This is the first feature from a new series offered here on our blog! Each month, we will profile a Select Stockist - a shop owner who has an exciting space and exhibits a particularly strong dedication to fostering the arts in their communities. Our first profile is of the Bureau of General Services - Queer Division, a bookstore here in New York City.
Toward the end of 2014, Capricious met up with BGSQD founders Donnie Jochum and Greg Newton to talk about their shop. Here's the transcript from our conversation:
CAPRICIOUS: What lead you to establishing The Bureau?
DONNIE JOCHUM: It just, I mean, it kind of started with a pipe dream. We were walking where A Different Light bookstore used to be on 17th street and started asking ourselves, “When did that close?,” and then we said, "When did Oscar Wilde close?," and then we said, "Wait, are there no more gay bookstores in New York? Is that possible? We should open one.”
GREG NEWTON: Yeah, it started as an investigation into why there aren't any left.
DJ: I mean, we knew some of the obvious ...
GN: … obvious reasons right. Amazon, Barnes & Noble. I was frustrated of having to go to Barnes & Noble to look for books, when they really don't have a section for me. Their, their gay section consists of maybe 4 or 5 names on a shelf.
GN: You can't get classic literature there because they're concerned about selling "what's now" and going through inventory and numbers and working with labels. So, it was a frustration of not being able to go into a space and say, "Oh, right! These are my people!"
DJ: That's the other thing it is not just a product on a shelf. Uh, like " We are selling the books that you want" as a oppose to “this is stuff you should know.” This is stuff that has helped establish and nurture ourselves as a community, and the people working there are invested in it. We got to know Blue Stockings, and I volunteered there the summer before we opened… which was great...
DJ: We wanted a space that was...
GN: … specifically ...
DJ: … specifically queer! That was the focus and we wanted it to be much more than a bookstore, which is part of the reason we didn't put the word bookstore in our name; partly because everyone has absorbed the narrative that ...
DJ: … bookstores equal death.
DJ: It's no longer "silence equals death".
DJ: And we don't want that narrative. We wanted to be something that would intrigue a bit and … I definitely, I was like it has to have the word queer in there. I don't want to be ambiguous about that. That aspect should be very clear. What else we do, maybe is ...
GN: Queer means different things to different people. So, we were coming from places of "What does Queer mean to you and what do Queer mean to me? What does Queer mean to each of our friends?" …
They helped us choose a name. We came up with a whole list or 2 lists, pages of names and we picked a handful and said, "Hey, which one do you like the most?" Or, you know, I sent some to my friends and said, "Okay, which one of these names resonates with you?" and this was the one that they chose and the same thing with the logo. Tommy Everett designed multiple options for our logo and we asked friends, "Which one do you think would really be the one?" because they were all beautiful but it was a matter of "which one really sticks with you?" And this is what our friends chose.
GN: So, it kinda was us, and it wasn't us.
DJ: It is always collaborative. I mean this whole project has been like kinda hitting the ball out there.
GN: Right, exactly.
DJ: ...what comes back?
GN: We're like let's do it for a few months and then it turned into 9. It was initially, “how are we going to do this long-term? Well, let’s just do it with what we have now and let’s just try it!”
C: What kind of books are you drawn to for the shop?
GN: We definitely wanted to have some classic LGBT titles, so people would have a sense of, like, history. Here is our heritage. These are books that have shaped us … and I’m saying “us,” again it’s like “queer.” Broad, kind of amorphous. We’re talking about people who identify with terms like gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, intersex. It’s a lot of different theys, wes, communities, but, you know, books that have been important for like showing that we exist when we’ve been silenced and made invisible.
And then, we wanted to also be in touch with people who are writing right now, who are alive and working. So it was great to have Stephen Boyer early on say, “Hey, I have a book coming out.” And more and more people have come to us, now it’s like regular, it’s a flow of people coming to us. And we’re so happy.
Sheila Lambert, who does the bi-book club, she said, “We’re not used to being so welcomed into queer spaces.” And I was like “I’m sorry.”
C: That’s a problem!
GN: Yeah, yeah. You know like old issues of bi-phobia. We’re hopefully - we think - getting past a lot of that bullshit. It’s complicated histories, but that’s something, again, that we love about the Q word - it’s capacity to embrace everyone that who wants to identify with it, pretty much. It’s an openness I would say.
