Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop

291 Mercer St New York

LGBT Washington Square Park & Environs/Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop
NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project
Written By NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

The first initiative to document historic and cultural sites associated with the LGBT community in New York City, illustrating the richness of the city's history and the community's influence on America.

Overview

Gay rights activist Craig Rodwell established America’s first gay and lesbian bookstore, named in memory of Oscar Wilde, in a storefront of this apartment building on Mercer Street in 1967. In 1973, Rodwell moved the store, which also operated as a vital community center, to 15 Christopher Street.

History

Craig Rodwell, an active member of the Mattachine Society of New York, suggested that Mattachine open a bookstore that would also have offices and space for community meetings. When Mattachine rejected this idea, Rodwell decided to do it himself, despite the fact that he had no experience running a bookstore. At the age of 26, Rodwell rented a very public storefront on Mercer Street near Waverly Place. The shop was named after Oscar Wilde, who, Rodwell wrote, was “the first homosexual in modern times to defend publicly the homosexual way of life, is a martyr to what has recently become known as the ‘homophile movement.’”

The shop stocked books and periodicals that dealt with gay and lesbian issues in a positive manner; Rodwell refused to sell pornography. Rodwell saw the bookstore as a community bulletin board, carrying announcements of important activities, as a clearing house for those interested in law reform in New York State, and as a spur to writers who would now have a place to sell their gay-themed work. On his letterhead, he called Oscar Wilde “A Bookshop of the Homophile Movement.” He modeled the store after the Christian Science reading rooms he had grown up with, which sought to impart a positive image of the world.

The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop had its grand opening weekend on November 18-19, 1967. At first, there were only a limited number of publications for sale and he had to spread books out so that the shelves would appear full. His first year was a rough one – vandals broke in three times. But eventually, the shelves were filled with more and more LGBT-related publications. A public presence was crucial to Rodwell’s vision for the store: its front window was adorned with slogans such as “Gay is Good” and “Gay Power” and the window and his letterhead announced that Oscar Wilde was a “Bookshop of the Homophile Movement.”

“It was the first time in American history that literature had been organized under the subject heading of ‘gay culture.’” Jim Downs, historian
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The Mercer Street store also became the headquarters for the Homophile Youth Movement, where Rodwell often counseled young gay men and women and tried to set a positive example for them, so, as he said, they would “gain a sense of pride and dignity as young homosexuals.” According to long-time LGBT rights activist and photographer Kay Lahusen, she worked at the bookstore for a period of time. In 1973, Rodwell decided to open a second store on Christopher Street, close to the center of gay life in New York and also called the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop. He kept the Mercer Street store open for several months, for “sentimental reasons,” but finally closed it in May 1974.

Building Information

Architect or Builder: Samuel N. Polis Year Built: 1929

Sources

Craig Rodwell Papers, New York Public Library, Manuscripts Division. Fred Sargeant, e-mails to NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, November-December 2017. Gay is Good, Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 1969, 38-39, 51. Jim Downs, Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (New York: BasicBooks, 2016). Larry Gross, Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001). Kay Lahusen, interview with the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, November 27, 2018. Tony Guild, “Unique Homophile Bookshop!,” National Insider, May 5, 1968, 9.

Cover Photo

Amanda Davis/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2017.

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