Craig Rodwell opened the first Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in 1967 in a small storefront on Mercer Street near Waverly Place. In 1973, he decided to move the store to a location closer to the heart of gay life in New York. In April 1973, the new store opened on the former parlor floor of an 1827 row house at 15 Christopher Street. With its public face and large windows, the bookstore was a welcoming sight to gay and lesbian New Yorkers and visitors from all over the world who would climb the low stoop, with its original wrought-iron railings, and enter the narrow shop, assured of a friendly greeting from Rodwell or his multi-racial staff.
“…many out-of-state Gay people, visiting the Village and the city’s Gay scenes, have encountered Gay liberation books and movement periodicals for the first time at ‘Oscar Wilde’. The friendly, relaxed atmosphere and the unhurried opportunity just to browse can be a liberating experience in itself.”
The store’s public presence also meant that it was subjected to vandalism, including a rock thrown through one of the plate-glass windows. Nonetheless, the bookstore remained an important fixture in the LGBT community, stocking an ever-increasing number of LGBT books, periodicals, and ephemera. Rodwell hosted book signing and meet-the-author events with Tennessee Williams, Rita Mae Brown, Janis Ian, Patricia Neil Warren, Christopher Isherwood, Harvey Fierstein, and many other LGBT authors. Gay rights activist and photojournalist, Kay Lahusen, also worked here for a time.
The store provided a relaxed atmosphere for LGBT people who were struggling with their identity and also was an inspiration to many visitors. For example, Janine Utell relates how Alison Bechdel discovered a trove of gay and lesbian comic books at the store which, as Bechdel noted, allowed her “to apprehend the rich, transformational quality of lesbian experience and get it down on the page” in such seminal graphic works as Dykes to Watch Out For (beginning in 1983) and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), which later became the Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home (2013).
In 1992, Rodwell received a Lambda Literary Award for Publisher’s Service, in recognition of his pioneering efforts in creating a bookstore for the LGBT community. He sold the shop in 1993, just before he died of stomach cancer. Kim Brinster, the shop’s longtime manager, bought the business in 2006. Citing a sharp decline in sales following the 2008 financial crisis and increasing competition from online book sellers, Brinster closed the shop on March 29, 2009.