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Out of the Bathhouse and Into the Bookstore

How the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop created a new space for gay New Yorkers.

Jerry Lampen/AFP/Getty Images

Like many New Yorkers, Craig Rodwell had a vision. He imagined a world where gay men would no longer be restricted to the bars and bathhouses in the city as the only places to congregate. A vice president of the Mattachine Society, a gay political group in New York, Rodwell wanted to open a store that would cater to the growing local gay community. “I was trying to get the Society to be out dealing with the people instead of sitting in an office,” Rodwell recalled. “We even looked at a few store-fronts. I wanted the Society to set up a combination bookstore, counseling service, fund-raising headquarters, and office. The main thing was to be out on the street.”

When the Mattachine Society rejected Rodwell’s vision, he resigned and decided to found a bookstore that would serve as a hub for the gay community. Rodwell had no experience in running a bookstore; his only training was in ballet. As he once explained, in a mix of humility and grandiosity, “I am not a bookseller businessman. I am a person who at the age of 13 set out to help change the world and primarily Gay people’s self-images.”

Without the Mattachine Society’s support, he needed to finance the bookstore on his own. After working as a bartender on Fire Island for a summer to save money, Rodwell scheduled the grand opening of his bookstore for Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1967. His mother flew in the day before from Chicago to help him set up the shop at 291 Mercer Street, between Waverly Place and East Eighth Street. He stocked books such as Edward Sagarin’s The Homosexual in America, published under Sagarin’s pseudonym Donald Webster Cory. At the time, the book ranked as the leading sociological manifesto for gay rights. Rodwell also included lesser-known gay titles, like D. H. Lawrence’s novella The Fox, set in the early-twentieth-century English countryside, as well as Oscar Wilde’s plays and Hart Crane’s poetry. Rodwell devoted a section of the store to periodicals that promoted the gay liberation movement, ranging from The New York Hymnal (which he founded to support the Homophile Youth Movement) to The Ladder, and the newsletter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian political organization.

Rodwell’s goal was to help establish a gay literary culture in New York City. At the time, most gay people’s access to collections of gay-themed books and materials was restricted to the smut stores near Forty-Second Street, which carried only pornography. In the mid-twentieth century, one could find books and articles by gay authors in libraries and mainstream bookstores, but they were never assembled together on the same shelf. The Daughters of Bilitis newsletter that Rodwell stacked in his shop had often circulated through clandestine networks; it was difficult to get a copy of a particular issue without knowing someone in those networks. Rodwell’s organization of these and many other scattered books, papers, and pamphlets into a single genre was revolutionary—it was the first time in American history that literature had been organized under the subject heading of “gay culture.”

Every inch of the store celebrated gay people. Even the name that Rodwell chose for the store reflected his vision and political commitment. “I wanted a name that would tell people what the shop is about. So I tried to think of the most prominent person whose name I could use who is most readily identifiable as a homosexual by most people, someone who’s sort of a pseudo-martyr. And Oscar Wilde was the most obvious at the time, so I called it the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop.” The name gave the bookstore credibility, evoked the gay literary tradition, and embodied Rodwell’s mission to promote positive images of homosexuality.

When Rodwell opened the store in 1967, it became an instant hit, attracting both gay men and lesbians. Within a short time, crowds began to show up on the weekends. Some patrons were locals, while others were tourists from elsewhere in the United States or even abroad. They had heard about the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop at parties, from friends, from newspaper articles that Rodwell wrote, and from the journal The New York Hymnal, which he edited. Rodwell had personal relationships with superstar gay and lesbian writers like Rita Mae Brown, and literary luminaries like Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood gave readings at the store.

Yet all of this attention came at a cost. As soon as Rodwell established the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, it became a public and immobile target for homophobic attacks, which historically had occurred outside of gay bars and bathhouses, in parks, and on city streets. The city’s bars and bathhouses had unmarked doors and pitch-black windows, but the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop was a public cultural site that made its purpose clear. It boldly proclaimed itself as an institution exclusively devoted to gay people.

In the middle of the summer of 1970, Rodwell started receiving death threats. The threatening letters probably would never have been written, much less delivered, if Rodwell didn’t have a public mailing address. Rodwell’s creation of a storefront quite literally made him and his employees much more vulnerable to attack. Rodwell was often greeted in the morning by epithets written on the windows and storefront of the shop. A swastika was once chalked on the pavement outside the store. One year he had to cancel his trip home for Christmas because some person or group had vandalized the store.

Attacks on the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop continued throughout the seventies. One particularly violent attack occurred on August 1, 1977. On what was a warm summer day, an unidentified man stood and watched customers walking in and out of the store. His awkward presence—alone on Christopher Street observing the hustle and bustle of people on a Saturday afternoon—would not have struck Rodwell or his customers as unusual. It was the familiar behavior of men in the process of coming out of the closet. They would study a store, a bar, or a cruising park before making an entrance. However, unlike such men, who would fidget nervously with their hands in their pockets, avoiding eye contact with passersby and repeatedly checking the time on their wristwatches, this man held “a large jagged rock.” He lifted his arm and hurled it at the large glass storefront window.

Rodwell took measures to protect his staff. He installed shatter- proof windows and hired a security guard. He coached his staff on what to do if another assault occurred. Despite these precautions, the men and women who worked in the store remained scared. They had signed on to working at a bookshop where they could talk about gay literature and work closely with customers who were seeking political solidarity and intellectual engagement. Yet they came to work every day frightened that they would be attacked.

Sometimes the battles that took place at the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop were not so visible as a threat scribbled on a piece of paper and mailed to the store or a crazed stranger lurking outside the store and holding a rock. Instead, many battles were waged internally as gay men and women stared nervously into the bookstore from across the street and struggled to muster the courage to walk into it for the first time. No one crossed the threshold of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop who had not already been engaged in a battle against homophobia. But nothing inside the bookstore allowed them to conceal their identity or camouflage their desires. There was no bartender serving alcohol that could dampen their anxiety, nor were there any naked go-go boys who could distract them from feeling awkward; there were no darkened corners where they could hide or have sex.

Instead, the books on the shelf forced them to come face-to-face with their sexuality. Once opened, however, these books could offer comfort. The characters in the novels could inspire kinship, and the history books could connect them to the men and women who had gone down the same difficult path before them. But the initial foray into the bookstore still took courage, whether to brave the views of mainstream society or to engage gay culture by going beyond the unfettered sex granted by liberation.

Sometime in the early 1970s, a young man who had grown up in Greenwich Village and seen the changing world of gay liberation from his bedroom window on Bank Street summoned enough courage to walk into the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop. As an avid reader, he realized that the only way he would come to terms with being gay was to read about it. So he walked a few blocks across the neighborhood to the bookshop, but he was too nervous to go inside. As he recalled, “I walked around the corner twice before going in the first time. I was just getting involved and investigating the gay movement. It was just the beginning.”

Even in a bohemian place like Greenwich Village, the only place for him to get his hands on a book about gay life was the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop. How did he first come to know about it? Had the store run an ad in The Village Voice? Had a friend told him? Had he read about the bookshop in a leftist pamphlet? Years later, he would not be able to remember.

He finally found the resolve to walk into the store. Within a few short years, he would become a prominent author, and his book would be showcased on the shelves of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop. His name was Jonathan Ned Katz, and his book, Gay American History, became an instant classic.

But the day he walked into Craig Rodwell’s bookstore, he was just an ordinary gay person in search of a culture, a safe haven, and a book that would help him deal with his sexuality.

Excerpted from Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation by Jim Downs. Copyright ©2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.