How Will We Save LGBTQ Bookstores?

Have you ever been to a gay bookstore? If the answer is “no” then YOU BETTER GO NOW because probably it’ll get shut down within the next two minutes/years. Seriously! Strap on your Chucks and bike on over to your local Pink Triangle Book Shop of Homo-Homo-Love and buy four copies of The Best Lesbian Erotica of 2010, a first-edition of Gender Outlaw, the complete works of JD Glass, Fun Home and a used book of lesbian love poems from the 70s (worth it for the cover art alone). Bonus points for digging up anything published by semio[text]e!

God I LOVE QUEER BOOKSTORES. But really I like all bookstores except the big ones, which I also like, but not as much. I’m basically addicted. When I spot a bookstore across the street it sucks me in via Jedi Bookstore Mind Control, causing me to unconsciously abandon my traveling companion who will inevitably find me squatting in some back shelf-alley, intently staring at spines as if I’m searching for something specific, but I never am. I JUST WANT TO LOOK AT ALL THE BOOKS!

Anyone who’s walked past a bookstore with me does a knee-jerk “Do you wanna go in?” before I can even start passive-aggressively announcing my desire to enter. David Bowie reads, and is bisexual:

But, says the news, GAY BOOKSTORES ARE DYING. The most recent death is here in The Bay Area — San Francisco’s Different Light bookstore closed recently, for which the patrons blame many things but mostly the internet.

2010 saw the death of Toronto’s Glad Days Bookshop, which had become the oldest LGBT bookstore in North America after New York City’s Oscar Wilde Bookstore shut its doors in 2009Lambda Rising in Washington DC closed in 2009. OutLOUD Bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee closed in 2010. The Word is Out, in Denver, Colorado, went online-only in 2009.

In Philadelphia, residents wonder if this fad will reach their very special Giovanni’s Room. Owner Ed Hermance told Philly Mag that, “For many people, the LGBT bookstore was their original ‘safe space,’ a place in which one might begin to come out to oneself.”

The article about Giovanni’s Room asks if “younger gays and lesbians” are not visiting LGBT bookstores because they have “mainstream acceptance” or are busy at “monthly circuit parties” and “dive bars around town and indie music venues.” They ask:

…when it comes to a “gay bookstore,” are more people heading to the web now? Or are they not heading anywhere at all, opting instead to take a more mainstream route when it comes to getting the information they want?

These are valid questions/concerns and they are coincidentally close to my heart. I’m a 29-year-old queer which means I’m still young (more or less). I’ve been to gay bookstores in New York City, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Halifax, Washington DC, Ann Arbor, Seattle, somewhere in Australia and also in San Francisco. I spend a lot of time day-dreaming about owning my own bookstore one day, like a lesbian/feminist thing (this will never happen I realize), and therefore I read a lot of articles about how independent bookstores are finding ways to get creative in order to survive the recession.

I don’t want GLBT bookstores to die. But I’ve got no nostalgia about it, and nostalgia seems to be the primary source of sadness for much of the bookstore-mourning community. These bookstores changed lives and their legacy is important. But it’s possible to respect and pay homage to the gay bookstores’ historical social function while transitioning to a new business model, reliant on unique services and products and events rather than the original “safe space.”

I don’t like GLBT bookstores for “community” — to be honest, I’m one of those shoppers frequently mistaken for a potential shoplifter because I don’t acknowledge salespeople or make eye contact with anyone. I just like ALL THE BOOKS!!!

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Running this website for the last two years has given me a fairly comprehensive view of a certain generation of book-reading lesbians. Therefore I’m fully ready to do that obnoxious thing over-entitled twentysomething web-brats do where I tell you what I like and dislike about the world you’ve put decades of blood/sweat/tears into.

Let’s begin!

Ideas Regarding the Future of Gay Bookstores

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LGBT Bookstores Will Never Win the Price Wars on New Books


Brett Serwalt of Obelisk Bookstore in San Diego
“We need to be realistic. The writing is on the wall: people LOVE the Internet, and apparently no brick & mortar store can ever compete on price. Not Borders, not Obelisk. At the same time, I still see a market for boutique book selling.”

