Lambda Rising to close in early January
Lambda Rising, known for 35 years as Washington’s “bookstore that celebrates the gay and lesbian experience,” has announced the imminent closing of their two stores in Washington DC and Rehoboth Beach DE.
“The phrase ‘mission accomplished’ has gotten a bad rap in recent years,” said Deacon Maccubbin, Lambda Rising’s founder and co-owner, “but in this case, it certainly applies. When we set out to establish Lambda Rising in 1974, it was intended as a demonstration of the demand for gay and lesbian literature.”
Maccubbin explains that it was virtually impossible to find gay books in general bookstores or even in libraries. “We thought if we could show that there was a demand for our literature, that bookstores could be profitable selling it, we could encourage the writing and publishing of glbt books, and sooner or later other bookstores would put those books on their own shelves and there would no be less need for a specifically gay and lesbian bookstore.”
“Today 35 years later, nearly every general bookstore carries glbt books, often featuring them in special sections,” Maccubbin noted.
“The other part of our mission was to make good glbt books and information available to anyone anywhere at a time when such items were very hard to find. Today, people almost anywhere can access glbt information on the internet.”
Maccubbin founded Lambda Rising on a shoestring – the initial investment consisted of $3,000 he had saved and another $1,000 borrowed from a local gay activist. When the store opened June 8, 1974 in a 300 square foot room in a townhouse on 20th Street NW, it boasted 250 gay and lesbian book titles. “That’s all there were at the time,” Maccubbin explains.
But it was enough to capture the attention and the loyal patronage of Washington’s glbt community. It also captured the attention of anti-gay forces – phone harassment was an almost daily occurrence, bricks were hurled through windows, and police had to bring their bomb-sniffing dogs following some threats. But the staff held their ground and kept the doors open seven days a week. “Over the years, we have been blessed with wonderful staff members, people who shared the vision and who were committed to being on the front lines of the battle for glbt equality every day. I will forever be grateful to them,” Maccubbin said.
There were challenges outside the store, too. Some publications, including the Washington Post and the Yellow Pages (then published by Verizon’s predecessor, Bell Atlantic) refused to accept advertising containing the words “gay” or “lesbian” until Maccubbin threatened boycotts and public campaigns. Lambda Rising even broke international ground when, in February, 1975, it ran the first gay-oriented television commercials ever aired anywhere in the world. Both the NBC and ABC affiliate stations in Washington first refused to accept the ads, but following a successful appeal to the National Association of Broadcasters’ Standards Office, both stations recanted and aired the commercials.
Other milestones followed: in June, 1975, Lambda Rising hosted the first annual Gay Pride Day, drawing over 2,000 people to a block party that was the precursor to today’s massive DC Pride Day. “We hosted it for the first five years,” Maccubbin said, “but when the crowd grew to 10,000 in 1979, it was too large for the 3-block space we had, so we turned the whole thing over to a non-profit foundation to run in subsequent years.” That event now attracts more than 200,000 participants each year.
In 1977, having outgrown the original 20th Street space, Lambda Rising moved around the corner to 2012 S Street NW (now the site of TD Bank). That same year, the store launched a national mail order service with a catalog that eventually reached a quarterly circulation of a quarter million copies.
By 1984, the store had once again outgrown its space. In November of that year, Maccubbin and his husband, Jim Bennett, who had begun managing the store, moved it to its present home, a nearly-5,000 square foot two-story building at 1625 Connecticut Avenue. The Mayor declared that opening day “Lambda Rising Day in the District of Columbia” and more than 200 people waited in line for the door to open on the new space. That same weekend, Maccubbin and Bennett opened their first satellite bookstore in Baltimore MD.
Other stores were to follow in Rehoboth Beach DE (1993) and Norfolk VA (1996) and, in 2003, Maccubbin stepped in to buy New York’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop, saving it from imminent closure. Oscar Wilde was the first gay bookstore in the world when it opened in 1967. It had been the inspiration for Lambda Rising and other glbt bookstores. Maccubbin spent three years building up Oscar Wilde’s stock and customer base, then sold the store to its manager to put the store back in the hands of a New Yorker. Unfortunately, the financial crisis proved to be more than the small store could weather and the new owner had to close that store earlier this year. (Lambda Rising’s Norfolk store closed in 2007 and the Baltimore store closed last year.)
In another effort to encourage writers and publishers to produce quality glbt books, in 1987 Maccubbin began publishing the “Lambda Book Report,” a bimonthly review of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender literature. That publication spawned the “Lambda Literary Awards.” The first “Lammys” were given out in a black-tie awards ceremony held in Washington DC in 1989. Lambda Rising continued to shepherd both the review and the Lammy awards until 1986 when it turned the whole program over to a new non-profit organization, the Lambda Literary Foundation, which continues to run the annual awards program today.
The staff of Lambda Rising brought hundreds of authors to their various stores over the past 35 years. The largest crowds turned out for celebrity authors like Andy Warhol, Sandra Bernhardt and Olympic Gold Medal Diver Greg Louganis (whose appearance drew a record 2,000 fans to the bookstore), but popular authors Armistead Maupin, Rita Mae Brown, E. Lynn Harris, Leslie Feinberg and many others could also fill the store and even new and unknown writers would often draw substantial crowds of eager readers.
The book and gift shop was known for its community outreach, sometimes traveling many miles to set up temporary book nooks at Pride events in Asbury Park NJ, Columbus OH, Raleigh NC, Roanoke VA, and other cities that had no local glbt bookstore. Fundraising for non-profits was also a constant part of Lambda Rising’s operations; through ticket sales to community events and concerts, through donations of cash or merchandise to hundreds of non-profits, the store raised and contributed amounts ranging from about $25,000 in lean years to nearly a quarter million dollars in its more robust years.
“Closing the store now will certainly leave something of a hole in Washington’s literary and political scene,” Maccubbin surmises, “and even though I’m excited about the opportunities that will open up for us as we move into the next phase of our life, there is a bittersweet component to it all. But the book market has been changing dramatically, the glbt community has been making progress by leaps and bounds, and 35 years is enough time for any person to devote to any one thing. It’s just time to move on.”
“We’ll continue operations at the DC store through Christmas because we want to give DC one more great Christmas window display,” Maccubbin notes. Bennett, who took a leave of absence from the store’s day-to-day operations in 1999 but has continued as an officer, will be coming back to the store to install this year’s holiday display window. “It’s something I’ve always enjoyed and I know so many customers get a kick out of our campy, kicky holiday displays, so we’re going to pull out the stops for this year’s,” Bennett said. He added, “I spent 20 years working in Lambda Rising and it was a marvelous experience. The store has touched the lives of so many people – it was never just a bookstore, but always so much more. Every day I went to work there, I knew I was doing something that made a difference.”
“We’ve already brought in our popular line of glbt holiday cards, and we’ve got a wonderful new line of campy Christmas tree ornaments. We’ll be running some great sales through the holiday season,” Maccubbin promises, “then a huge liquidation sale right after Christmas, with closure tentatively scheduled for early January.”
I came to Washington thirty years ago after college, and Lambda Rising has been one of the city's landmarks all that time. Thanks to Deacon and his husband, Jim Bennett, for their remarkable and longstanding contributions to Washington's GLBT community. By the way, the local gay activist who loaned Deacon that $1,000 35 years ago was former GLAA President Craig Howell. That's one of Craig's many smart moves over the years. We'll see you in Lambda Rising this holiday season.