Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop
In 1973, Craig Rodwell moved his Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, the first gay and lesbian bookstore on the East Coast (and the first of its kind in the nation to operate long term), from its original home on Mercer Street to a prominent location on Christopher Street, near the center of New York City’s gay life.
The shop, which also served as a vital community center, occupied this site for over 35 years.
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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 1980, musician and bookshop co-manager Fred Carl, activist Isaac Jackson, and architecture student Anthony Q. Crusor posted a flyer in the store that called for a collective to be formed to publish the work of Black gay writers and artists. This became the Blackheart Collective. For the next five years, until 1985, the Collective met in each other’s apartments and ultimately published three journals.
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.
Entry by Andrew S. Dolkart, project director, with additional content by Ethan Brown, project consultant (November 2017; rev. July 2022).
NOTE: Names above in bold indicate LGBT people.
- Architect or Builder: Unknown
- Year Built: 1827
Craig Rodwell Papers, New York Public Library, Manuscripts Division.
Fred Sargeant, e-mails to NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, November-December 2017.
Gayellow Pages, no.6, November 1977.
Janine Utell, ed., The Comics of Alison Bechdel From the Outside In (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2020).
Kay Lahusen, phone call with Amanda Davis/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, September 15, 2020.
Lionel Cuffie, “Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore,” Gay Community News, December 18,1976, 12-13.
Jim Downs, Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (New York: BasicBooks, 2016).
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