Friday, February 13, 2009

Farewell Oscar Wilde, What Becomes of Stonewall?

Farewell indeed. Another piece of gay history bites the dust.
From NY Magazine

One of the subtler pleasures of the movie Milk is its vivid portrayal of those small rooms where the conspirators of the gay liberation movement first came together. Sadly, one of those sanctums, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, announced it was closing last week, after 42 years.

As it happens, the place has a direct link to the film: Its founder, Craig Rodwell, was an early boyfriend of Harvey Milk, at the time a closeted actuary in Brooks Brothers drag. They met cruising on Central Park West and parted after Rodwell, uninterested in monogamy, passed along a case of the clap. By far the more militant of the two, Rodwell had arrived as a teenager, from Chicago, to study ballet, but was distracted by sex and the dawn of “the homophile movement” in the early sixties. In 1967, two years before the Stonewall riots, when most gay activists still used fake names to avoid arrest, he took his savings from cleaning Fire Island hotel rooms and opened the nation’s first gay bookstore.

Not that there were many gay books then. The real action was in the cramped back room, where Craig and his staff—he hired men and women in equal numbers—plotted a better future. The city’s first gay-pride march was planned there. Strategies for getting the Mafia out of gay bars or confronting police brutality were discussed. When I found my way out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1979, as a teenager, I longed to be in that conversation and one day found the courage to ask Craig for a job. He let me run the register one Saturday a month. My sense of arrival was complete.

But my awe for the place never dimmed. I remember how it felt a few years later when copies of my first book lay in a pile on the floor there and Craig handed me a pen to sign them. Craig died in 1993 (cancer, of all things), a few months after selling the shop. It has gone through four owners since. Kim Brinster, the manager since 1996, bought it three years ago. Shoppers, who for years have consisted more of tourists than locals, disappeared in August. Last week, she told her staff, “I’ve never been the owner, I’m the caretaker. And unfortunately there’s nothing we can do now.” Oscar Wilde himself might have been more sanguine. As Lord Henry told Dorian Gray (in a slightly different context), “They spoil every romance by trying to make it last forever
I suppose this is a good opportunity to bring up a certain idea: Every year, whether rumor or fact, I hear that the famous and historic Stonewall Inn on Christopher St. faces an imminent closure at some point in the near future. My friend suggested that we should start rallying around wealthy gay people and gay organizations to raise money so when that time comes, we can buy out the building which the Stonewall Inn is located, clear it out and turn the space into the Official Gay and Lesbian Liberation Museum. This way, the West Village and more specifically, Christopher St., can go through as many changes and gentrifications as it will yet the gay community will always have that space on that street to call our own.



mail said...

I would love a home on the beaches of La Jolla. It only costs 10 million and then like a Faustian nightmare, the water will wash it away someday. Will i be around? Will i be the proprietor? I remember the detail and many hours put into sand art by the Tibetan Monks in SF that was destroyed in a moment by some wacky woman. The public was outraged and the monks just smiled. The lesson is impermanence. I would settle for a brass plague on the building.

Scott said...

This may not be the most popular post but Oscar Wilde Bookstore was run really poorly. They weren't competitive at all. I ordered a DVD and it took a month to get, even though I could have gone to B&N and gotten it immediately. When I went in to buy it plus another DVD, both of which are available anywhere, it cost $62. While I like to support my community, I can't go broke doing so. I can't figure out why they didn't use the space more creatively - have events, sales, book clubs... It's sad, yes, but also not at all surprising.

mail said...

i mean plaque. PLAQUE!!!!!!!!!shit shit shit shite.
Scott is right. It is more than the rent. If one wants to be that casual in business, they had better be laundering money.

Douglas said...

With the closing of the Oscar Wilde Bookstore, the title of oldest gay and lesbian bookstore passes to Glad Day Books in Toronto (according to an article at

Paul said...

I think it is a good idea to have a gay lib museum, and to house it in the building that contains the Stonewall. Ideally, of course, the money would come from the city of New York, or the US Federal Government. (There's an idea for how to spend some of that stimulus money....)

Scott said...

There is a great archive and library at the LGBT Center in Manhattan.

Lesbian Equinox said...

Very nice entry! i love the quote: “They spoil every romance by trying to make it last forever" it

Aegletes said...

The Stonewall is indeed a historic site, as surely as any with a connection to this country's political and social history. Like many sites, it might need private initiative to preserve it before government ever takes an interest (Mount Vernon immediately comes to mind).