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After 24 years, Baltimore's Lambda Rising bookstore is closing

When John Waters' 1988 film Hair- spray first came out on video, a staff member at Lambda Rising bookstore bought a passel of aerosol hairspray cans at the drugstore across the street and asked the filmmaker to sign them. As a promotion, the shop gave an autographed can to every customer who purchased a video.

Such antics helped spur loyalty among customers at the store, which sells gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender books as well as digital video discs, music, magazines, greeting cards and gifts. But a core group of devotees was not enough to save the store in the face of declining sales: The owner announced last week that after more than two decades in business, he will close the Baltimore shop, believed to be the only gay and lesbian bookstore in Maryland.

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"You don't like to have to close something that's such a central part of your life and the community's life. But you have to be realistic," said Deacon Maccubbin, who once owned five gay bookstores but soon will be down to two, in Washington and in Rehoboth Beach, Del. "This is the history of independent bookselling in the last 10 years."

Since the first gay and lesbian bookstore opened in New York in 1967, such shops have served as meeting places, community centers and information hubs that were a welcome alternative to gay bars and porn shops. But many such stores have struggled since mainstream bookstores began carrying some of the same literary fare and support for gay men and lesbians has become more widely available. At the same time, independent bookstores of all kinds have suffered mightily at the hands of chain stores and the Internet.

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This month, the last of the Karibu chain of black bookstores closed, though the owners blamed their financial troubles on management problems.

Maccubbin, who is 64, believes there is still a place for gay bookstores in contemporary society - he noted that even in the Internet age, at least once a day he sees customers who are coming out as gay and looking for some direction. "People still need to be connected to the community through literature," he said.

But his health has been faltering in recent years, he said, and he doesn't have the stamina to turn around the Baltimore store in the face of financial hardship. He has not set a final closing date yet, but as he liquidates the stock - everything but magazines is on sale - word is slowly getting around town.

"I'm very, very sad," said Waters, who has been a regular customer since the shop opened in 1984. "It's a seriously good bookshop, with the added touch of porno. ... I always went in there to find books that I didn't know about and couldn't find anywhere else.

Part of the problem is that many people are no longer embarrassed to buy books on gay themes - and in any case, those who are can always order through Amazon.

"Is that what the gay liberation movement was about in the first place - to assimilate?" Waters asked. "Maybe it did it too well."

The shop on West Chase Street is housed in the building owned by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland, in Baltimore's small gay district. On Wednesday, gloomy patrons and staff members sized up the situation.

"I really feel that there's a community spirit here," said customer Paul Pierson. "I can ask someone behind the desk for help, and more than likely they'll be able to relate to what I'm looking for."

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David Morath, a native Baltimorean who was visiting from Pennsylvania, said that despite what some think, this is not a "post-gay period" and stores such as Lambda Rising are needed.

"Where it's really too bad is for younger gay people," he said. "This is a resource for them when they're trying to figure out where they're at."

As the community has changed so has its literary taste, said bookseller Ian Gilmore, 25. Far more people used to request books about coming out or about family members coming out. These days, books addressing transgender issues are increasingly popular, as is gay urban fiction such as In Love with a Thug and A Private Affair, one of the store's best-sellers.

But it is about more than that, Gilmore said.

"People come in and pour their hearts out to us. Maybe they have nowhere else to turn or they just don't know where to start to get information they need. ... Or they feel safe being themselves here and don't feel that in other places," he said.

Nonetheless, he conceded that it might be the beginning of the end of an era for gay bookstores.

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"I hope not. I really hope not," he said. "But I don't know."

rona.marech@baltsun.com


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