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Wilde Times

The huge legacy of a small bookshop.

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One of the subtler pleasures of the movie Milk is its vivid portrayal of those small rooms where the conspirators of the gay liberation movement first came together. Sadly, one of those sanctums, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, announced it was closing last week, after 42 years.

As it happens, the place has a direct link to the film: Its founder, Craig Rodwell, was an early boyfriend of Harvey Milk, at the time a closeted actuary in Brooks Brothers drag. They met cruising on Central Park West and parted after Rodwell, uninterested in monogamy, passed along a case of the clap. By far the more militant of the two, Rodwell had arrived as a teenager, from Chicago, to study ballet, but was distracted by sex and the dawn of “the homophile movement” in the early sixties. In 1967, two years before the Stonewall riots, when most gay activists still used fake names to avoid arrest, he took his savings from cleaning Fire Island hotel rooms and opened the nation’s first gay bookstore.

Not that there were many gay books then. The real action was in the cramped back room, where Craig and his staff—he hired men and women in equal numbers—plotted a better future. The city’s first gay-pride march was planned there. Strategies for getting the Mafia out of gay bars or confronting police brutality were discussed. When I found my way out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1979, as a teenager, I longed to be in that conversation and one day found the courage to ask Craig for a job. He let me run the register one Saturday a month. My sense of arrival was complete.

But my awe for the place never dimmed. I remember how it felt a few years later when copies of my first book lay in a pile on the floor there and Craig handed me a pen to sign them. Craig died in 1993 (cancer, of all things), a few months after selling the shop. It has gone through four owners since. Kim Brinster, the manager since 1996, bought it three years ago. Shoppers, who for years have consisted more of tourists than locals, disappeared in August. Last week, she told her staff, “I’ve never been the owner, I’m the caretaker. And unfortunately there’s nothing we can do now.” Oscar Wilde himself might have been more sanguine. As Lord Henry told Dorian Gray (in a slightly different context), “They spoil every romance by trying to make it last forever.”

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