Indeed. Despite my addiction to bookstores and stated preference for radical lesbian socialist shitheadism over corporate monarchy — I buy almost all my books online. It’s cheaper/faster. Furthermore, without Amazon, I don’t think I would’ve bought most of the books I do buy. I would’ve perhaps boarded the BART to pick up Michelle Tea’s Rent Girl, but I wouldn’t have last-minute shipped Michelle Tea’s The Beautiful to a writer who needed it ASAP for a Pure Poetry piece. Furthermore, I decided to bring Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl on my 14-hour train ride to Palm Springs about an hour before leaving — I downloaded it for my kindle. Also, Autostraddle’s Amazon Associates Account is one of our primary revenue streams, so I encourage others to do the same.

But most indies sell online now, and can even sell ebooks from their websites. Used books are actually cheaper IRL. Stocking tons of magazines works, too, like this independent bookstore in Tulsa. I would’ve gone anywhere to find Frankie on DIVA UK. I did, actually.

Amazon’s #1 Weakness: It’s a Robot


Amazon’s placed a Sense & Sensibility e-book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and The Women’s Bible (a 19th century feminist classic) in its Top Ten Bestselling Gay & Lesbian Books. Also, apparently Amazon thinks Augusten Burroughs is the only gay author ever — but LGBT bookstores know better. Those clean, well-organized spaces can work wonders. The Listmania! feature on Amazon is super popular but it also works on the shelves.

Can you imagine a bookstore organized by ideas rather than technical categories? The 5,000 girls who constantly ask me for book recommendations could benefit from sections labeled like “Coming Out” “Books to Give Your Mom” “Feminism 101” “Bisexuality/Sexual Fluidity.”

Which leads me to…

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Buy The Children

I think a lot of youngsters would walk through the door if you paid them — and by that I mean “hire them.” Hire a trans person or a queer person of color so their peers can feel as welcome in your store as you did when you were a babygay and you saw the nice gay man at the counter and felt safe. Hire one social dyke and you’ll get her entire Chart in there before long.

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Porn or Lesbians – Pick One.

Sometimes the “L” in “LGBT bookstore” seems superficial.

A Different Light is a good example of this. In the SF Appeal, writer Thomas Roche shares the “parallel sentiments” he’s heard expressed about A Different Light‘s closing:

The first one, in public, is always pretty much the same story. It’s that A Different Light has for years been a landmark and a centerpiece of SF’s gay community.”

But other complaints he’s heard regard stock:

Too many straight books.”

“Unfriendly to radicalism.”

“Caters to bourgeois gay white men.”

“The gay porn is boring and gross.”

“Not enough lesbian porn.”

Last time I visited A Different Light, it felt like half the store was stocked with gay male porn and, along with the two dykes I entered with, we quickly felt like we weren’t supposed to be there and subsequently left.

secret spycam photo of a different light as it was going out of business

Maybe gay men are different but the one item I’ll never ever ever buy anywhere but online? PORN. I’m sure it helped keep ADL in business, but meanwhile I couldn’t find Eileen Miles or our book club pick, Ali Liebagott’s IHOP Papers, anywhere in San Francisco!

Lots of gay porn and no Eileen Myles? It seems like it’d be more budget friendly to give up the facade and just focus entirely on gay men or you know, stock lesbian shit.

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Work With the Internet

It’s convenient that, despite other untraceable locales of abandonment, we know precisely where people who leave you for the internet are: on the internet. They’re not in caves, they’re reading Effing Dykes!

Seems like there must be a way to develop partnerships/ad swaps with LGBT blogs, ask websites like ours to coordinate our book club with your store, host monthly reading series with online writers, or advertise in magazines like bitch and Stud. We have your target market for online or even IRL sales right here and some of them are shy so they basically need an invitation. Just chase your audience and put up a sign in their new locale to remind them of you. Many net junkies really would like to go out and participate in the world, we just don’t know how/where/when and we need to feel welcome.

[Also a lot of bookstore websites could use a redesign!]

