The Significance of Queer Bookstores in Community Building

The Significance of Queer Bookstores in Community Building
In an ideal world, every community space would be welcoming to people of all backgrounds. However, we unfortunately still have work to do towards making public venues reliably safe and inclusive, especially for marginalized groups who have historically faced discrimination. Queer bookstores play a special role in providing a nurturing environment for LGBTQ+ people and their allies to gather, find representation, and build bonds.

While legal protections and societal attitudes towards queer individuals have generally improved over past decades, LGBTQ+ people still face hostility and lack of understanding in many areas of public life. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, for example, found that nearly one in ten respondents reported being physically attacked due to their gender identity in the previous year alone. Safe community spaces are still essential.

Queer bookstores help meet this need, serving for many as the first public venue where they feel free to openly discuss LGBTQ+ topics and express their identities without fear of judgment. These stores signal that all sexual orientations and gender identities arewelcome. Many also host discussion groups, performance events, readings by queer authors, and meetings for local organizations. They become de facto community centers, providing a platform for sharing stories and making connections.

The Lifelong Impact of Finding Your Community

Seeing positive diverse representation in the bookshelves is affirming for queer youth still exploring their identities. Teen staff member Emmett Lund-Rollins shared that working at San Francisco’s The Booksmith allowed him to “try out working with my new name” before formally changing it. Safety, in all its forms, enables self-discovery.

Patrons form lasting bonds, too. Eli Clare met his future wife when they kept running into one other at Portland’s In Other Words bookstore; though the store permanently closed in 2016, it clearly played a pivotal role during its nearly 20-year run. Community ties continue outside store walls, but queerspaces facilitate those initial meetings.

Preserving Queer History and Fostering the Next Generation

LGBTQ+ bookstores and community centers preserve history as well. Record numbers of independent booksellers opened across the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s to also meet the demand from the burgeoning gay liberation movement hungry for stories reflecting their experiences. Nearly 100 queer, feminist, and radical bookstores operated at the peak in the late 90s according to the history site LGBTQ Nation.

Many iconic shops funded early during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic as information hubs when groups were desperate for education and the mainstream media failed to adequately cover the crisis. Though independent stores represent a small 3.5% retail book market share today with the online dominance of Amazon, supporting local queer businesses remains as important as ever. Each closure of landmarks like New York’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop or Toronto’s Glad Day leaves another hole in the communal fabric.

The Next Chapter

While some beloved community institutions have shuttered in past years, others have found continued purpose. Washington D.C.’s decades-old Lambda Rising transformed into Lambda Literary in 2010, the world’s leading nonprofit organization advancing LGBTQ+ literature. San Francisco’s Alembic moved operations fully online after having to relocate from their physical Castro District location.

Today’s queer spaces are also increasingly inclusive of intersectional identities. For example, Bluestockings in Manhattan centers uniting activism around anti-racism, feminism, and queerness while Toronto’s Glad Day focuses programming on diversity within the LGBTQ+ community. Meanwhile, with 72% percent of parents reporting they’d be unhappy if their underage kids visited a LGBTQ establishment according to polls, youth-oriented bookstores play a vital nurturing role for questioning teens.

There remains hope for resurgence with a new generation. The number of queer bookstores surged over 40% across North America over the past few years. In an uplifting example of coming full circle, Christin Evans bought Bloomington, Indiana’s Booktique from her aunt Nancy who first opened the feminist bookshop back in 1975. Queens-based Booksmith employee Madeline Cohen aptly summarizes the warm draw many feel towards these enduring community havens: “It’s the friendliness that brings people in, and the books that keep them coming back.”
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