It was the silence that drew me in. Toward the end of the interview, WABE‘s All Things Considered host Denis O’Hayer asked Outwrite Bookstore owner, Phillip Rafshoon, what he would do if the store closed. Up until now Rafshoon had been articulate, upbeat and eloquent talking about Atlanta’s premiere LGBT bookstore. The main focus of their conversation was how he planned to rescue it from closure. But now there was a pause. A long pause. As if, the thought was too grim to bear thinking about.
In the store on the first day of Atlanta Pride weekend, this thought seemed the farthest thing from everyone’s minds. And from where I browsed and weaved through the crowd of shoppers and coffee shop loungers, that this bustling store could close was unfathomable.
“We serve as a store,” Phillip said in the Thursday afternoon interview, “We serve as a community center, but we also serve as a landmark that says, ‘It’s cool to be who you are here.’”
Outwrite’s success, he said, “has been because we’ve been tied to a very supportive community, but it’s also been a challenge because as our community has become more accepted by the mainstream, there has been seen to be less of a need for gay-specific places.”
Therein lays the irony of Outwrite’s situation: the rainbow bedecked bookstore played a huge role in the revival of Midtown in the 90s and 2000s, but now that the gay community feels more comfortable living in other neighborhoods in and around the Atlanta metro area, many no longer feel that a gay-specific place is as vital as it once was.
“The metro area, certainly it’s a lot easier to be out,” Phillip said. “But as far as the metro Atlanta area, there’s still a need for people to have a place to be who we are. And if a place like this didn’t exist and wasn’t as visible, I’d really question whether people would be as comfortable holding hands, walking down the streets, talking about who they are.”
Friday was my first time visiting the bookstore. It is a bright and welcoming space complete with rainbow-colored boas, orange and pink paper lanterns, pendant peace signs, and colorful author and product displays. Their offerings include the kind of book accessories many independent bookstores have had to start carrying out of necessity, though here at Outwrite even these objects make a statement that’s fun and proud: uplifting greeting cards, post cards of Atlanta, select CDs (think Lady GaGa and the Glee soundtrack), support stickers and pins, calendars (including some racier ones kept at the back of the shop), and even a module of slap-on watches with a promotional sign reading “as seen on Ellen.”
There is something here for everyone. Indie Bestsellers are mixed into displays along with biographies of Jane Lynch and the Dalai Lama, along side art books of men’s bodies, alongside sexual advice books. The Literature section is extensive, as are the sections on LGBT Theory, Photography and Biography. I feel I must say that, although I am straight, I felt entirely comfortable and welcomed into this store. Maybe the fact that I even feel I have to say that is proof that we still need places like Outwrite.
The Graveyard Book I bought by Neil Gaiman and a postcard of Stone Mountain to send to Luke’s family. In the thirty minutes I was in the store, I was greeted by probably every staff person working that day, and when I checked out I had a friendly chat with one of the sales assistants whose girlfriend was reading the same book. We shared other book suggestions. When I asked about what other events Outwrite was hosting, she listed a whole slew of parties, girls nights and promotions, including the 10% off everything sale that was going on all weekend.
She said, “One thing about gay people is we know how to party.”
We laughed and then she invited us to the Pride Parade on Sunday. For the next hour I tried to think of a way we could delay our trip to the mountains on Sunday so that we could come and show our support. In the end it wasn’t possible and I sorely missed being there.
When Phillip finally spoke after that long on-air pause on Thursday, he wouldn’t (couldn’t?) give an estimate of how much time Outwrite had left before it would have to close. What they need is support over the long term, not just on Pride Weekend.
“I haven’t thought that far in advance to what if we fail,” he said. “We’re gonna keep trying until we get it right but… the clock’s ticking.”
You can listen to the complete WABE interview with Phillip here.
(Photos by For the Love of Bookshops)