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Build New Community

Guerrilla Girls on Tour at Bluestockings in New York City

There’s something to learn from what happened to feminist bookstores — between 1993 and 1998 (before the internet became a viable gathering place!), we lost 80 feminist bookstores, and then another 30 between 1998 and 2000. Chain bookstores and the “mainstreaming” of feminism were blamed.

Bluestockings, which survived, says:

“To expect us to compete with large corporations at their own game misses the entire point of our existence, which is precisely to offer an alternative to the value system and economic structure they represent. The needs we meet (or try to meet) are mutually exclusive to those met by the big chains, and are in fact their antidote.”

Building on that point, I was interested in this quote from The Bay Citizen from a former employee of A Different Light (1991-2000) who said he left the job when Bill Barker, the present owner, took over:

I didn’t like the change in focus from a community-oriented bookstore that nourished queer writers and even held writers conferences each year to a store that featured coffee table soft porn and only popular titles. We were a community space in the 90s, we allowed groups like ACT UP to meet in the office upstairs and in the yard, we sponsored open mics, we carried literature and magazines from around the world and in many languages. Even if it only sold one copy or never sold at all, we stocked it because it was queer.

Independent Bookstores who survived the recession have done so by getting creative with how they involve themselves in the community. I’m always hearing about Bluestockings or Rock Paper Scissors Collective events but never once an LGBT bookstore event. This indie bookstore in Ridgewood survives by hosting super-popular events and readings! We want Michelle Tea and Sister Spit. Screen Bi the Way. Host poetry slams. Bluestockings invites scholars and authors to speak on pressing topics like “Obama and the Gays” and hosts events like “Women’s/Trans Poetry Jam & Open Mike.”

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Queer The Space

Obviously a cafe w/free wi-fi is key — these girls are fucking petrified of bars but want to meet each other and what if you knew everyone drinking coffee at the bookstore — THE BOOKSTORE! — was a lesbian? RIGHT?

Also? Space. We’re no less desperate for space than we were in the 70s. We have book clubs, activist groups and blog meet-ups and no place to hold them. And so many indie bookstores have survived by getting creative with events and meetings:

London Review Bookshop: “More than anything, the LRB’s defining achievement of the last five years, if I may modestly boast, has been the events programme.”

The Raconteur (New Jersey): “Dawson holds about 80 events a year in the bookstore — author appearances, readings, musical performances (everyone from chamber music to hard-core punk), and film screenings. And let’s not forget the annual arm-wrestling competition…”

The Book Seller (Chicago): “The March lineup at the Book Cellar, a popular store in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, includes speed dating, a Mom’s Read Aloud Recommendation Party, comedy performance by the Kates, and “a glorious glimpse into the Chicago underground poster scene.”

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Get a Makeover

One last thing. This is going to make me sound like a pretentious elitist jerkoff squarely centered in the Generation Me mentality — but rainbows everywhere are kitschy, right?

Like let’s just cut it out. The rainbows.

There are only two good rainbows: Double Rainbow Oh My God and the Lucky Charms Rainbow.

I understand rainbows indicate homosexuality is welcome inside, but please. Be tasteful.

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THE RIGHT WAY TO DO A RAINBOW:

(yes this bookstore still closed, but whatever)

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THE WRONG WAY TO DO A RAINBOW

(I have blacked out any names to protect the decency of those storefronts)

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I love the feeling of being in a room which contains all our histories and futures within it. It makes you feel like you’re a part of something big and complicated and VISIBLE. It’s not “all new” like the LGBT Community Center or “all old” like in a museum. It’s new and old, from Giovanni’s Room to Valenica and back. Please don’t go, I’m addicted to you.

Do y’all shop at gay bookstores? How has your local gay bookstore stayed afloat? What cool things are happening in your neck of the literary woods? What would make you wanna visit a gay bookstore?


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Profile gravatar of Riese

Riese is the 35-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City and mellowed out in California before returning to Michigan for reasons that are unclear to her now — she is currently plotting her return to the West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2383 articles for us.

86 Comments

  1. 0

    Hares and Hyenas in Melbourne has events all the time! Makes me wish I was in Melbourne for so much of it!

