The closing of Outwrite Bookstore & More should serve as a clarion call to LGBT shoppers who like the idea of having their own spaces, but still don’t shop locally because it isn’t as easy as buying online.
That’s the hope of Sara Luce Look, lesbian co-owner of feminist bookstore Charis Books & More, which opened in Atlanta in 1974, some 19 years before Outwrite’s debut.
“We want people to shop here because they value independent thought and voices,” Look said. “We are all really sad about Outwrite and feel it as a huge loss for our community. It really hits home for us.”
Outwrite closed and declared bankruptcy on Jan. 26 after years of financial struggle. Founded in 1993, the store moved to the corner of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue in 1995 and become known as an unofficial LGBT community center, hosting frequent author readings.
“In the past nine months, as we first started talking about our financial problems, we have heard from so many people who talked about how important the store has been to them. That was the reason why they come to Atlanta, or moved to Atlanta,” said Outwrite owner Philip Rafshoon.
“We know this is a light to so many people in a very, very red state — in a very red part of the country — and is one of the things that makes Atlanta great,” he added. “That’s been the hardest thing.”
Bankruptcy court records show Outwrite was more than $500,000 in debt and had not paid $184,000 in sales tax to the state over the past four years.
Rafshoon’s troubles are familiar to any independent bookstore, Look said.
“As an independent bookstore, we’re in our own financial struggle,” she said.
The store owns its small house in Little Five Points and has its own nonprofit arm, Charis Circle, with the mission of fostering “sustainable feminist communities, to work for social justice, and to encourage the expression of diverse and marginalized voices.”
Charis Circle programming includes writing workshops, poetry readings and author readings at the store. Charis Circle is also attempting to raise funds for a new Charis Feminist Center.
Charis itself also serves as a “de facto queer community center” much like Outwrite did, offering a safe space and gathering spot for groups and individuals, Look added. And while a feminist bookstore, Charis is certainly rooted in the LGBTQ community as well, noted Charis Program Director Elizabeth Anderson.
“Charis has always welcomed and hosted LGBT authors and will only continue to court even more authors now that we will be the primary venue for LGBT writers in Atlanta,” Anderson said. “For the last 18 years, Atlanta was lucky enough to have an exclusively LGBT bookstore and a queer-owned, LGBT focused, feminist bookstore.
“Now that that is no longer the case we hope that folks who called Outwrite home will give Charis a visit and enjoy our host of weekly author events and community programs,” she said.
In the past, Charis sold more mainstream gay books and its owners will consider whether to do that again now that Outwrite is closed.
Outwrite’s loss is significant for Atlanta’s LGBT literary landscape, Look said.
“All of us are very, very sad and are particularly sad for Philip,” she said. “He is losing his life’s work. Outwrite was his baby. And it is a loss for all of us.”
‘Symbol of hope and strength’
At Outwrite’s “Last Tango” event on Jan. 24, the tone was grim despite the smiles and laughter coming from the authors who read and the participants who packed in the store to listen.
Bookshelves were for sale, tables and chairs were going for $20 and $25, and rows of coffee flavors were for sale alongside boxes of Christmas decorations.
This was a fire sale, not a moving sale, many people said.
Watching over the store’s last event was Outwrite bookseller Blake Hardy, who worked for the store some 12 years. He said the store has served as a “symbol of hope and strength for the gay and lesbian community in Atlanta for a number of years.”
The local independent authors reading at the “Last Tango” all thanked Rafshoon for his support of their writing. Rafshoon’s and Outwrite’s contributions to the community were considered so significant that openly gay Atlanta City Councilmember Alex Wan presented Rafshoon a proclamation signed by the entire council thanking him for his service.
But what Rafshoon needed was more people to buy books, so that he could remain at 10th and Piedmont or succeed in a last-ditch effort to move the store to a location with cheaper rent.
“It just didn’t come together. It was a long shot to begin with and we wanted to cling to hope that we could find a new place,” Rafshoon said in an interview the day the store closed. “We’re in a big financial hole that it’s just impossible to come out of.”
The amount of Outwrite’s debt and the revelation in bankruptcy documents that Rafshoon began consulting a bankruptcy attorney in October, before he announced plans for Outwrite to move and launched a “Save Outwrite” donation campaign, prompted angry online comments from some LGBT critics.
The funds are being returned to donors or in the case of anonymous cash gifts, donated to charity, Rafshoon said, adding that it was his strong desire to save a store he loved and the community’s desire for it to remain open that kept him trying for so long to keep it alive.
Large void to fill
Over the years, Outwrite received much media coverage and was the go-to bookstore for many authors and celebrities. Just in recent months, the store hosted CNN anchor Don Lemon, who came out in his memoir “Transparent,” actress and comedian Chelsea Handler and gay author Gregory Maguire of “Wicked” fame.
Besides Charis, other gay and gay-friendly bookstores also say they are willing to step up to try to fill the void left by the loss of Outwrite.
Mark Jackson and husband Tom Schloeder, owners of Brushstrokes in Ansley Mall, said they are working with the owners of gay bar Mixx to arrange space for author signings.
“With the unexpected vacuum created by Outwrite’s sudden closing, we are concerned that major authors marketing to the LGBTQ consumer might skip the Atlanta market entirely. We are actively seeking authors, publishers, celebrities, and artists, local and national, who need an Atlanta retailer to partner with,” Schloeder said Jan. 31.
Gay-friendly Bound to Be Read Books in East Atlanta has already sponsored several local gay author readings at its store and will continue to do more, said owner Jeff McCord.
“We were saddened by the closing of such an institution for the city and for the Southeast,” McCord said. “It’s hard to believe they’re gone.
“We’re certainly open to pick up any of the need that is there. It’s a difficult time for retail establishments competing with online sales, particularly for bookstores,” McCord said.
“I see people come in and price shop and then go online to buy, not realizing they are undermining their own community,” he said. “When you don’t support local businesses, you start losing retailers who are serving the community. We support local schools, charitable organizations — things that larger corporations such as Amazon don’t care anything at all about.”
For Franklin Abbott, the host of Outwrite’s “Last Tango” and an organizer of the Atlanta Queer Literary Fest, what happens now that Outwrite is gone is anyone’s guess.
The fest is “in hibernation” due to lack of interest, Abbott said, but organizers will continue to work with the popular Decatur Book Festival to ensure LGBTQ authors are present and will also continue to partner with Charis, Bound to Be Read Books and the Georgia Center for the Book.
“But this will in no way fill the void left by Outwrite’s demise,” Abbott said.
“While Outwrite enjoyed a loyal following, most of the community was cavalier about shopping there. Many younger people did not grow up during times when safe space for queers was rare and a bookstore reading by an LBGTQ author was even rarer,” he added.
“I hope we can find a way to commemorate Outwrite. I’d love to see a plaque or historical marker at 10th and Piedmont marking our history. Once upon a time we were there and we were fabulous.”