Queer Bookselling I

Matthias Huss,  Danse Macabre  1499. The earliest known depiction of a printing press, with the printer, compositor, and bookseller all pursued by Death.

Matthias Huss, Danse Macabre 1499. The earliest known depiction of a printing press, with the printer, compositor, and bookseller all pursued by Death.

Part I of a series exploring the work of booksellers who have focused on buying and preserving materials related to LGBTQ+ history.


People who belong to a minority or a subculture or a marginalised group—the three tend to meet at a crossroads—have to take the means of production into their own hands when it comes to documenting their experiences. Otherwise, they’re left out. Or, just as much of the evidence about witchcraft that survives is from the courts and local governments who persecuted witches, their story is garbled, violently constrained by prejudice. 

It’s like David Wojnarowicz says in Close to the Knives when he’s describing his motivation as a photographer: “When you buy a newspaper, you’re being bought.” So you’d better know who’s behind that newspaper, not just in terms of authors but in terms of how it’s funded: you better know who’s behind the words and images that are warping your worldview. If you were queer and a reader in New York City at the time, Wojnarowicz is saying that you could actually follow the money to see who was teaching you to hate yourself: which politicians, police officers, clergymen, journalists. His response was to create a profusion of his own images depicting his own world, one he saw distorted and condemned by popular media.

There are only so many ways to tell your story in your own words, and while those ways multiply in digital environments, for centuries printed matter has been a reasonably cheap and effective medium. A lot has changed, but print still continues to offer a certain kind of control in terms of tools, materials, environmental impact, design, dispatch, circulation, sales, and saving, collecting, preserving. Cooperation—a kind of collective action—is a necessity. I think of Adrienne Rich’s words in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: “It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this void, this non-being, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.”


That being said, I started working in a library when I was a 19-year-old in Philadelphia, and knew from there that I’d spend my entire life trying to see and hear the marginalised, the outcast, the outlaw, the under-represented, the queens and the queers in every corner of the publication process, who have resisted the void by documenting themselves.  Derek Jarman said it in several TV appearances: "Civilization is Queer—especially the Renaissance.” So in theory you can start there (you can start anywhere). Like, it’s the 15th century: paper-making has spread from China via trade routes among queer merchants passing through Samarkand, Damascus, Cairo, to Europe since the 13th century, I imagine queers shuffling moulds of old rags in water, turning them to paper; delivering them to the queers in a print shop setting type letter-by-letter for the papal indulgences and other jobs Gutenberg printed to help fund his book-length Bible; the queers double-checking proofs that have been printed for typos; the queers pulling the press and the ones inking the press and the ones hanging up the sheets of printed paper to dry; the queers tanning the leather to give to still others who bind the books, stitching the quires together. Then there are the queers on mules delivering the books to the Frankfurt Bookfair for sale and further distribution in bookstores throughout Europe, or the ones reading out—crying out—the contents of their wares in marketplaces, their own advertisers. After that there are the queer booksellers and readers and collectors and librarians, and librarians who buy the collections of dead collectors when they die from queer auctioneers. There are books that are rare and sought after by particular queer collectors and librarians. I’m leaving people out, but suffice to say, in any century, the world of books is expansive: behind any given printed volume there are archives of material leading to its creation, which means that behind both the volume and the archive there are even more people, entire communities. Jost Amman’s illustrations from The Book of Trades (1568) attest to the fact that the work behind any book you might hold in your hands—that of the papermaker, the printer, the bookbinder—involves cooperation. 

The only reason to visualize all of that going on in the 15th century is because it was equally the case in the 20th. Like I said, there are only so many ways to take the production of information into your own hands—and printing is one way that for all its variation has remained fairly consistent. If institutional or state-regulated presses won't print your work, you had to do it yourself: write, design, publish, circulate. In particular after the decade of riots beginning with Cooper’s Do-Nuts in 1959, Compton’s in 1966, and Stonewall in 1969, queers took to the press. There survives a profusion of newsletters, magazines, pamphlets, posters, and books after that period by queer liberation groups self-publishing aimed to widen a sense of fellowship through wider readership, gay liberation through publication. Some post-Stonewall examples plucked from the bookshelf I’m sitting next to: Our World: The International Gay Travel Magazine was published by Our World Publishing in Daytona Beach Florida, The Lesbian Tide and the Community Yellow Pages was published by Cordova Publications in Los Angeles—named for their editor and creator Jeanne Cordova, Good Gay Poets and FagRag Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts was run by Charles Shively. There’s Times Change Press in New York, Gay Sunshine Press in San Francisco, the Lavender Network in Eugene, Oregon, and the Gay People’s Union in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. If you open up a book from a queer perspective published in the 70s, chances are its self-published, or published by a small publishing operation set up for the purpose. There’s a wonderful scene in the film Tom of Finland (2017) when, after composing a retrospective of his artwork and to print posters encouraging safe sex amidst the AIDS crisis, Touko Laaksonen and his leather daddy friends & fans take to the press on their own in order to publish.

