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Sometimes the war for personal liberation involves a skirmish with the phone book. "I think I was open six months or a year, and I got into this battle with the Yellow Pages," says Harvey Hertz, founder of A Brother's Touch Books. "I wanted to take out an ad that said: 'Minnesota's first gay and lesbian bookstore.' And this woman said 'fine,' and then her boss called me up and said they wouldn't print it under Gay.
"'Well, what do you mean?' I said.
"'Well, we'll print it under Adult Bookstore.'
"I said, 'It's not an adult bookstore.'
"He said, 'Well, aren't your customers adults?'
"I said, 'Yeah, an adult bookstore's where you put your penis through a hole in the wall!'"
This is how Harvey Hertz tells a story: with a mix of disbelief and exasperation, with lots of dialogue, often with a naughty finish that isn't quite a punch line. Hertz is the kind of eccentric that one tends to find running specialty shops. After knowing me for all of 30 minutes, he tells me about seducing a college-aged magazine salesman, a tête-a-tête that made it into one of John Patrick's anthologies of erotic stories. Considering Hertz's apparent distaste for self-censorship, it's hard to imagine him lasting long at, say, a Barnes & Noble. It's hard, actually, to imagine him not being his own boss. He came to Minnesota for drug treatment more than two decades ago, but has maintained the accent and cadence of his native Brooklyn. He's a mumbler and a barker, and he's sometimes hard to understand. His tight-fitting T-shirt features three cartoon drag queens. It reads, "Expression!"
Hertz won that battle with the phone-book homophobe, by the way, and managed to overcome periodic vandalism and constant heckling. Years of steadily sagging sales, though, proved harder to beat. After 20 years as the only devotedly gay and lesbian bookstore in the Twin Cities, A Brother's Touch--situated on the 2300 block of Hennepin Avenue South between Golooney's Pizza and Stereoland--recently cried uncle, closing its doors at the end of May. Blame the chain-bookstore leviathan that has swallowed up independent booksellers of all stripes. Blame a location that lacked parking spaces. Blame the triumph of gay mainstreaming over gay separatism. Hell, even blame gay liberation itself--but then aren't you crawling into bed with Arlon Lindner and Rick Santorum?
At any rate, the demise of A Brother's Touch is part of a national trend that has made gay bookstores scarcer than straight men at a Liza Minnelli concert. In the past 10 years, well over half of the GLBT bookstores in the country have closed, leaving about 40 to carry on a tradition that was crucial to gay liberation. There is no gay bookstore in Chicago; only three survive in New York City.
But perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's go back a while, to a time when gay bookstores weren't even a possibility, when Will and Grace were married and Jack was a dirty joke, when E.M. Forster couldn't publish a gay novel whose frankness might now seem quaint. In Forster's Maurice, Clive Durham has an epiphany while reading the Phaedrus, a Platonic dialogue largely concerned with homosexual love. Clive's acceptance of his gayness, it turns out, is short-lived, but the scene Forster describes is timeless--or at least it still felt timeless when the book was published in 1971. For many gays and lesbians, reading about homosexuality for the first time in fiction and poetry (or Greek philosophy) was a watershed moment. You're not alone, a book could reveal, You're not a perv or a walking psychological disorder.
"In the old days, you would go to the library and furtively find things," says Greg Hewett, age 45, a poet and Carleton College professor who grew up in Ithaca, New York. "When I was a boy, even, you would take them out without checking them out, you know, because it was a small city."
Recently at Boom, the swanky video bar in northeast Minneapolis, I talked to a guy in his early 40s who described the nearly overwhelming anxiety he felt as a young man every time he prepared to set foot in A Brother's Touch--a feeling he'd endure all over again when leaving. What if someone from work sees me? What if I'm harassed--or worse--on my way out?
A Brother's Touch opened in April of 1983, on the corner of Franklin and Nicollet where the Acadia Café currently stands. Just to give a snapshot of the period, a few weeks before the store opened, the gay paper New York Native published Larry Kramer's article "1,112 and Counting," about the growing AIDS epidemic. "In the history of homosexuality," Kramer wrote, "we have never been so close to death and extinction before." Culture Club and its cross-dressing lead singer Boy George were on the Top Ten charts, scoring one for tolerance. In July of '83, the Rev. Jerry Falwell called AIDS a "judgment of God" on homosexuals. That year, the Twin Cities Pride Festival--which drew 300,000 people in 2002--attracted some 3,500.
Such was the climate that A Brother's Touch emerged in. By that time, most major cities and some minor ones had a gay bookstore, and the Twin Cities GLBT community was eager to have one of its own. The store quickly became an information hub, a place to pick up a copy of a local gay newspaper such as Equal Time, find out about the next Gay Games, or catch up with a friend without having to shout over a nightclub DJ.
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