In 1977, Tom M. Horner, a former Episcopal priest, had two things on his mind—finishing his book on homosexuality in the Bible, and opening a gay & lesbian-themed bookstore. By 1978, Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times was published by the Westminster Press and Horner signed a lease on a space for a bookstore at the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres Streets in New Orleans.
Horner opened FM Books (Faubourg Marigny Books) with less than a hundred titles. At the time, the gay publishing industry was in its infancy. Ten years earlier, gay activist Craig Rodwell had opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in Greenwich Village, but it wasn’t until after Stonewall that gay-themed presses and bookstores began to proliferate in order to accommodate the growing number of gay titles. Glad Day opened in Toronto in 1970, followed by Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia in 1973 and Lambda Rising in Washington, DC, in 1974. Then came other, legendary gay bookstores such as People Like Us in Chicago and the Walt Whitman Bookstore in San Francisco. Glad Day became a chain, as did Lambda Rising and A Different Light. By 1994, there were forty-five gay and lesbian-themed bookstores across the nation. Of these, only a few remain today.
Horner ran FM Books for ten years before retiring to California. Well-known New Orleans gay activist Alan Robinson then took over the store and ran it for the next sixteen years. Robinson had demonstrated an acute political consciousness as an anthropology student at the University of Illinois and became active in the local gay rights scene after he moved to New Orleans in 1975.
For a while, Robinson worked at the Gay Service Center (a short-lived community outreach effort) before co-founding the Gertrude Stein Society with Bill Rushton and Ann Gallmeyer. The Gertrude Stein Society succeeded in assembling a mailing list, publishing a newsletter (Gertrude’s Notes), and hosting a variety of social and political events, perhaps the most amazing of which was New Orleans’ first gay TV talk show—Gertrude Stein Presents. In one memorable episode, Rushton interviewed Christine Jorgensen, whose sex reassignment operation in 1951 had shocked the world.
At the bookstore, Robinson brought in more titles and hired a staff. He also began hosting signings for gay and lesbian authors visiting New Orleans. Johnny Townsend (author of Let the Faggots Burn, a book about the Upstairs Lounge fire), who worked part-time at the store in the late 1990s, recalls:
“I remember Patricia Nell Warren, and Barbara Peabody (who wrote The Screaming Room, an AIDS memoir), and Vito Russo of The Celluloid Closet, and Aaron Lawrence (who wrote two books about escorting). I read my one solitary porn story, set in the bookstore and published in Indulge, at a reading while wearing my leather. Alan always had plenty of refreshments for all his signings, though I doubt he made very much money from any of them.”
In addition to promoting queer authors, Robinson also founded, along with Uptown bookseller Mark Zumpe, the New Orleans/Gulf South Booksellers Association.
By the early 2000s, Robinson was not in the best of health and moved to Texas to be with his family. In 2003, M. K. Wegmann, the owner of the building which housed FM Books, approached Otis Fennell and asked him to help her find someone willing to run the store. Fennell took over the lease in July of 2003.
Fennell changed the name of the store to FAB: Faubourg Marigny Art and Books. In addition to bringing in art, he also began stocking books about New Orleans and creating window displays. When he took over the store, Fennell had no experience in bookselling. “I had no experience, but I wanted to save the institution. Six months later I asked myself what the fuck have I done?”
Fennell came to the store with a business background having earned an M.B.A. at L.S.U. and having served as the Director of Research for the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce in the 1970s.
Fennell has a keen sense of history, and preserving LGBT+ culture is extremely important to him. Part of that impulse to keep our heritage alive is an awareness of the role the bookstore had played in its forty-plus year history. Before the internet transformed the way everyone lives, gay bookstores functioned as spaces that fostered community-building and served as an alternative to bars and porn shops.
Suzanna Danuta Walters, writing about coming out in Philadelphia in the 1970s, says of patronizing gay and lesbian bookstores, “Perhaps we were ‘buying gay,’ but I think the patronage of those bookstores felt more like ‘being gay’ in a world in which the spaces for that openness were severely limited.”
Times have changed a lot since then. As queerness, in all its forms, has become more mainstream, the nature of gay spaces has changed as well. This is perhaps most evident in gay bars, but it is also true in gay bookstores.
Last year, Fennell sold the bookstore to his long-time friend, David Zalkind. Zalkind, who is straight, has renovated the store and expanded its inventory while still maintaining an LGBT+ section. He has long been an ally to the LGBT+ community.
Some have questioned if the bookstore should still be considered “gay.” It’s an interesting question, and like any good question, it raises more questions than answers: What makes a space “gay”? The business owner’s orientation? The inventory? The patrons? Does such categorization even matter? And more broadly, has increased social acceptance of homosexuality diminished queer spaces by rendering them no longer relevant or necessary?