In the late summer of 2002, which is somehow nearly twenty years ago, I moved west across the Mississippi River, from St. Paul, Minnesota to Minneapolis, into a studio apartment just off Nicollet Avenue. I’d spent the previous three years living with friends I’d made while attending a nearby Christian college. After graduating, I started working at a Borders bookstore in the neighborhood, and made just enough money to pay for rent, food, and the occasional rock concert. Work gave me access to more books and magazines than I could ever read, more music than I could ever listen to, and more movies than I could ever watch. I made a valiant, but unsuccessful, attempt to satiate my hunger for all three types of media. I read books by authors I’d never heard of. I rediscovered childhood favorites. I met coworkers who opened my ears to new sounds, and my mind to new ideas.
I quickly realized that the bookstore was a place where I would be accepted as the gay man who I was slowly starting to acknowledge myself to be. With the confidence I gained from coming out to coworkers, I started to come out to close friends and family too. Though there were tears from some people, including me, and vocal disappointment from others, my biggest struggle was with the shame I felt about not knowing how I would live this new life. I’d announced my gay intentions to so many people who mattered so much to me, but how could I figure out what was next, while avoiding the judgmental eyes I still imagined were watching every tentative step I considered taking?
I quickly realized that the bookstore was a place where I would be accepted as the gay man who I was slowly starting to acknowledge myself to be.
After a year or so of struggling to create a new world for myself while still living inside my old one, I realized that I needed to make a concrete change, so I left my college friends behind, and found an apartment all my own in a neighborhood a few miles away. That move inspired me to transfer Borders stores to a brand new, and ill-fated, location in Downtown Minneapolis. We had many queer employees and queer customers at both Borders locations. Both stores also had a queer studies section, multiple queer fiction sections, including one specifically for lesbian mysteries, and a variety of gay-themed magazines. I wasn’t confident enough to purchase the items that intrigued me most, the ones with shirtless men smiling knowingly at me from their glossy covers. I was embarrassed by both my lack of knowledge and my lack of experience. My nascent queerness scared me, and I wanted to have a quiet place to explore, learn, and develop at my own pace.
Evenings after work, and on weekends, I’d often ride the bus from my apartment to Uptown Minneapolis. That route drove me right past A Brother’s Touch, a queer bookstore that beckoned to me, but that I never dared to even step foot in. I was overwhelmed at the thought of shopping there, but as I was always looking for ways to spend more time around books, I’d instead find myself shopping at Booksmart, then located next to the Uptown Theater on Hennepin Avenue. The ground floor of the bookstore was brightly lit, with large windows that looked out onto the street. They usually only had a smattering of customers, most of whom were, like me, browsing the newly-arrived used-book tables near the front door, as well as the nearby fiction and poetry sections. Each visit, I was excited to discover out-of-print books by authors who I loved. I always watched for gently used copies of recent releases that I couldn’t afford to buy new, even at work with my Borders discount. I usually didn’t mind sharing space in the fiction section with other Booksmart regulars, but one day I felt too crowded there, so I moved further back into the store where I noticed a stairway near the restroom that led to a basement, where the less popular sections were shelved, and where my queer literary education began in earnest.
One day I felt too crowded there, so I moved further back into the store where I noticed a stairway near the restroom that led to a basement, where the less popular sections were shelved, and where my queer literary education began in earnest.
I’d never seen so many queer-themed books gathered together in one place, and soon the Booksmart basement began to feel like my own private library. A folding chair usually sat in a dank corner of the building, and I spent many long afternoons and evenings excavating treasures from the bottom of rarely-disturbed piles. I discovered titles and authors I’d never heard of, published by presses long since defunct. I found books that have since become indispensable personal favorites, books that I can’t imagine having never read. Without those books, and a safe place to discover them, I would be a stranger to myself today.
A few years later, in 2005, after many nights spent browsing and reading at Booksmart, and after a devastating break-up with my first serious boyfriend, I moved even further west, this time from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon, and soon began working at Powell’s City of Books. Though my job title and responsibilities have changed many times over the past 17 years, I’ve always enjoyed taking the time to shop and shelve in the Queer Fiction sections, which have gone through many changes in that time. We moved the Queer fiction and studies sections from the back wall of the store to a much more prominent and visible location. We changed the names of sections from Lesbian Fiction and Gay Men’s Fiction to LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry in hopes of making more customers and employees feel comfortable and welcomed while they shop and work.
Though my job title and responsibilities have changed many times over the past 17 years, I’ve always enjoyed taking the time to shop and shelve in the Queer Fiction sections, which have gone through many changes in that time.
We continue to have discussions about the long- and short-term necessity of Queer Fiction sections, and ask ourselves questions like: Has the publishing industry changed in ways that mean we no longer need to have a distinct section for Queer titles and authors? Are we doing harm or good by maintaining a LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry section? As the world continues to change, I suspect we’ll continue to ask these questions, and new generations of employees will work to connect customers with queer books in ways that we can’t even imagine today.
I now read as many newly published queer books as I can, and am thrilled to see them winning major prizes and finding larger audiences than ever before. I also continue to find value in a separate LGBTQ section. Every time that I visit those shelves, I make a point to look closer at titles that look faded, seem dated, or have been otherwise ignored, and remind myself that their writers often faced great hardship and prejudice from readers and publishers alike. While reading them, we can be thankful for the progress we’ve made, and still learn much from their experiences in the recent and not-so-recent past.
Some classic queer titles I love:
by Joe Brainard
The Gifts of the Body
by Rebecca Brown
by Essex Hemphill
People in Trouble
by Sarah Schulman
The Salt Ecstasies
by James L. White
The Secret to Superhuman Strength
Some newer queer favorites:
by Alison Bechdel
by Jackie Ess
by Garth Greenwell
by Paul Mendez
Confessions of the Fox
by Jordy Rosenberg
Find more booklists, essays, and staff recommendations on our Pride Month page.