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

"Yes, in part these independent booksellers are a casualty of competition from bookstore chains and Internet booksellers," wrote Bawer. "But their decline is also a reflection of something very positive--namely, the entrance of gay Americans into mainstream culture over the last decade or so. Increasingly, gay men and women are open, fully integrated members of society. Consequently the need for specifically gay institutions is fading."

In the past, with notable exceptions such as Gore Vidal, openly gay authors rarely found a broad audience. Now, books such
as John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Michael Cunningham's The Hours make the bestseller list and inspire hit movies.

The lure of convenience and economy offered by the bookstore chains is compelling, but employees at chains and even straight-dominated independents aren't nearly as likely to know their gay merchandise. They're even less likely to carry stuff that inhabits the fringes of erotica and alternative sexuality. "A totally queer-centered bookstore is going to be a lot more inclined to find more marginalized publications and writers," says John Townsend, culture commentator for Lavender magazine and KFAI's Fresh Fruit radio program.

Charlie Kraft

"I'm from the old school, I support independent people," says Hertz. "The people that have been around a while feel the loss more than people that are growing up now, who never really had a reason to go to places like this. It's always been available to them."

 

If it was hard for Hertz to survive once the chains starting stocking gay books, it got even harder once Rainbow Road, Minneapolis's sunny gay gift shop, opened eight years ago. "Being out today is not the challenge that it was 20 years ago," says Jim Connelly, owner of Rainbow Road and Panorama Video. "I think challenge is probably the best word. So as the concept of the consumer changes, I change along with it. You have to evolve, you can't just wait for somebody to come in and buy a product from you because you're reaching out to the gay community. Certainly you can't expect them to come back and buy if you give them bad service, or if you're rude, or if you don't have the product they want. I mean, straight people don't go to straight businesses because they're straight; they go there because there's a product there that they want to buy."

Connelly's comments hint at Hertz's reputation for occasional surliness, especially toward porn moochers who browsed but never bought. Hertz certainly had his fiercely loyal customers, but according to some, he could be one of those "business would be great if it weren't for these goddamn customers" kind of shopkeepers. Roach says he saw some "amazing customer friction" during his tenure at the store.

Hertz, though, was in a tough spot. Like all independents, he couldn't match the low prices of the online stores or the big chains, and with the wider availability of gay and lesbian publications and better coverage of LGBT events in the mainstream press, the store's role as a news beacon had significantly waned. The store was forced to focus more on porn, baubles, and accessories. "You know, if I had to guess," says Hertz. "I'd say in the last 10 years, 80 percent of my sales came from magazines and videos. Each year we've sold less and less books."

"I feel sad about [the store's closing]," says Greg Hewett, who did two readings at A Brother's Touch and recently won the Publishing Triangle's award for poetry. "But I felt sad that he was forced into turning into more of a porn store. I'm not anti-sex either, but if I want porn--and I'm not that interested in it--I can go to a porn shop. I'd rather have a larger selection of gay literature." Hewett also acknowledges that the store's openness to adult material made it similarly receptive to edgy books and magazines and journals.

"It wasn't even necessarily that Harvey fucked up by not focusing on the books or anything like that," says Tom Roach. "It was the fact that there was no interest in it, really. It was more depressing on a community level. That's why when that rare customer came in and actually was like, 'Hey, have you read the new novel by X, and I'd be like, 'Awesome, we can talk about books for a second.'"

According to Mary Ellen Keating, a senior vice president at Barnes & Noble, demand for gay and lesbian books has been fairly constant over the past three years or so. Retailers and publishers, however, have noticed a marked shift in consumer taste. "People seem to be much more interested in fun, escapist titles," says Dan Cullinane of Alyson. "Romance novels, fun self-help-type books as opposed to serious, issue-driven books. There's a tremendous amount of burnout with the same coming-out stories, the same themes, the same darkness. Whether or not some of those issues still exist, and there's no question that they do, there has been a tremendous body of literature that has been created around those things. People are like, 'I've read it, I don't need to read another one.'"

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