The closing of New York’s historic Oscar Wilde bookstore will leave Toronto’s Glad Day as the oldest gay and lesbian bookstore in North America and possibly the world.
The NY store, which opened in 1967, will close on Sun, Mar 29. Owner Kim Brinster told the New York Times that the closure was due to economic problems and declining sales.
“People are hemorrhaging, and we’re no exception,” she said.
Brinster said that the store is closing despite the fact that the rent had stayed reasonable. Oscar Wilde paid $3,000 a month in rent, which she said was already below market value.
“Even if we were rent-free, it wouldn’t be enough for us to cover the bills we have,” she said. “This is one instance in New York where it’s not a case of the landlord gouging the tenant. Our landlord has always been remarkable with us.”
Glad Day opened in 1970 and has been in its location at 598 Yonge St for 27 years. The store has been hit by the recession, admits manager Prodan Nedev, but is still attracting regular customers.
“We’re having difficulties like everyone else with the latest economic thing,” he says, “but we’re still confident with the number of customers we’re getting. We’re not giving up.”
Nedev says Glad Day still draws those looking for a store specializing in queer literature.
“Even though the need for this sort of niche gay and lesbian bookstore is not quite as important as it was and we’re not the only source for this material, people still like to come to us. We still have a lot of selection you won’t find anywhere else.”
Jearld Moldenhauer, who founded Glad Day and sold it in 1991, says gay bookstores fill a need the chains won’t.
“Their commitment is just to the dollar,” he says. “Anything marginal, esoteric is not going to find a place on their shelves. Let’s take a book on gay Muslims, you’re not going to find it on their shelves.”
Nedev says Glad Day tries to compensate for the competition by selling older works through the internet and by hosting appearances by queer authors.
Nedev says the store made the right decision in not moving to Church St when This Ain’t the Rosedale Library decamped to Kensington Market last year.
“If we had moved to Church St we would be gone by now,” he says. “Rents on Church St are so expensive and the audience is so limited. We’re glad we stayed on Yonge St.”
Nedev says he was sorry to hear about the closure of Oscar Wilde.
“It’s sad,” he says. “It’s difficult for everybody, but it would be sad not to have places like this. It just brings more variety to the gay and lesbian community.”
Moldenhauer says Glad Day provides a haven.
“Our customers always consisted of a huge number of what you might call marginal people,” he says. “Glad Day gave them a sense of belonging. A bookstore should be a basic institution in a gay community.”
For Moldenhauer Glad Day began when he realized that the new gay literature that was emerging after Stonewall in 1969 wasn’t available in Canada.
“You wouldn’t see the books in Candian bookstores, even the most progressive ones, many of which were owned by people I knew were gay,” he says. “You had this situation where this exciting new material was coming out and it was unavailable. I had this idea of starting a book service. It seemed to be a useful thing to do.”
Moldenhauer says he discovered publishers would let him set up accounts and order books without spending a lot of money.
“I was able to order some of what I considered to be classics,” he says. “I would carry them around in a backpack to the meetings.”
Moldenhauer’s apartment in the Annex became the home of Glad Day, also doubling as the office of The Body Politic, the groundbreaking gay paper that was Xtra’s predecessor. The arrangement continued when he and others moved into a house in Kensington Market.
“There was an unheated shed in back which became Glad Day Bookshop and the Body Politic office,” he says. “During the day it operated basically as a bookstore. During the night it was the Body Politic office.”
In 1972 Body Politic collective member Gerald Hannon — currently a board member of Pink Triangle Press, which publishes Xtra — published an article called “Of Men and Little Boys” in The Body Politic. The article sparked an uproar, although the paper wasn’t prosecuted until Hannon’s 1977 article “Men Loving Boys Loving Men.”
But Moldenhauer says the controversy was enough to cost them their Kensington home.
“Our gay landlords threw us out,” he says. “The heat was too much.”
Moldenhauer and others bought a home in Cabbagetown and transferred The Body Politic and Glad Day there. After a reluctant split from The Body Politic, Moldenhauer says he decided to focus on Glad Day.
“I didn’t see myself as a businessman,” he says. “I saw myself as a radical but I made the decision to take myself seriously as a gay bookseller and to move Glad Day out of my house.”
The bookstore moved to a location on Yonge near the Toronto Reference Library and Moldenhauer says it began attracting attention.
“Glad Day sold books in Chinese, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese,” he says. “It sold enough because it was a country of immigrants. Quentin Crisp was there, John Gielgud was there a few times, Edward Albee dropped in.”
Moldenhauer says that’s also when Canada Customs started paying attention to the store’s content, beginning an ongoing battle for Glad Day and other Canadian gay bookstores that continues to this day.
After the move to the current Yonge St location in 1981 Customs cracked down harder. In 1986 Customs seized copies of The Joy of Gay Sex, a battle that would eventually culminate in a court victory for Glad Day.
“They upped the ante,” says Moldenhauer. “They hated us for daring to fight back.”
Moldenhauer sold the Toronto store in 1981, concentrating on a Glad Day Bookshop he had opened in Boston in 1979, which closed in 2000 due to high rent.
“In America, with the First Amendment, I was allowed to realize my potential as a bookseller,” he says.
The role of a gay bookstore has changed over the years, says Moldenhauer.
“The bookstores played a different role in the beginning,” he says. “There were no gay community centres. For the first 15 or 20 years the phone at Glad Day never stopped ringing and it would usually be people looking for community information.
“Now this society doesn’t value institutions like bookstores. In North America it’s a dog-eat-dog world.”
Toronto should take a lesson from the European attitude toward bookstores, Moldenhauer says. There gay bookstores flourish, he says.
“If you go to any major European capital there’ll be a bookstore in every neighbourhood,” he says. “I believe that on the municipal level there’s a lot of thought given to the quality of life of a neighbourhood.
“Toronto should wake up and realize what sort of businesses would enrich the life of a neighbourhood.”