When Kim Brinster, owner of the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, announced that the store would be closing its doors on March 29, 2009 due to economic troubles many people were probably not very surprised. With the economy in rough shape it was not exactly uncommon for smaller local shops to go under. However, the historical significance of this shop, while unknown to some, made this loss a very personal one for many. The bookstore, located on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, was an integral part of the early Gay Rights movement and has a unique legacy that should not be forgotten.
The bookstore, which was opened by Craig Rodwell in 1967, was the nation’s first gay bookstore. This was an incredibly risky decision on Rodwell’s part considering that during this time many gay activists were still using fake names to avoid the possibilty of getting arrested. However, he had been actively involved in the Gay Rights struggles for many years before using his personal savings to open the store. As a volunteer for the Mattachine Society of New York he worked to organize Mattachine Young Adults in early 1964, and later that year he participated in the picketing of New York’s Whitehall to protest the military’s practice of excluding gays from serving and for dishonorably discharging them if it was discovered later on. More notably, on April 21, 1966, Rodwell, along with Dick Leitsch and John Timmons, participated in the Sip-In at Julius bar in Greenwich Village, an event that predated the infamous Stonewall Riots in 1969, but is arguably just as important to the ignition of the Gay Liberation Movement. During this demonstration the men were protesting the New York State Liquor Authority rule which made the congregation of gays in places that served alcohol illegal. Their public protest eventually led to the end of the ruling later on.
Rodwell was also a key actor in the Stonewall Riots of 1969 as well. Although he did not participate directly in the protest, he was located just down the street from the bar and was able to respond quickly. As soon as he saw what was happening Rodwell called The New York Times, The New York Post, and The New York Daily News to inform them of what was happening and because of this all three papers were able to cover the riots. Rodwell’s call brought both local and national attention to the riots and more importantly, to the events that had caused them to transpire.
After this the Oscar Wilde Bookshop served as a type of community center for the gay community in the village. The cramoed back room of the shop served as a meeting space for Rodwell and his employees who were determined to bring change for the gay community. He not only inspired owners of gay bookshops around the country, but also formulated strategies for confronting police brutality. In 1970 the first gay pride parade was planned within the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, making it an important landmark in the Gay Liberation Movement.
Since it was opened by Craig Rodwell in 1967, the bookshop had gone through several changes in ownership. Rodwell sold the shop to the manager, Bill Offenbaker, before he passed away in 1993. The store had a new owner once again in 1996 until it was purchased by the owner of Lambda Rising Bookstores in Washington in 2003 in order to keep the store from going out of business. Store manager Kim Brinster took ownership of the shop in 2006 until its closing in 2009. Although the economic issues became too large to overcome the bookshop, which has now been closed for over three years, had a substantial impact on the Gay community in New York for over 42 years and carries with it a lasting legacy.