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When he opened Lambda Rising bookstore in 1974, Deacon Maccubbin started with $3,000 of his own money and $1,000 he borrowed from Craig Howell of the Gay Activists Alliance. When the store closes for good in early January, we will be losing not just another business, but an historic landmark.
Lambda Rising began across the hall from Earthworks, a headshop that grew into a paraphernalia shop and later a tobacconist. The profits from Earthworks helped Maccubbin open a bookstore. Lambda originally carried 250 gay and lesbian book titles. As Maccubbin explains, ”That’s all there were at the time.”
One thing that has not changed, for activists or entrepreneurs, is that any new venture requires a leap of faith and determination that cannot be justified solely by the evidence. Maccubbin writes, ”We thought if we could show that there was a demand for our literature, that bookstores could be profitable selling it, we could encourage the writing and publishing of GLBT books, and sooner or later other bookstores would put those books on their own shelves and there would be less need for a specifically gay and lesbian bookstore.”
The success of that mission can be seen in general bookstores with their GLBT offerings. But as gay-rights pioneer Frank Kameny wrote on Dec. 4, ”No non-gay bookstore that I know has a gay section with content remotely comparable to that of Lambda Rising, and many of the publications found there (including one that I bought only today) will be totally unavailable elsewhere.”
”The other part of our mission,” Maccubbin says, ”was to make good GLBT books and information available to anyone anywhere at a time when such items were very hard to find. Today, people almost anywhere can access GLBT information on the Internet.” Amazon.com, like the big bookstore chains before it, has siphoned off much of Lambda Rising’s business, which has long included a mail-order operation.
Beyond books, Lambda Rising was a hub of community activity and activism. Maccubbin organized successful campaigns to persuade the Washington Post, the Yellow Pages, and the local NBC and ABC affiliates to accept gay-oriented advertising. In 1987 he launched the bimonthly Lambda Book Report, which led to the Lambda Literary Awards in 1989. The store contributed fundraising for hundreds of nonprofits.
The bookstore hosted Gay Pride festivals for five years beginning in June 1975. During the 1993 March on Washington, huge stacks of the Washington Blade were piled outside the store, and mobs of people spilled onto the street. I was the publicist for a choral festival hosted that weekend by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, and the people going to Lambda Rising to buy tickets were a tiny fraction of the crowds overwhelming the store. That crazy weekend was an indelible highlight of the store’s history.
At one point, Lambda Rising had satellite stores in Baltimore, Rehoboth Beach, Del., and Norfolk, Va. In 2003, Maccubbin rescued New York’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop, and spent three years revitalizing it before selling it to its manager. Unfortunately, the economic downturn shuttered that store earlier this year.
When I first visited Lambda 30 years ago, it was one of the few gathering places for GLBT people outside the bars. I met several authors there. I know one longtime couple who first met in the store. The GLBT community is better developed now, with hundreds of affinity groups in the Washington area alone, and the advent of the Internet has made all sorts of communication easier, from activist organizing to hooking up.
But while you can order books on Amazon, browsing online just isn’t the same as browsing at Lambda Rising. In addition to men’s and women’s fiction, it has history, biography, various types of erotica, rare and out-of-print books, Asian, Latino, and African-American sections, transgender and bisexual, and much more. The store, beautifully decorated one last time for the holidays, also sells sculptures, games, espresso cups, jewelry, magnets, calendars, underwear, color-coded hankies (a blast from the past), and a variety of holiday cards including wonderful pop-ups. And I don’t know another newsstand that sells out-of-state gay newspapers.
Visiting Lambda Rising last Sunday, I marveled at the huge investment represented by its inventory. What a pity to see it dismantled, but what a blessing that Deacon Maccubbin and his husband Jim Bennett sustained this extraordinary community resource for so long.