Tuesday, February 17, 2009

As Nation’s First Gay Bookstore Closes, Longtime Manager Looks to the Future

At first glance, the Oscar Wilde has everything you’d expect from a gay bookstore: bawdy calendars and prideful bumper stickers, all six seasons of the L Word on DVD, and, of course, the complete works of David Sedaris. Outside, a rainbow flag splashes color against the neutral brownstone entrance, a welcome mat of sorts for the erudite gay population of the West Village.

As the nation’s first- and only- gay and lesbian bookstore, the Oscar Wilde is a landmark, a haven, and a living piece of history- all crowded in a space no larger than the average studio apartment.

But not for much longer. On February 3, citing poor sales and double-digit losses, storeowner Kim Brinster publicly announced plans to close the Oscar Wilde. On March 29th, the economic recession will claim another victim. And when the Oscar Wilde goes down, store manager Cecilia Martin is going with it.

Martin, a 39-year-old Michigan native, has worked at the bookstore for over six years and managed for the past three. She first heard of the store years ago, long before moving to the city in 1995.

“I remember when I first visited New York, this was one of the first places I came to visit,” Martin says.

After her move, Martin would occasionally frequent the store during her ten-year career as an off-Broadway stage manager.

“I was working on a show and I came in here to buy a book. I needed another part time job, and I just wanted something different, to meet people in the gay community,” said Martin. “I asked them if they were hiring and they were!”

Six years later, Martin is a striking offset to the store’s natural flamboyancy- tall, thin, and conservatively dressed, with a large rainbow watch adorning her wrist. Since Brinster’s announcement- and its subsequent front-page coverage by the New York Times website- the store is busier than it’s been in months, yet Martin handles the continual calls and order requests with clipped efficiency.

“I have a list of all the people I have to call back for interviews,” Martin says, smiling apologetically as she attends to a ringing phone.

In between phone calls, Martin lists her efforts to keep the store afloat. Along with Brinster, she’s tried book clubs, an online shopping source, and “wine and sign” nights with some of the gay community’s most prominent authors: Ann Bannon, Edmund White, and Chris Bram. She penned a weekly email to hundreds of subscribers with news updates, as well as a monthly newsletter informing loyal clients of new authors and seasonal discounts. All of this, she admits, for the love of her job, the store, and her passion for books.

"I love my job, and I love coming to work everyday. I’m mourning, not only for myself but for the community. This is the last gay and lesbian bookstore in New York. It’s been here for 41 years.”

Yet Martin admits it’s a loss she sensed was coming.

“I remember seeing a news article that people were amazed by the economy and the crisis, but retailers knew it [was coming] a year ago,” Martin said. “We started to see that things had slowed down.”

“This year was the worst Christmas ever,” Martin adds. “If you look at the month as a whole, it was just one of the worst months of the year.”

This is not the first time the bookstore has had its head on the chopping block. In 2003, then owner Larry Lingle admitted he could no longer afford to keep the store open- and was bought out by Deacon Maccubin, owner of Lamba Rising Bookstores in Washington in the eleventh hour. Is Martin hoping for another last minute pardon?

“There’s always that glimmer of hope that there’s someone out there who has millions of dollars to spend and wants to buy a quirky little bookstore in a brownstone,” Martin says. “I think it would take a miracle, but you never know. Miracles do happen.”

But in case it doesn’t, Martin has a backup plan. She’s getting her MLS at Queens College in library science, and hoping for a job that keeps her working among her passion- literature. But libraries are also suffering, she admits, and finding another job might be difficult.

“I’m going to be like everyone else,” says Martin. “I’m going to be out there looking and hoping for something.”

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunate, but in this market where people have less to spend I guess niche stores are going to suffer the most when people strap their belts tighter.

    While it's not quite the same, I see a lot of these niche brick and mortar stores setting their sights (no pun intended) on-line. I don't think bookstores will be able to cut it (Amazon has the market cornered) but a lot of other niche stores could easily set up a centralized storage/shipping facility in a small space.

    The internet is a series of tubes.