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Local Lesbian Bookstores: Founders of a Feminist Future

Historically, our neighborhoods have hosted many independent and unconventional bookstores. These small institutions have helped define the character of our neighborhoods as a literary capital of the Western world. With apartments as small as ours, these bookstores took on the role of collective public living rooms, acting as places of community gathering and organization. But, only a small percentage of them specifically served Feminist and lesbian interests, the most notable of which were Labyris Books and Djuna Books.

Advertisement for Labyris Books
Advertisement for Labyris Books, ca. 1975. Image provided courtesy of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.

The first feminist bookstore in New York City was Labyris Books. If this distinction was not enough, the bookstore actually coined the term “the Future is Female.” This literary outpost was founded by Marizel Rios and Jane Lurie, lesbian activists who previously founded the Fifth Street Women’s Center at 331 East 5th Street in the East Village. The bookstore operated at 33 Barrow Street from 1972 to 1977. During its short run, it served as a radical space for feminist discussion and was named for the double-sided ax wielded by Amazon warriors. The store acted as an emotionally supportive space for women-published, anti-sexist, and anti-racist literature, hosting frequent book talks and collaborations with the likes of Audre Lorde and the Women’s Liberation Center. The store’s slogan “the Future is Female” was inspired by the lesbian separatist movement, a radical version of feminism that encouraged women to reject heterosexuality and fully separate from social patriarchy. For frequent patron and artist Liza Cowan, lesbian separatism wasn’t a radical belief, but “a way to figure out what it meant to be a woman, without having to bother with men telling you what you could not say.” While Labyris Books was seen as a very exclusive enclave (it only admitted those brave enough to ring its doorbell and request entry), it inspired later feminist bookstores like Womanbooks on the Upper West Side, Women’s Works (later La Papaya) in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, and Djuna Books here in the West Village.

Alix Dobkin advertising for Labyris Books in a "the Future is Female" T-Shirt
Alix Dobkin advertising for Labyris Books in a “the Future is Female” T-Shirt. Photo by Liza Cowan, published in Dyke: A Quarterly, 1975.

Djuna Books acted as Labyris’ de-facto successor in the Village, opening in 1977 after Labyris had closed. The store was located in a storefront right across the street from Julius’ Bar at 154 West 10th Street and was named after Djuna Barnes, a Patchin Place resident whose 1936 novel Nightwood was the first piece of American literature to frankly discuss lesbian sexuality. Despite the bookstore’s cozy atmosphere and serving as a haven for women’s presses, it was well documented that the store’s namesake author (who did not herself identify as a lesbian) hated the establishment, calling it a “terrible little lesbian bookshop” and demanding the owners change the name. Nevertheless, owners Sue Perlgut and Shirly Walton-Fischler persisted, and the shop provided readings from well-known authors like Kate Millett and workshops on lesbian theater. Unlike Labyris, the store was completely open to the public but was less exclusively lesbian-focused in its Feminist message, branding themselves as “an alternative institution servicing the women’s community of New York City.” Djuna Books may have closed in 1982, but its legacy lives on. Three Lives & Company Bookstore’s main location is still located at 154 West 10th Street (albeit in a different space), and the establishment has carried queer literature for decades as well as donated portions of its proceeds to LGBTQIA+ social equity.

Three Lives & Company Storefront
Three Lives & Company Storefront at 154 West 10th Street, previously the home of Djuna Books. Photographed by James and Karla Murray photography.

These bookstores, although they existed for a relatively short period of time, are hugely important to the context of queer women’s history. Largely marginalized by the stories of their white and cisgender male counterparts, lesbian history is not well documented within the broader canon of queer heritage due to minimal documentation. According to historian Regina Kunzel’s 2018 article “The Power of Queer History” in the American Historical Review, “much of our historical knowledge of queer life and experience is dependent on the long history of police scrutiny and the criminalization of sexual and gender variance,” in which queer women were not necessarily recorded (Kunzel, 1567). While still heavily policed, lesbians were not arrested with the same ferocity that other queer individuals were, and, especially before the 1980s, women’s social roles prohibited them from having publicly-out lives like their gay male counterparts, leaving very little trace of their activities and influence within broader history. That is why historical places like lesbian bookstores, residences, restaurants, and other women-only gathering spaces are so important. They give us a glimpse into an otherwise hidden history and help us to correct our historical record to include their extraordinary lives and legacies.

For more information about other sites significant to LGBTQIA+ history in our neighborhoods, check out our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map, our LGBTQ Sites Tour on our Greenwich Village Historic District Map, and our LGBTQ Tour on our East Village Building Blocks website. To explore the more histories connected to local small businesses, see our Small Business, Big History Map.

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