2009 sounded a death knell for part of New York City’s queer scene: the closure of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop marked (at the time) the end of NYC’s first and last LGBT bookstore. In a city that still sees its fair share of hate-based violence, and where safe spaces are fleeting, the loss came as a tremendous blow to queer readers near and far. Cue the entrance of the Bureau of General Services, Queer Division in 2012, a queer cultural center and bookstore that has become a new hub of queer life in Manhattan.
For store-owners, partners, and certified cuties Greg Newton and Donnie Jochum, the decision to start their own queer bookstore came as almost an imperative. While visiting Three Lives and Company, an LGBT-friendly bookstore located in the West Village, the couple began to question why no specifically queer bookstores existed in Manhattan. After all, while most of the city’s bookstores contain at least one shelf devoted to “Gender Studies,” they typically lack the queer focus that encompasses all varieties of gender and sexual experience. At that moment, Newton said, they decided to give independent business a shot–but “with a bar,” he added with a grin.
While there’s no bar (yet) at the Lower East Side establishment, Newton is happy to give patrons a glass of water or mug of tea as they peruse the store’s wares. Replete with zines, pin-up magazines, sex guides, erotica, self-published books, comics, chapbooks, and more, the Bureau has plenty of books from the alternative press to accompany its shiny new copies of Sedgwick and Foucault. There’s certainly more to be found here than the Human Rights Campaign-sponsored, rainbow-splattered, monotonous dreck of mainstream gay and lesbian life; instead, dykes, bears, twinks, daddies, boys, queens, butches, and femmes pop from the store’s bookshelves, and sexy, local art peppers the walls.
As a community gallery, resource, and venue, the Bureau is a product of its clientele as much as the hard work of its plucky owners. Newton noted that the most important advice he received was to “say yes more than you say no,” and accordingly, he turns an attentive ear toward the desires and interests of his customers. Such community-driven stores are refreshing in the era of impersonal Amazon Prime orders, and it’s precisely this knack for listening that sets the Bureau apart. Providing space for patrons to meet, mingle, and (if they’re lucky) even collect a few phone numbers, the Bureau hosts events and social clubs that are, for the most part, organized by community members themselves.
This kind of community formation isn’t new to us queers: scholars Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner compellingly argued in the ‘90s that smut shops, bookstores, pornographic theaters, and even cruisey street corners create queer “counterpublics” that carve out safe spaces in an otherwise heterosexist culture. They’re the kind of communities that sustain queer life in phobic environments, especially those neighborhoods that have priced out the marginalized groups who can no longer afford to live in them (for example, the West Village). And when queer spaces disappear, whether through biased zoning laws or the closure of independent businesses, so too vanish the opportunities for fomenting change.
In this spirit, the store’s name also contributes to the feeling that one is not simply entering a bookstore, but a hub of queer operations. Inspired by bands like Joy Division and Culture Club, whose names evoke shadowy institutions with mysterious aims, Newton and Jochum intentionally decided to give the store a vague title, hoping that it would reflect the center’s protean form and ever-changing activities. And as the question of gay marriage continues to dominate political debates, the Bureau raises its own questions about legitimacy: its title declares that queers can and will create their own institutions, and not waste their time relying on the heterosexist systems that have historically sought to render them invisible. Above all, Newton aims to encourage “playful activism” that’s “sexy and fun.” It’s the kind of activism that groups like ACT UP and Gran Fury mobilized to make rapid change during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and which imagines different worlds that are friendlier to queer existence.
And in the age of the world’s Macklemores speaking for actual queers and HRC geeks supporting the flavors of lesbian and gay (and never bisexual and/or trans*) existence that are, for the most part, located within the very heterosexist institutions that queers found so stifling in the first place, the need for spaces like the Bureau is increasingly pressing. It’s not just that queer locales help us meet new friends (platonic or otherwise); they also present opportunities for new kinds of intimacies, for bold new political formations, and for the nourishing relationships between queer folks and their friends that, quite simply, give us queers the resources necessary for survival. Otherwise, we’re doomed to corporate-sponsored gender and sexual configurations, endlessly affixing “Equality” stickers to our various electronic devices. If we want an alternative, we need hubs like the Bureau–and it needs us to keep making our rebellious zines and fag rags.
So if you’re looking to avoid the sterility (and high prices) of the NYU Bookstore and support a local business, try buying some of your books at the Bureau this semester. Better yet, snag a piece of art to jazz up your dorm room. Buying from independent businesses–surprise!–supports the communities around you, and keeps New York City a vibrant, accessible place for all folks. Plus, it will help the Bureau continue to grow; Newton says that he and Jochum hope to add a café to the store, as well as a library or book exchange service. But for now, the Bureau remains a vibrant center for culture, arts, and activism on the Lower East Side–and it’s exactly what we need to start envisioning radically different futures.