Opened in 1977, by Sue Perlgut, a leader of It’s All Right To Be Woman Theatre, and Shirley Walton-Fischler, Djuna Books was a feminist bookstore located directly across the street from Julius’ in a storefront on the south side of 154 West 10th Street. The store was named after Djuna Barnes, author of the first novel that dealt frankly with lesbianism and who lived nearby at 5 Patchin Place. It was one of three feminist bookstores open in New York City at this time, the other two being Womanbooks on the Upper West Side and Women’s Works (later La Papaya bookstore) in Brooklyn. They were preceded by Labyris in Greenwich Village.
Like other feminist bookstores, Djuna Books carried a range of non-sexist, non-racist texts and records. Its inventory included books from “small or women’s press,” “lesbian oriented work,” and books for children and teenagers. Author and Djuna Books customer Paula Martinac set a scene in her lesbian novel The Ada Decades in this “cozy” bookstore. The characters “spent an hour perusing books even Ada had never heard of” and purchased a hat with the word “DYKE” on it and a button that read “We Are Everywhere,” in reference to the store’s actual inventory of feminist ephemera.
Despite praise from Martinac, Djuna Books’ namesake author was not pleased with the bookstore. Upset with her continued association with lesbian culture even though she did not identify as a lesbian, Barnes called the store “a terrible little lesbian bookshop” and phoned the owners to demand they change its name. Djuna Books, however, branded itself as a women’s rather than a lesbian space, stating in its 1982 catalogue that the store served as “an alternative institution servicing the women’s community of New York City.”
Djuna Books closed in 1982, by coincidence the same year that Barnes died. Despite book readings from prominent authors such as Kate Millett and workshops on lesbian theater by Perlgut, Djuna Books struggled to maintain a long-term customer base, especially after Perlgut and Walton-Fischler took leaves of absence. Walton-Fischler said that customers felt “abandoned,” leading the “women’s grapevine” to spread rumors that the store had closed for good. Despite this confusion, Djuna Books ultimately closed for the same reason as many other feminist bookstores: lack of sales.
Three Lives & Company, a bookstore that has carried LGBT books for decades and donated to LGBT causes, has been located in the corner storefront (a different space from Djuna Books) at 154 West 10th Street since 1983.
This entry was written by project consultant Emily Kahn.