L. Page "Deacon" Maccubbin visited Oscar Wilde Bookshop -- which calls itself the world's first gay bookstore -- in New York in 1972 and returned home thinking that Washington should have just such a place. Two years later he opened Lambda Rising.
But, he says, he never imagined that he would someday own a string of gay bookstores and that the crown jewel would be the source of his inspiration: Oscar Wilde.
He bought the struggling New York shop in February. He is hoping, he says, to break even.
In blue button-down shirt and khakis, the bearded, bespectacled Maccubbin says that the chain of bookstores "was not created with profit as its motive. It was created as a mission," he says. And, for the record, he refers to his mini-empire of stores as a bracelet. "It's too small to be a chain."
The bracelet is expanding.
Strange, in a society where homosexuality and lesbianism have become so TV-sitcom commonplace and Barnes & Noble stores stock shelves and shelves with gay and lesbian literature and people of all stripes are reading less and less, that a chain of gay and lesbian bookstores is prospering.
Walk into Maccubbin's flagship store at 1625 Connecticut Ave. NW -- and the first thing you notice is: It's busy. The second thing: You're not sure that you're really in a bookstore. A display table at the front door offers soaps and lotions with names like Ultra Slut Body Detergent and All Temperature Queer, which promises to make the user "out of the closet clean." There's a vast array of lotions and lubricants on the wall behind the checkout counter and hooks and hooks of condoms for sale.
On shelves overhead, T-shirts with slogans such as "I'm Not Gay, but My Boyfriend Is," and "Porn Again" are for sale.
When told that the front of the store looks like a sex shop, Maccubbin is surprised. "I'll have to look at it from that point of view," he says.
There are books, shelves and shelves, under subject headings like "Lesbian Erotica," "Coming Out/Children/Young Adults" and "Relationships."
In the Transgender section, you'll find "How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States" by Joanne Meyerowitz and "The Lazy Crossdresser" by Charles Anders.
On this day, lots of customers thumb through the volumes while a videotape of Ani DiFranco plays on a monitor against the wall.
Half of Maccubbin's business comes from sidelines, such as videos, music, candles and all sorts of rainbow-colored tchotchkes -- banners, boas, Beanie Babies.
Maccubbin says there are several reasons for his success. His store supports the gay community and the members of that community, in turn, support his store. He offers books customers can't find in mainstream bookstores. Staff members know the literature. And, for many, the bookstore "is a part of their coming-out trip," Maccubbin says.
He takes a break and recalls his own trip.
He was born in 1943 in Norfolk. His father worked in a print shop; his mother stayed at home with Maccubbin and his older sister. "We were a tight, close-knit family," he says.
After dropping out of the University of Virginia, Maccubbin joined the National Guard and took various jobs. Through the Unitarian Church, he became interested in the antiwar movement. Putting on his uniform, he says, "I began feeling hypocritical."
When he told the guard he wasn't going to any more meetings, he was called to active service. He burned his orders at a demonstration in Norfolk in November 1968. He was arrested and sent to Fort Belvoir to serve time.
While there, he became an ordained minister through a mail-order diploma. He posted the ordination on his locker and people began calling him Deacon.
He also asked to see a psychiatrist. "I told them I was gay," he recalls. "They said I was just trying to get out of service. Yes, I said. But I am gay."
He received an undesirable discharge and moved to Washington.
To hear Maccubbin tell his story is to trace through a man the fringe history of Washington. The capital's gay community in the early 1970s was small and welcoming. Maccubbin worked at various counterculture enterprises, including the Free University -- which offered classes for free -- and D.C. Switchboard, a volunteer-run crisis hot line. He sold underground newspapers and comic books on the streets of Georgetown. He worked in the mailroom of the Public Interest Research Group. "I was a Nader Raider aider," he says.
He bought a failing craft store for $100 and turned it into an upscale head shop, specializing in expensive pipes and paraphernalia. He called his shop Earthworks.
In 1974, using $3,000 of his own money and $1,000 from somebody else, he opened Lambda Rising on a little side street at 1724 20th St. NW.
The first ads trumpeted 250 titles. At the time, Maccubbin says, that's about all there were. "The vast majority were fiction," he says. Gore Vidal and James Baldwin.
He remembers one pivotal nonfiction book: "Society and the Healthy Homosexual" by George Weinberg.
Opening a gay bookstore was important, Maccubbin says, because at the time most book shops didn't carry gay literature. Libraries stocked the books, but people didn't check them out -- they stole them.
In the early days, Lambda Rising received bomb threats and window-smashing bricks. But Maccubbin stayed the course. In 1977, the store moved to larger quarters on S Street. "That was a real retail space," Maccubbin says, "with big windows." Some customers wanted to know if Maccubbin was going to hang curtains or paint over the windows. He did neither.
In the 1980s, gay literature blossomed. And so did Lambda Rising's business. In 1984, the store moved to where it is today. From side street to main street, Maccubbin likes to say. Today his store carries tens of thousands of titles.