    The Feminist Bookshop in Sydney, while not strictly LGBT only, is a treasure trove of material on sexuality and gender – including the stuff that gay-male-heavy places tend to ignore.

  2. 0

    I love Venus Envy in Halifax. In a city that suffers from a lack of lesbian friendly spaces, they’ve done a great job of combining a bookstore and a quality sex toy store for the entire LGBT community. It is also educational space with lots of talks and other events.

    The best thing that could happen would be if a queer coffee shop with free wi-fi also existed. Also, if that place was meant just for the ladies 😉

  3. 0

    I want a bookstore like the one you just described. If I had one near me, I would patronize the shit out of it and bring all my friends. Also, I could make new friends. Also, I do hate bars and clubs. Where do I find one of these magical places?

      • 0

        There used to be a LBGTetc. books store in DC but it closed down. I went there a couple of times and met some “interesting” people. I don’t know if there are any in Baltimore, but I think there are some independent bookstores that do have an LBGTetc. section in some of the DC suburb bookstores.

    • 0

      I am also from a small conservative town. When I went to my future college’s orientation day, I checked out their bookstore. It isn’t even an LGBT bookstore, but it has a gigantic section dedicated to queer literature, and it BLEW MY MIND. I feel like when I experience my first real LGBT bookstore, two things will happen: I will go broke from buying ALL THE BOOKS, and I will become unemployed/not be able to find a job because I am busy reading ALL THE BOOKS. I don’t know if I can handle the ecstasy of one of these bookstores.

  4. 0

    i think the way to save them is to freeze a bunch of books in a trash can full of water and then put them in a window display next to a naked chick with black censor bars on her titillating areas. i saw it in a movie once and it totally worked and nothing exploded.

  5. 0

    I fucking love coffee. And books. And other queers. So of course a queer bookstore/coffeeshop I would shop the shit out of!

    I’ve never been in a gay bookstore, but it sounds like my dream job. (I secretly want to work at a bookstore/be a librarian later in my life)

  6. 0

    “Obviously a cafe w/free wi-fi is key — these girls are fucking petrified of bars but want to meet each other and what if you knew everyone drinking coffee at the bookstore — THE BOOKSTORE! — was a lesbian? RIGHT?”

    Yes! I hate bars, but I don’t know any other queer-dominant venues which is weird because most of us are like hippies, no?

  7. 0

    I buy my books used and online because I don’t have the time to shop ever. I also refuse to leave Harlem on the weekends because of the crowds. Also I’m afraid of all of that gay. Which is terrible and I apologize :/

  8. 0

    I felt the same way when I visited the West Hollywood branch of A Different Light. BabyGay me went in and was suddenly surrounded by gay male porn and after a couple of minutes walked out feeling unwelcome, like I wasn’t supposed to be there because that place was just for guys.
    Years later I went back, when they announced that they were going to close, and the store was packed. I was the only woman there. I walked around looking at the discounted items and everything was for gay men. Again I left after only a few minutes.

    • 0

      My mom took me to a gay bookstore once because she felt bad that I was at a family reunion with a bunch of religious conservatives. So. Much. Gay. Man. Porn. I would have felt really awkward but my mom was too busy looking at M&M figurines.

      I didn’t buy anything; I felt like the store wasn’t aimed at people like me (i.e. lesbians).

  9. 0

    Everything you bring up here is great. I think the key is that people need cultural spaces to encounter themselves and other people and have room to become more alive, creative & free…So, I think the combo of a coffeeshop, bookstore, wifi-free, placeofhappenings (for which there should always be a small fee charged, revenue is important, but it can be sliding scale)–have an online ordering service, be connected to important websites like AS, and here’s my main interest: they don’t have to be exclusively LGBTQ but be through and through gay friendly. And I mean that in the sense of everyoneisgay.com–people just don’t fit in boxes, and especially in the realm of ideas, need the chance to come into contact with all kinds of mindexpansion…from sexuality to spirituality to philosophy to semiotics to making your own pickles to everything.
    The world of humans(and I love thís world really) will prly always tend towards gravity: aka homogenization, and it is humans’ job to intentionally turn life over and upside down and make CULTURE. I hope your article reaches some folks who want to take it on as a mission! I also feel really passionate about it, but having a mission already, I have to support it as a happy customer. I am also uncontrollable in the vicinity of a real live independent bookstore–and long for these kinds of places wherever I am. All lasting revolution proceeds from living with words! Thanks Riese!

