Editor's Note: Philip Rafshoon is the founder, former president and general manager of Outwrite Bookstore and Coffeehouse in Atlanta. The LGBT bookstore closed last month.
By Philip Rafshoon, Special to CNN
On November 5, 1993, we were proud to open Outwrite, Atlanta’s gay and lesbian bookstore and coffeehouse. At the time, Atlanta was the largest city in the country that did not have a bookstore geared to the LGBT community. Fresh out of a 10-year stint in the computer industry, I was a Georgia Tech graduate and almost-native Atlantan who, with others, saw a need to have a space in this progressive southern city where our community could congregate, in the day as well as the night, in an environment that promoted literacy and the arts. Writings by, for, and about gay men and lesbians were exploding at the time and the opening of Outwrite was an instant success.
We started by guiding writers and hosting author events. Local, national and upcoming literary stars - such as Felice Picano, Nicola Griffith, Andrew Holleran, James Earl Hardy, Jim Grimsley, and E. Lynn Harris – all spoke in the early days. And we hosted an unprecedented 1500 person book signing for Olympic superstar Greg Louganis.
Less than three years later, three months before the 1996 Olympic games, we found a new location that was a much larger space. It was situated at a major intersection in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood that had traditionally been the center of our community, our own “gay ghetto.” The corner at Piedmont and Tenth was quiet, with a fenced-in used car rental store on one side and a boarded up disco on another. We converted the abandoned club, uncovering the windows and creating a wide open space for the neighborhood and our community. With a giant window featuring our rainbow logo and the big words ”gay and lesbian,” we became the most open LGBT landmark in the city and one of the most visible ones in the world.
The city’s and the neighborhood’s population exploded and the new location brought us wider recognition. We created weekly empowerment lunches where community leaders and activists could discuss and argue the important issues of the day over a cup of coffee, a sandwich, soup, and dessert. We partnered with and supported a broad spectrum of community organizations to raise awareness of their mission, events, and fundraisers. We became an essential stopping point for elected officials, and those seeking office, to connect with our community, learn about the issues that were important to us and gather our support.
We hosted events with the biggest names in literature such as Edmund White, David Leavitt, Pearl Cleage, Bret Easton Ellis, David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Armistead Maupin, Christopher Rice, Josh Kilmer-Turcell, Jackie Collins, Gregory Maguire and celebrities such as CNN's Don Lemon, Leslie Jordan, Tabatha Coffey, Meredith Baxter, Chaz Bono, Tammy Faye Baker, Lance Bass, Maureen McCormick, Carson Kressley, RuPaul, Roseanne Barr and Chelsea Handler.
But most of all, we were that big, prominent LGBT town square in a Southern city where everyone knew this was the destination place for information about our lives, organizations, and daily happenings of interest to all. When there were challenges in our community, such as the 1997 bombing of a lesbian bar, the Otherside Lounge, or there was a call for celebration, such as the end of the sodomy laws, Outwrite was the gathering place for our community.
Along the way, the world digitized and people began meeting and communicating online and with social media. Community spaces gradually seemed less critical to socializing as they were in the past. Amazon.com began dominating the retail world and bookstores around the country started to struggle. And, as in many of the LGBT communities around the country, our Midtown neighborhood gentrified. Many of the newcomers were not a part of the LGBT community.
As Outwrite became one of the last handful of LGBT bookstores in the country, people would travel from further distances to visit us and participate in the daily community experience.
In May of 2011 we let our community know about our own financial struggle brought on by long term economic conditions and changes in the book industry. It had finally made the rent at our location unaffordable and our future uncertain.
People rushed in, stepped up, volunteered, and offered incredible levels of support and ideas for new business models that bookstores and other community businesses around the country were adopting. Hundreds would come in weekly and tell us how important Outwrite was - and is. Many spoke of how the location was a symbol of strength and diversity in the city.
But it wasn’t enough. We had run out of time to turn the financial situation around. By the end of January we had to close Outwrite for good, putting 10 employees in our community out of jobs and leaving the most recognizable LGBT community landmark empty.
So where does that leave the LGBT community in Atlanta and how will it affect our place in this city’s future?
For now, we will not have that one centrally located place that an LGBT newcomer to the city knows where to visit. We will not have that visible spot where someone coming out can go to to find an ear, a helping hand or that one-on-one conversation about where to go, what to do, and where to go for help and services. There will not be a one-stop shop for great and unique author, community and celebrity events in such a high profile and highly trafficked location. And our regulars who came in on a daily basis will not have that central place to go that was part of their daily routine.
Some say that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As gays have gained more acceptance, there is no need for gay neighborhoods or businesses. We are free to be out anywhere we like and don’t need to live in, or even visit, a gay neighborhood.
That’s true for some, but not for all. For each person who is comfortable being out and proud, there is still at least one person who is not comfortable. All of our booksellers in the past nine months heard daily from people who still strongly desire the gay community experience and need it more than just during Gay Pride each year.