The collaboration behind any queer publication is precious to me—but in this series, I’m interested in particular as to how books have gotten into readers’ hands through booksellers. That’s a job I’ve worked in for most of my life, from selling books printed in the 15th century, to secondhand paperbacks for £1. I’ve respected that spectrum because on either end I’ve seen it provide people with something of value beyond money, beyond words even. What’s difficult about the job is: booksellers aren’t related to institutions, so they can’t be critical of capitalism in quite the same way as people who benefit from institutional protection can. The bottom line matters when you have to pay your own rent and overheads. But what’s freeing is: booksellers aren't related to institutions, so they don't have to put up with hierarchy and questionable sources of money, and they can question institutional tastes and identify and preserve items that get censored in those contexts. Before there were public libraries and universities that could create collections around the themes of gender non-conformity or same-sex desire, by and large there were bookstores selling those books to readers direct. And the libraries and archives that focus on those subjects today originated as the collections of individual pioneers—activists in their own right. 

In bookstores, especially with out-of-print books or small press publishing, there’s also freedom to work with and sell materials in a capitalist-critical way, on the fringe, and/or to work with only used materials—which take away any worries about labor or environmental impact. (Since I’ve allowed myself to imagine Gutenberg’s printing press as run by queers, I’m also allowing myself to imagine a trade filled with capitalist critique much like the bookstores described in Kristen Hogan’s Feminist Bookstore Movement.) Either way, Gayle Rubin puts it this way in the acknowledgements section of Deviations:

“Advances in certain kinds of knowledge, especially stigmatized subjects, depend not only on scholars, libraries, and archives but also on collectors and dealers who occupy the front lines of resource acquisition. Rare-book dealers and collectors are often the unsung heroes of the ‘primitive accumulation’ phase of new areas of exploration. They are frequently the first to assemble primary sources before institutional libraries become aware of new topics of inquiry, or when such subjects  are still considered disreputable. With the exception of a handful of places such as Labadie and Kinsey, this has certainly been the case for LGBTQ sources specifically and for more sexual materials more generally.”[…]

“My earliest purchases of rare lesbian books were from Ed Drucker, who ran a gay out-of-print  book service called Elysian Fields Booksellers. He was succeeded by Bob Manners of Books Bohemian.…Bolerium in San Francisco keeps me well provisioned with gay books, left and anarchist texts, and right-wing literature on homosexuality. Gerard Koskovich wears many hats: collector and dealer extraordinaire, but also scholar, curator, editor, and educator.” (xii).


Rubin’s acknowledgements are an amazing place to start to draw a family tree of queer booksellers. Gerard Koskovich is an active and incredible and inspiring force in the trade, and Bolerium is still a stronghold in the San Francisco Mission District & a place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in the history of social movements, LGBTQ+ and beyond—its co-founder, John Durham, like Koskovich, combined activism with bookselling. There are others whose work finding and selling rare and historic materials from LGBTQ+ history makes possible my own. To name a few: Alta-Glamour in Seattle and Bloomsbury Books in Las Vegas, Moonyean Grosch of Womansplace Bookstore in Phoenix, Alexander Gumby who ran the Gumby Book Studio in Harlem, and lifelong partners who did not use the term “lesbian,” Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. But Rubin starts with Elysian Fields for a reason: they themselves claimed to be the first of their kind: queer antiquarian booksellers specialising in rare and out-of-print works.

Founded in 1972 and operated out of Elmhurst, New York, George Fisher (1938-1990) ran his business under the name Ed Drucker. For instance, beginning in the February 1973 issue of Sisters, the magazine of the San Francisco Chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, Ed Drucker advertised the first Elysian Fields catalogue: “HOMOSEXUALITY IN LITERATURE” as the “FIRST gay book catalog ever published! Over 700 items of scarce and out of print novels, non-fiction and biographical works.”

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Looking through their catalogues, it is still a moving experience to see so many printed works attesting to the lives of gender non-conforming people: in my copy of Catalog #15, which Elysian published in 1978, there are 3,788 books. In the introduction, the booksellers introduce readers to bibliographic terms and stress their purpose, in full knowledge of the importance of individuals working together toward a common goal, toward marking a shared history: “We hope in this way to satisfy collectors, researchers and the more general reader who wish to build a library of gay materials.” 

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The materials included feature items gathered across the century, including a list of Elysian’s own catalogs and a count of the items featured in each—giving a promising, hopeful view of a world of thousands of books. Just the thought of these books existing in one place, in one bibliography or list, offers a world of comfort and companionship between living and dead authors and readers, it turns each book into a meeting point, another crossroads, a place where community might come together. Part of my experience when reading catalogs like this, at least, is a profound sense of coming into contact with my own history, my own chosen family tree. In the parts of Queer Bookselling series to follow, I’ll be working backward in time to draw that tree from Rubin’s initial acknowledgements here. Just as I was able to use post-Stonewall printing to imagine a 15th-century print shop, it’s possible with bookshops to go back beyond even Elysian Fields’ claims and into—for example—the bookshops of 18th-century London—and along the way, move across time and space between these booksellers and the rest of the world of queer books wherever they have survived, from libraries and shops to living rooms and kitchens, building community under duress, and sharing experiences and joy in dark times. As each object was the result of a collective labor, it can be used to bring together new collectives, and create a sense of continuity between queer and gender non-conforming people, past and present.

Brooke Sylvia Palmieri

FURTHER READING:

Gayle S. Rubin, Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (London and Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Elysian Fields Collection, 1971-1990 Coll2011.034, ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/c86q1vp9/

George Fisher Papers, 1961-1990, Coll 7437, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/EAD/htmldocs/RMM07437.html

Brooke Palmieri