  10. 0

    I was so upset when I found out that Lambda Rising closed because it’s the only gay bookstore I knew of in my area and I was like, “Obviously, I need to work/live there” and then I looked it up and got the news. I really wanted to pull a Michael Novotny and buy the store and run it myself, but that was not even close to a realistic plan. I never even got to go there.

  11. 0

    Are there any LGBTQ bookstores in NYC still? Because I’m willing to haul myself to one as frequently as I can but I’m pretty sure I can’t bike to New Jersey or afford to take the PATH that much.

  12. 0

    I would rather hang out in a LGBT bookstore than the bar or the clubs that my friends just love to visit. I don’t seem to know any lesbians that like to read which is a problem within itself. Also I live in Texas so I don’t think there are any gay bookstores here? I need culture in my life. Riese your ideas sound awesome.

  13. 0

    Hey, I live just a few blocks away from The Book Cellar. They also have a wine cafe, I think, which is another thing. Though liquor licenses are probs way harder to get than coffee licenses.

    Chicago has the lovely feminist/lesbian Women & Children First (http://www.womenandchildrenfirst.com/), which holds lots of lesbian events and is still in business. Another thing you can do when you aren’t crowding the shelves with man porn is have books for kids — women, even gay ones, frequently have those, and every parent knows you’re supposed to get books for them.

  14. 0

    My favourite GLBT bookstore is After Stonewall in Ottawa. I’ve spent many hours and many dollars in there. The literature and the space have enriched my life in so many ways.

  15. 0

    We had the Amazon Bookstore which did well for a number of years and then – AMAZON – came along and then our Amazon tried suing AMAZON and got very little from it and couldn’t use the name anymore and eventually they went out of business. Then it became True Colors. I’ll be honest – I don’t go there. I’ve been a couple of times and the staff are not terribly friendly and there is also the rainbow issue. I’m not proud of this – I also like immediately gratification or as close to it as possible. They’ll order books for you but it takes like two weeks to get them. I can do it faster myself on the internet. Sad but true.

    • 0

      Hiiiiiiii! I was going to tell the lesbian feminist Amazon vs. Amazon.com story if no one else had. The deal with the lawsuit was that lesbian feminist Amazon won but part of the agreement with Amazon.com was that if they ever changed ownership, they had to change their name. Unfortunately the only way for them to avoid permanently closing down was to sell the store, so they became True Colors.

      I don’t go there too much either, mostly because I can order books from amazon.com without leaving my bed and spending gas money plus whatever extra over the amazon.com cost. I buy from them if I’ve got some extra money though, especially when they come table at events like LGBT conferences and stuff. I would CERTAINLY go there more often if they had a lesbigay-friendly espresso machine and comfy chairs to sit in.

  16. 0

    If there isn’t a LGBTQ bookstore in your area? When you go to your local Barnes & Noble-type bookstore ask for the LGBTQ-section (or Women’s Studies or Alternative Lifestyles, they seem to get bunched together). If they don’t have one, look horrified, leave tearfully, and come back with a list of several books you’d like them to order for you, have all your friends do the same, and buy them. Bookstores are like any other business, they respond to customer demand.
    And-public libraries are anxious for people to read and they will (usually) search out and bring in requested books.
    Econ 101: supply and demand.

  17. 0

    I had no idea Lambda Rising had closed until just now. *cries* I haven’t been to DC since 2008 but I loved that place & would go every time I was in the city. The first time I went there was when I went to the Millennium March as a little baby dyke in 2000; we spent a lot of time hanging out at Lambda Rising that weekend because we weren’t old enough to get into most of the bar/club parties.

    I admit I don’t go to bookstores much at all any more, and don’t really buy books in general. I use the library. On the rare occasion I do buy a book, I go for whatever is cheapest, usually online. So I am one of those people killing indie bookstores with my desire to save money.

