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

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.'

Charlie Kraft

"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.

"[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.)

"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.

"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.

"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.'"

The trend toward literary frivolity is clearly connected with the kind of complacency Roach complains about in some gay men. Hertz, as he stresses, is from the old school. "It's a mixture, sometimes it seems better to a degree," Hertz says of the current social climate. "But then you look at the stuff that's going on now with the Republicans in charge, and all these people yelling things in the Senate. I could tell you, not a day goes by where I don't get cars stopped at that light who feel what they need is to scream, 'Look at that, it's a fag place, my God!' It happened two days ago, these guys started pointing. I go right back out there and point, 'Look at that, straight people, my God, what next? What they have to prove, I don't know. I feel like I'm in another country sometimes."

John Townsend thinks it's dangerous to overstate the gains gays and lesbians have made in the last decade or to assume that tolerance is permanent. "I think separatism is actually a bad idea, but I think it's wise to nurture a central core of queer-centered businesses, just so it can be a touchstone in case times get extremely reactionary. In case for some reason--say under corporate or theocratic pressures from the Republican Party--a lot of the bookstores decide to stop carrying [gay books]. That's kind of a paranoid scenario. But you never know."

By this day in late May, A Brother's Touch has been pretty well cleared out. A few customers pick over the remnants of Hertz's inventory: a few rainbow flags and gay-pride trinkets, some posters, a stack of porno mags, a corkscrew statuette with the screw coming out of the pelvis (a "cockscrew"). Prices at this point are negotiable. A couple carrying an armful of items approaches Hertz with a "bunch proposal."

"I haven't heard that in a while," quips Hertz lewdly, to little response. They end up getting the stuff for a steal, with a complimentary cockscrew.

I ask Hertz what his plans are. "What do I plan to do? Collect social security. Between social security and a part-time job, I can probably make just as much money as working six or seven days a week."

Plus he wants to write a book: Memoirs of a Gay Bookseller. Sounds good. Trouble is, who's going to carry it?

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