Other minority communities such as African-American, Jewish, and other ethnic communities have their own neighborhoods, institutions and their own visible landmarks, most notably churches, temples, mosques and synagogues, but also, shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs. While these groups are able to fit into more places than ever, there will always be the need for these neighborhoods and landmarks around the world, places to go for support, fellowship, and celebration. The same will always be true for the LGBT community.
Some of our largest LGBT cities around the world including New York, San Francisco, and Los Angles have lost their LGBT bookstores. It makes it more challenging for the gay literary community to connect. But these cities have strong and visible LGBT community centers, where organizations can meet and residents and visitors can come in on a regular basis.
In Atlanta, the Phillip Rush Center has begun that role. Named after a good friend and strong community organizer, it is the home to vital community organizations and provides meeting space to groups on a regular basis. It needs our support so that it can grow into one of the strongest community centers in the world. It needs our funding to ensure that it can own its own building and be visible and strong right in the center of our city
Already, other LGBT businesses and organizations are preparing to step up to fill the void left by the closing of Outwrite. Our community must learn the value of supporting our own LGBT resources. Money spent in our own LGBT businesses goes right back into our community. That isn’t the case with online retailers and national chain stores.
Around the country, many independent bookstores are beginning to do well again as large chains lose out to online retailers. Those communities understand the importance and the strength that shopping local and shopping independent bring to their communities.
While there may not be such a prominent LGBT landmark at Piedmont and Tenth any longer, we can strive to make sure that the changes made by having Outwrite there for so long will be sustained. By supporting our own businesses and organizations first we can help maintain a cohesive, flourishing community.
And, sooner or later, a stronger, bigger, and even longer-lasting LGBT landmark will emerge.
The opinions expressed are soley those of Philip Rafshoon.
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Failed because the owner did not adjust his business model to the times.
Two miles away is the 4th largest GLBT business in the United States – what could be the difference?
@Jim: Must be easy to sit on the sidelines and take pot shots? Since you are apparently a consumate expert in analyzing this business situation, and apparently you have all the answers, why don't you get off your butt and open the replacement to Outwrite? Put your money where your mouth is.
Phillip, thank you for all you did for Midtown over these last 19 years! You are a true role model, you had the vision to create an awesome landmark, that the entire community has been able to benefit from! Few have the vision, strength, and motivation to make something like this come to reality. And even fewer could have made it work for 19 years! Not an easy task. Wish you tons of success as you move forward. Ignore the haters.
It's a criminal offense to not pay your taxes. No matter how many lovely things Philip did, he did not pay his taxes ... and I suspect he'll pay a very dear price for more than $200,000 in back taxes. They cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.
Yes, Another Jim, a criminal is a true role model. There's no other way to accurately describe the situation.
@JIm You must have been the hall monitor in High School. What a true visionary.
What is the difference? Are you serious? The difference, Jim, is that Philip actually gave back to the community.
Paul, what logic convinces you that Phillip actually gave anything back to the community? Is it when he was soliciting "donations" to keep is business open after he had already filed for bankruptcy? Is it when he didn't pay hundreds of creditors, including many local businesses and authors, $508,000 while using the "donations" to enrich himself? Is it when his actions caused his employees to lose their jobs and health insurance? Saint Phillip wasn't the community leader he pretended to be.
Ah, I believe the IRS and the city of Atlanta will classify Philip as a criminal soon enough. So much for giving back...
Paul, you are clueless. Another LGBT business in Atlanta has given 10 times what Philip ever tried to, in cash and in donations, and there are others who run SUCCESSFUL businesses that give as much if not more. They're just not gloryhounds who have to scream to the rooftops on Facebook and Constant Contact every little thing they do. And they EARN their awards...
Four years before Outwrite opened its doors, Brushstrokes was serving the LGBT community of Atlanta. Before that, Charis books was Atlanta's feminist bookstore. While Outwrite grabbed much of the spotlight, other gay and lesbian retailers were also serving their customers, greeting newcomers, and referring visitors to the great variety of hotels, restaurants, retail stores, bars, nightclubs, and support organizations throughout the Atlanta area. While Outwrite may have been one of the most visible icons of Atlanta, Brushstrokes has been and continues to be the most successful gay-owned retail business in Atlanta. Tonight, Brushstrokes and its owners were recognized by the readers of David Magazine as the Best of Atlanta for gay retail. More importantly, Atlanta's LGBT community can be proud that they have a responsible, conscientious gay-owned business that can adapt to the changing tastes of its customers, pay its bills, pay its taxes, and not feel it has to constantly blow its own horn.
The same readers also voted Outwrite best bookstore. Although Brushstrokes is a successful retail business, it is not a bookstore and does not provide the same benefits to the community as a bookstore. You cannot take your parents or children to Brushstrokes for coffee or lunch. You cannot have a book club meeting at Brushstrokes. The Atlanta Police Department LGB liaisons cannot have a open meeting with the community at Brushstrokes. RuPaul cannot sign his new book at Brushstrokes. Outwrite was a responsible, conscientious gay-owned business. It will be greatly missed.
