it and it’s not a big deal to them.”
Sternberg cosponsors many of her bookshop events with OutWrite, an LGBTQ literary festival in D.C. At a reading and discussion called “The Future Is Queer” in early May, the store hosted writers whose experiences are often overlooked within the LGBTQ literary community.
“We really tried to find a variety of voices to make sure that people of color were represented, that people on the bisexual spectrum were represented, that it really is an inclusive event in all possible ways,” Sternberg says.
At Left Bank Books, the Gay Men’s Reading Circle and Lesbian Reading Group take such an active part in the store’s other events that, Mullen says, “we like to schedule the events on the same evening” that the book clubs meet. Both groups have gathered monthly for over a quarter century, typically drawing anywhere from five to 15 readers.
Bureau of General Services—Queer Division hosts book clubs too, including a recent gathering of an antifascism book group. Norton says the community has a large say in arranging the bookstore’s event programming. Tony Valenzuela is one community member taking them up on their openness: he has partnered with the store to host the preparatory meetings for this year’s annual Lambda Literary Awards.
Emily Young says that in the months since she opened Dog Ear Books, open mike nights have become a favorite of LGBTQ patrons. At a recent open mike, Young says, “30% of the audience were in that group, whether gay or trans.” She adds, “I thought, that’s so amazing, because they must hear that it’s a welcoming place.”
As booksellers expand their selections of titles and programming, Sternglantz of Bold Strokes says, it’s important that they find ways to “change productively” to meet the needs of LGBTQ readers. “You want to grow and you want to improve and you want to reach a bigger audience,” she says, “but you also don’t want to lose what’s good.”
In the coming year, Luce-Look will embrace that idea, moving Charis Books & More from its current location. She says she was approached by Agnes Scott College, a women’s liberal arts college in nearby Decatur, about relocating to the edge of campus and forming a partnership with the school.
Some details are yet to be worked out, but, Luce-Look says, the store will maintain its current selection and also provide clothing and merchandise for students. She says Charis is a good fit, not only with the college but also with the young families who live in the surrounding neighborhood. A quarter of her store’s books are multicultural children’s books. “We’ll have a built-in community,” Luce-Look says. “That’s a way to survive.”
Below, more on the subject of LGBTQ books.
The stacks can be a haven for LGBTQ patrons.
Forthcoming titles include John Boyne’s latest, Armistead Maupin’s long-awaited memoir, and an alternate history YA novel by Julie Mahew.