Lambda Rising, gay bookstore and community center, closing

By Paul Schwartzman
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lambda Rising, the Dupont Circle bookshop that grew into a pillar of Washington's gay community since its opening more than three decades ago, is closing at the end of the month, its owner said Monday.

Deacon Maccubbin, Lambda Rising's founder, said that he has accomplished all he had intended when he opened the gay-oriented bookstore in 1974 and that "it's time to move on."

"I'll miss it, and I know a lot of people will miss it, but I'm also cognizant that we did a lot of things," said Maccubbin, 66. "Nothing lasts forever."

The shop's closing is the gay community's second significant loss in Washington in recent weeks. Last month, the Washington Blade, the 40-year-old weekly newspaper, closed after its parent company went bankrupt.

When Lambda Rising opened, no other retail business in Dupont Circle catered to gay people. Maccubbin said his goal was "to prove that there was a market for bookstores in the country to begin stocking gay and lesbian books. That part of the mission has been accomplished."

Lambda Rising also became a de facto community center, a place that was welcoming when mainstream establishments shunned the gay community, where gays and lesbians started up relationships, came out of the closet, or went shopping for jewelry, greeting cards, art and even condoms. In 1975, the shop sponsored the first Gay Pride Day, a block party that evolved into what is now known as Capital Pride, an annual citywide celebration that draws tens of thousands of revelers from across the region.

"I have lived in Dupont Circle for more than a quarter-century, and I've never known a Washington without Lambda Rising," said Rick Rosendall, vice president of political affairs for the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. "It will certainly be jarring without it."

Franklin Kameny, who is regarded as the father of Washington's gay rights movement, said the shop is the only place to get a wide variety of gay-oriented publications, even as general interest bookstores have sections devoted to gays. "But none have the scope and magnitude of the materials at Lambda Rising," he said, adding that his recent purchases included a book about gays in the military as well as "a quasi-pornographic magazine."

"I'd be astounded if I could get it at Barnes & Noble," Kameny said.

Before opening Lambda Rising, Maccubbin owned a shop that sold crafts and marijuana paraphernalia in Dupont Circle. When he asked for gay-oriented books at the public library, he recalled, he was told they were missing -- stolen by people who were anti-gay or lifted by closeted gays too ashamed to check them out. At a bookstore in the early 1970s, he recalled asking the proprietor, "Where do you keep your gay books?"

"He looked at me down his nose and said, 'We don't carry those kinds of books,' " Maccubbin said. "Their idea of gay books was porn."

With $3,000 of his own money and $1,000 borrowed from a friend, Maccubbin opened his bookshop in a small room in a townhouse on S Street NW. At first, he carried 250 titles. By 1977, Lambda Rising had outgrown its original store and moved to another address before relocating to 1625 Connecticut Ave., where it has been since 1984. Maccubbin owned the building and has sold it. The shop, which has 11 employees, stocks more than 20,000 titles.

His business was successful enough that he opened stores in Norfolk, Baltimore and Rehoboth, and for a time he took over the failing Oscar Wilde shop in New York City, which he said was the country's first gay bookshop. He sold the New York location after the business stabilized, closed the shops in Baltimore and Norfolk in the past couple of years, and is planning to close the Rehoboth location by the end of this month.

Although Dupont Circle is no longer the city's only gay hub, and many people shop online, Maccubbin said that business remains robust. But he also said independent booksellers continue to struggle, and "we would rather go out on a high note and on our terms. I did not want to see the services or the stock begin to dwindle."

Over the years, Maccubbin said, he has received offers for the shop, all of which he has rejected.

"This is my baby," he said. "I couldn't quite wrap my head around walking down Connecticut Avenue, seeing that logo and the business being run in a different way by other people. I want the legacy of Lambda Rising to live on in the memory of its customers, not fade into something different."

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