    My favorite bookstore is The Strand in NYC. I could spend days in there just ogling all the books. Because there are SO MANY books there. And the used books are good prices; I once got nice hardcover editions of a few Jeanette Winterson books for $6-$7 each.

    I also like Bluestockings a lot. While it’s not specifically LGBT, it’s very queer-friendly. Riese, your bookstore should be like Bluestockings only for queers.

  18. 0

    Unfortunately, we dont really have any queer bookstores in Alabama. So yeah…the only queer bookstore I’ve been to is Outwrite in Atlanta (which I totally loved and did not believe such a place existed – my first Gay Pride experience). Nonetheless, I hate to see all these good bookstores closing.

  19. 0

    The only LGBTQ bookstore in Columbus, An Open Book, closed a few years ago. I remember a sizable amount of gay male porn, but they had plenty of other interesting books and gifts. I got a toast cookbook there the summer after I graduated from high school, so they clearly knew what this babyqueer needed.

  20. 0

    giovanni’s room is great! i used to go there all the time when i lived in philly. now that i live in a town with no decent indie bookstores (cough*pittsburgh*cough) if i need to buy a queer book & it’s an author i wanna support [ie, buy new instead of used] & i have the cash to pay a little extra, i just order from giovanni’s website: http://www.giovannisroom.com/ they are super nice & need money!
    i also recall a decent queer bookstore in indianapolis, IN of all places. i was there 2 years ago, i hope it’s still around! it seemed popular & community-oriented.

  21. 0

    1. Giovanni’s Room is boss. I visit it every time I’m strolling through the gayborhood. They always have pretty decent prices.

    2. Me/Books = OTP, so Riese, I totally sympathize with your affinity with bookstores. And I totally lol’d about how you said you’re more likely to be suspected as a shoplifter, because I’m the same way!!!

    3. OMG if they started having coffeeshops in queer bookstores DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW HAPPY I WOULD BE?? I’m not into the drinking scene so I don’t go to bars often and this would a fantastic way for me to pick up chicks. Who like to read. And drink coffee. EXCELLENT IDEA.

    4. Another idea: maybe they could start offering music sections by queer artists – or even music made by local queer artists, which would be great for those who are starting out.

  22. 0

    I was searching for gay/lesbian bookstores in my town and whilst I didn’t find any (not a huge surprise), I did find a queer vegan cafe I didn’t know about. QUEER VEGAN CAFE YOU GUYS. There are not many AT ALL of those around this area. I am way too excited.
    Also, it’s right next to a vegan and vegetarian shop/bakery.
    SOLD.

    (God I love capitalising things.)

  23. 0

    Where is this queer vegan cafe? Seriously, I would love a queer vegan cafe!

    In Portland we have In Other Words. It’s the bookstore Portlandia was filmed in. It’s feminist not lgbt but there are a lot of queer events.

    • 0

      Seriously! After a bit of light google-ing I’ve discovered one in London, but I honestly had no idea they even existed before I read this article..

      Words can’t describe how much want I have for one locally that follows Riese’s suggestions even just a little, though. If such a place existed they’d never be able to make me leave!

  24. 0

    Bluestockings is fantastic. Not only can you come hang out there and read and eat fruit from the platters they put out without actually buying anything and it’s fine, the people who work there are super-friendly and helpful. I once came in announcing that I was confused about gender and was handed a large stack of books. Also, they have free zines at the front, and a huge bucket of free condom type stuff.
    I am so happy to have discovered this place, you guys. Barns and Nobles has a tiny, cramped shelf of “Gay and Lesbian” books, which LGBTQ would be much more appropriate and it sucked. Bluestockings is like the mecca for NYC queers.

  25. Pingback: Save the LGBTQ Bookstores! | Save The Books

  26. 0

    Glad Day Bookshop is still open you guys. It was put up for sale in 2011 but was bought by a collective of community members and kept open. They actually recently moved to a new space with a café/bar and event space. Their website is here: http://www.gladdaybookshop.com/ they’re definitely my favourite book store in Toronto.

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