Obviously, providing a meeting space was a luxury this store could not afford. That's really the function of a nonprofit organization and not a for-profit bookstore.
Outwrite is simply a failed business and owes huge amounts of back taxes for withholding not paid. Bad business practice.
they will get government funding to support their small minority boo hoo'ing
No tooly they did not.
John, I have several thigns to address! First, I love you. But you should know this already. Second, you look medieval with your hood on lol. idk why XD. Third, I missed your video where you won an award (I just watched it) and I'm so happy for you! Fourth, idk if you've ever seen this show called Being Human, but you remind me of the guy that plays George lol. #Random. I think I covered everything lol
Judging by the ignorant comments above, Atlanta still needs a safe gathering place for the LGBT community. Some of these commentators probably have never stepped foot in a bookstore, let alone read anything beside the garbage on fox or drudge. Good luck to Mr. Rafsoon.
yah, good point......thats whyy they are on a CNN article!!!!!!!! some people are just tired of this ho mo stuff being the major problem..............when the usa is starting a new war everyday. oh, but boo hoo, the ho mo is sad about something, boo hoo
Aww how cute English is your 2nd language. Keep trying angry!
@freedomdem The article is here to provide ignorant, bigoted people like you with a chance to show that you are clueless. Go back to yoiur trailer in Arkansas please.
Good riddance. Neo-Liberal Trash
So is CNN now allowing private businesses to explain why they closed for business?
Low percentages makes it difficult. LGBT is said to be around 10-15% of the population. And I really don't see it growing to be a majority. Also the population is rather diverse. Unlike Race and Religion where People when they meet up and have children and raise them to be a Religion or are genetically a race. There is no evidence you to raise a child to be Gay or not Gay, So it would be logical to expect such a population is fairly well spread out threw the population. Allowing communities to be formed only after they reach an age of maturity and then they will decide wither to commune together or stay with other communities that they may relate to (their Race, Creed, Religion...). This makes business targeted toward LGBT very difficult. And book stores that are having a hard time even for the general population is only exasperated when focused on a particular group of people.
blacks have their own communities with black bars and barber shops and all kinds of thins. store geared specifically towards them. middle eastern ppl have their own communities and restaurants and mosques. white ppl have the same. aint nothing wrong with the lgbt community wanting a place to hang out with like minded ppl, ppl who understand what were going thru. bunch of a holes yall are. just a writer trlling his story and u ppl jump. try living ten minutes in his shoes . see how it feels to be kicked down, called nasty slurs and humilitaed by ppl who don't even know u. we don't wany to be segregated, we just want a place to call home.
Say you B A S T A R D stop comparing skin color and ethnicity to a perverted behavior Im tired of you white B A S T R D S comparing black skin with being a F A G G O T. They are not synonomous find another strategy.
N IGGER N IGGER N IGGER
Don't let the door hit you in the .....oh, wait. Well, whatever floats your boat.
So...10 gays and lesbians lost their jobs...and you're preaching this to about 14 million "straight, black and white men" (specifically) who lost their jobs since 2008 ??? Wow...are we stuck in our own minds !
Those 10 gays and lesbians are related to the GNN, thats why.
It's not about the jobs so much but the importance of community. Reading comprehension not your strong point, eh?
Explain "Gay Literary"/ Does that mean gays and lesbians who can read, specifically because they are gay ?
For such groups to want equality (same same) , you sure want a different of everything...
For someone who shows no concern for the LGBT community, you've been quite active posting messages here. As Hamlet said of his mother, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."
CNN=GNN=Gay News Network
Did you think that up all by yourself? Lemme guess, you're the family's best hope for high school graduation, right?
Your family has no hope that any of you will graduate.
The online book trade has put many other bookstores out of business. I'm sure they'd be able to sell their books online too (plenty of repressed Christian hypocrits who'd buy it).
Why hasn't the bookstore owner sued the community? Isn't that how it works?
The "community" are Broke.
For a group of people that demand to be treated faily and equally you seem to go to great lengths to keep your self seperate(don't get to have it both ways).
Perhaps the reason they're having trouble keeping it open is that many businesses that cater mainly to one small segment of the population often fail because of a lack of appealing to a greater audience. Once the new car smells wears off you have to find ways to keep attracting new customers.
Could be a lack of slection books, not everyone wants thier entire library to consist of LGBT selfhelp books and others that appeal only to a certain audience.
EXACTLY....THEIR CRYING BECAUSE THE MAJORITY DOES NOT CARE ABOUT THESE SELECTIONS...C'MON MAN.....PEOPLE GO OUT OF BUSINESS EVERY DAY BECAUSE NO ONE "CARED" TO KEEP THEM OPEN!
DC doesn't have one either. Lambda Rising closed in 2010. Don't know what the secret is to keeping such establishments open. Maybe a cafe/bookstore where people could gather would do better. It's sad. I remember being a closeted kid trying to work up the nerve to go into that store for the first time. I did and over time, met lots of other people for whom stepping over the threshold of a gay bookstore was the first step towards coming out.