There are also Lambda Rising branches in Baltimore, Rehoboth Beach and in Maccubbin's home town -- Norfolk.
"I never dreamed that at some point I might own Oscar Wilde," he says.
The address, he points out, is at Christopher and Gay streets. "Isn't that appropriate?"
He answers the phone while sitting at his desk in a small, one-window room on the second floor of the store. He is surrounded by 19th-century bronze statues of naked men and mythical creatures. He collects them and old medals featuring naked men. And he's working on a history of skinny-dipping. Naked bathers hang on his office wall.
He points to a copperplate engraving from 1593. Native Americans are being torn apart by wild dogs as Spanish explorers look on. The Native Americans, Maccubbin explains, were accused of sodomy. "It is," he says, "the oldest known picture of gay people in the New World."
Just a block up the street from Lambda Rising, Maccubbin lives on the fourth floor of a building where he is president of the condo board.
"Hon, we're home!" he calls to his husband, Jim Bennett, 46, as he steps into the hallway and is again surrounded by naked statues and prints.
"We've been together for 25 years," Maccubbin says. "Married for 21."
Bennett, a blond-haired, quick-to-laugh sales representative for a home decor company, used to work at Lambda Rising. After 20 years or so, he wanted to get out of retail.
Today he is working from the apartment. He is also planning Maccubbin's 60th birthday party. A few friends from faraway places are coming into Washington for dinners at the condo and at La Tomate down the street, a brunch at the Tabard Inn and a late-night limousine tour of the city, with special emphasis on the many places where Maccubbin has gotten arrested over the years.
"We're having veal medallions," Bennett says, "and caramelized apples."
The men share the apartment with two cats, Xena and Montana, lots of compact discs, old medallions, bronze statues and books of engravings. "I collect first-edition and autographed gay books," Maccubbin says.
He points out a long, slender, blue-and-white Delft pipe from the Earthworks days.
On the way out of the apartment he stops to show off a print on the wall near the front door. It is from an early 20th-century Liberty magazine and it shows a very young boy applying makeup in front of his sister's vanity. Below the picture, a headline -- that Maccubbin believes is totally unrelated to the cover -- reads: "Beginning: The Heartbreak of a Queen."
Back then, he says, people probably didn't see the humor.
Most people don't look at Washington in the same ways Maccubbin does.
He points across Lafayette Square to the White House, where he was arrested just outside the fence during the first Reagan administration, he says. He and other gay activists were trying to force the president to focus. "He was in his third year in office," Maccubbin says, "and he still had not uttered the word AIDS."
He says, "Sixty-five of us agreed to be arrested at a sit-in on Pennsylvania Avenue."
Concerned for their own safety, police donned yellow rubber gloves to handle the protesters. This resulted, Maccubbin says, "in the gayest chant I've ever heard":
They'll see it on the nightly news
Your yellow gloves don't match your shoes.
The second time he was arrested at the White House, Clinton was the president. Maccubbin and a small group of others protested the Defense of Marriage Act, which states that the federal government does not recognize gay and lesbian marriages. "Unfortunately," he says, "Clinton signed it."
In the patrol wagon, the gay protesters sang "Get Me to the Church on Time."
One of the policemen turned and said this was the first time he'd ever taken people to jail who were serenading him with show tunes.
Lafayette Square, Maccubbin explains, is a meaningful spot for many gay Americans. He gestures toward the southeast corner and a statue honoring the compatriots of Gen. Lafayette. At the base, he says, is a sculpture of Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens. "They were lovers," Maccubbin says. "And if you look, you'll see they are holding hands."
According to National Park Service regional historian Gary Scott, he's wrong about the identities of the men. "They are Lafayette's lieutenants -- Comte de Rochambeau and Chevalier du Portail," Scott says. "The handshake embrace is probably Masonic."
When told of this later, Maccubbin says, "I've been telling people that's Hamilton and Laurens for 30 years," he says. "If I'm wrong, I'm going to be embarrassed."
So, was Alexander Hamilton gay? Historian Richard Brookhiser says not -- in the 18th century, Brookhiser says, men made a big deal of expressing emotions to show how sensitive they were. "It was a rhetorical habit of the time."
Looking out on Lafayette Square, Maccubbin also points to a sculpture of Baron Wilhelm von Steuben, whom Maccubbin says was also gay.
"I'm trying to make up my mind about Baron von Steuben," Brookhiser says.
The city, in Maccubbin's eyes, is a wellspring of gayness. He alludes to the Boy Scout memorial that depicts a young uniformed Scout standing in front of a naked man and a robed woman. The man has his hand on the young boy's shoulder. "What's that about?" he asks.
And "Walt Whitman strode these streets."
Walk the streets with Maccubbin and you see that he's right at home. The city, he says, has a rich and variegated gay history. Especially if you see the world through his eyes. Some of the first gay demonstrations in the United States were here, he says. And he recalls the first gay TV ad to run on local stations.
It was, says Deacon Maccubbin, a commercial for Lambda Rising.