Brother from Another Planet

Gay bookstore A Brother's Touch thrived when queer culture existed behind closed doors. What it couldn't survive was life in the mainstream

"[A Brother's Touch] was one of the first things that we had in the community that was any kind of infrastructure other than a gay bar," says performer and activist Patrick Scully. "I believe at the time there was also the Women's Coffeehouse, which was an important gathering place for lesbians. But it marked the beginning of sort of post-Stone-wall kind of consciousness where things were possible other than bars and discos."

It was through stores such as A Brother's Touch--the shop's name, by the way, comes from a 1970s novel by Owen Levy--that most of the leading gay writers of the '60s through the '80s first found an audience: writers such as Edmund White, Rita Mae Brown, John Rechy, Patricia Nell Warren, Gordon Merrick, Mary Renault, and Jonathan Ned Katz. Once the curious became connoisseurs, they were likely to go further back into gay literary history and to take chances on new writers.

Some of those writers and other major figures came to the store for readings, folks like White, Tobias Schneebaum, Kramer, Quentin Crisp, and Katz. Community historian Jean-Nickolaus Tretter--who in 2001 donated his large collection of gay literature, buttons, political posters, photos, and other archival items to the University of Minnesota's GLBT Studies program--met anthropologist Schneebaum at a Brother's Touch reading. (This year's Pride celebration kicked off Tuesday with a reception for Schneebaum, who recently donated his papers to the Tretter Collection.)

Charlie Kraft

"Harvey was always good about bringing in GLBT authors," says Tretter. "You could meet some of these nationally and internationally renowned people that you'd heard about. It gave us a connection outside of Minnesota to the rest of the GLBT world."

With such grand history behind him, Hertz the pioneer reveals some resentment over the store's failure. The gay community, he feels, largely abandoned him as soon as corporate America recognized queer buying power. But mostly he's sad.

"It's hard," he says. "One day this week, I couldn't come in for more than an hour at a time. It's like the end of any kind of relationship. This was my little baby. People have said, 'Why don't you keep your website?' But that would be like having your lover move into the next bedroom."

 

A Brother's Touch wasnever the only place in town to pick up GLBT-focused books--Amazon Books continues to serve lesbian and feminist readers--but for years it had a pretty firm lock on the market of gay men. And like many gay businesses, the store benefited not just from having merchandise that no one else carried, but also from a politicized consumerism that stressed the importance of supporting gay businesses first.

"The first thing I did [when I moved to Minneapolis] was get the gay yellow pages," says queer-theory scholar Tom Roach, who worked at A Brother's Touch for about year in '95 and '96. "I tried to find my gay car-insurance guy, you know, really tried to keep it in the community, because that's the only way a certain form of politics maintains itself.

"For the old-timers, the Stonewallers let's say, that sort of [activism] comes with their identity," says the 32-year-old Roach, who is earning a doctorate in cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. "That's what's lost on the younger generation. There doesn't need to be any politics anymore, because they can turn on NBC every Thursday night, and they think that they've made it. It's just sort of like, 'Everything's fine; I'll just go buy my gay books at Barnes & Noble.'"

In 1991, Barnes & Noble, which in 1987 had bought B. Dalton from the Dayton Hudson Corporation, established the first of its "superstores." One of the new categories in the extended stacks was a gay and lesbian section. Like many mainstream businesses, Barnes & Noble had finally recognized a fertile and previously undertapped group of customers. Some in the GLBT community were cynical about the co-optation, but after years of maddening neglect, it was hard for many to see inclusion as anything other than progress.

By the mid-'90s, Barnes & Noble and Borders had pretty well blanketed the Twin Cities. At around the same time, Amazon.com entered the picture, offering more titles at low prices than any independent shop could possibly afford to stock. While some of the suburban chain locations have paltry selections of GLBT titles, the section at Borders in Uptown, for example, covers almost three racks, and their magazine shelves include some 15 GLBT publications. Dan Cullinane, marketing manager for Los Angeles's Alyson Publishing, the nation's largest gay and lesbian publishing house, says the Uptown Borders is the company's biggest Minnesota client.

The fact that the nation's leading gay press was selling far more books at Borders than at A Brother's Touch is the kind of cultural shift that seems to inspire a fairly even split of sighs and shrugs from the GLBT community. In January of 2003, New York's Oscar Wilde Bookshop--which opened in 1967, making it the American archetype--announced that it would be closing. (The store survived: At the last minute, it was bought by Deacon Maccubbin, owner of the Lambda Rising chain of gay bookstores). When it still looked like the store was history, conservative gay commentator and literary critic Bruce Bawer wrote a controversial opinion piece for the New York Times.

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