In 1967, gay rights activist Craig Rodwell had a vision for a place that would serve not only as a bookstore but also as a space for community gatherings and activism. As a volunteer for the New York chapter of the Mattachine Society, a political group advocating for gay rights, Rodwell believed that the group spent too much time indoors and lacked public engagement. Despite the Society’s rejection of his idea, Rodwell remained undeterred and took matters into his own hands. At the age of 26, he gathered all of his meager savings and boldly rented a prominent storefront on Mercer Street near Waverly Place, naming it the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop.
Choosing a name that would capture the store’s purpose, Rodwell honored Oscar Wilde, a renowned gay figure whose gross indecency trial made him a “pseudo-martyr” within the LGBTQ+ community. The bookstore’s shelves were stocked with books and periodicals that portrayed gay and lesbian issues in a positive light, consciously avoiding pornography. For Rodwell, the bookstore was more than just a commercial venture; it was intended to serve as a community bulletin board, clearing house for law reform advocacy, and a platform for gay-themed writers to showcase their work.
Although the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop is often considered the first gay and lesbian bookstore in the United States, that distinction actually goes to the Adonis Bookstore in San Francisco, which opened a few months earlier. However, Adonis eventually transformed into an adult bookstore, leaving Oscar Wilde as the first long-term establishment of its kind in the country.
The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop truly fulfilled its role as a community organizing hub for the gay liberation movement, and much of its success can be attributed to Rodwell himself. Despite not directly participating in the Stonewall protests in 1969, his swift action in alerting major newspapers to the unfolding events played a crucial role. As a consequence, the riots received substantial local and national media coverage, bringing attention to the challenges confronted by the LGBTQ+ community.
Following the riots, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop became a central hub and community center for the gay population in Greenwich Village. Its cramped back room served as a meeting space for Rodwell and his dedicated staff, who tirelessly worked to affect change. The influence of the bookshop extended beyond its physical walls. Rodwell inspired the establishment of gay bookstores across the country and contributed to the formulation of strategies against police brutality. Additionally, in 1970, the first gay pride parade was organized within the bookshop, solidifying its status as a landmark in the Gay Liberation Movement.
In 1973, Rodwell expanded his venture by opening a second store on Christopher Street, a central location within New York City’s gay scene. While he kept the Mercer Street store open for sentimental reasons, it eventually closed its doors in May 1974.
In 1993, Rodwell made the difficult decision to sell the shop, passing away from cancer later that same year. Ownership changed hands a few times until control was handed over to Kim Brinster, the shop’s long-time manager, in 2006. In June of 2008, Village Preservation chose the bookstore to receive one of its annual “Village Awards” in the hopes of buttressing its chances of survival. However, Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop was forced to close in 2009 due to pressures from the 2008 financial crisis and the growing prominence of online book sales.
Craig Rodwell’s determination and vision paved the way for the establishment of a welcoming and affirming space for the LGBTQ+ community. The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop not only provided access to literature and resources but also fostered a sense of unity, pride, and empowerment. It became a symbol of progress and a testament to the enduring spirit of the early gay rights movement.