DJ: And I would say that the books we’ve kind of chosen, aside from us constantly asking people, “What should we have? What do you think is important? What should be represented?” The books that we actively seek are books that offer a different narrative from the one we hear in pop-media. Like, the Will & Grace tune and the Billy’s First Screen Kiss ...
GN: It’s becoming so neatly packaged.
DJ: We wanted something to offer other versions of realities besides the one that we constantly see.
GN: And that was part of the name as well. It was like, okay, looks like we are - from the outside in - It looks like the LGBT community is concerned with fighting openly in the military and getting married.
Yuck! How did that happen! What about ending the military? (laughs)
… it just felt so frustrating, so it’s like is that what we want? Just to be apart of the system? Just another division within the bureaucracy? Or do we want to create our own institutions? That was part of the play with the name as well, to say yeah make our own institutions. If we are talking about legitimacy, we sure as hell should not be seeking it from other people who in a sense created our identity by creating a demonized, sexual other.
C: Why is this space important for the queer community?
GN: Those voices need to be heard! To say, it’s not just about getting married … what about queer homeless youth? That’s like an epidemic. What about queer youth suicides? Those are issues that are important to us - intersecting with so many other issues.
And just saying, okay, we are really not happy with the world as it is. I don’t just want a seat at the table, I want a whole different set of furniture. I want a whole different house … You know, like what happening to dreaming big? I just read Cruising Utopia and I was just like, “exactly.” It’s not about having a perfect picture of where we’re headed...
C: How has the store evolved since you moved to your new location in The Center? Why was the move important for BGSQD?
GN: Oh it’s been great. It’s been so supportive. The Center staff has been so great! We’ve always had help from volunteers and friends but having a staff here - and we have complementary missions - so that is wonderful, and that makes a huge difference.
… Were getting more people in general, just more traffic. When we were on the Lower East Side, we were kind of tucked away on the second floor and signage wasn’t ideal.
Everyone who comes into the space already identifies on the LGBT spectrum, so it’s the perfect place to be in that sense. The Center’s just making our lives so much easier - by having that support staff and reaching out to their audience. They’ve been around since 1983…
C: … so tapping into a network that’s already here.
GN: Yeah, it’s amazing.
DJ: We’ve gotten some really great feedback from folks who have not been to the Center in a little bit, saying, “Wow, this is amazing! It makes total sense.” The connection is there and its being made and it’s a daily education for the folks coming in so we’re just very thankful and it’s an honor to be apart of what the Center does.
C: Where do you think the future of the Bureau lies? How do you want it to evolve?
GN: It’s always been like we’re riding the wave! Surfing…
DJ: I mean we did pull together a business plan initially, so we did have some long-term goals we wanted to do, and we’re still holding on to some of those. But we’ve found that as things come up, our vision changes with it and that’s great and that’s what we should do.
GN: You have to take the opportunities as they come to you.
DJ: … but, ultimately, we still want to have an independent press somewhere along the way, to be able to offer alternative publication to queer, creative artists on any medium. Like books, photography, art books, poetry, fiction, non-fiction … That would be a dream, still, that I think we might want to have.
You know, however long that we’re here, we’re going to do what we can. But wherever we go after the Center, whatever that looks like, you know, we want to keep it in this sort of format - with performance, with community sharing conversation, but we still want a spot that could potentially have a cafe.
GN: Yeah, that was the fantasy from day one! It would be a space where people would come and hang out.
DJ: .. reinvent the salon!
GN: I mean it happens at events to be sure, but that was the original plan and that is still something we would like to move towards. The events have been a life-force of this since the beginning, thats when people come in here and thats when you feel like, “Wow, this is the magic.” People are engaged and they’re talking …
DJ: .. and i think were still playing around with ideas for events so we still have opportunities to experiment. We have someone that might handle an open mic night for us, were just thinking about different kinds of talks that we can have and carry on, and other sort of video presentations because this space is perfect for it,.
There are things I think, in terms of dialogue, community dialogue, idea exchange there’s still a lot we can play with.
GN: But mostly it comes to us. People ask, “ Would you be willing to host this or that?” And we almost always say yes!
C: Of course.
DJ: People will come to us with an idea, “Oh, you guys should do this!” and we sort of say, “Well, why don’t you do it!”
GN: We’re a little busy! (laughs) Our job is keeping the space open so that you come and do the things…
DJ: We never wanted this to be the “Donnie and Greg Show.” This is everyone’s show!
C: Final question, what’s your favorite book in the shop right now?
GN: I’m a fiction guy, he’s the art guy! My favorite book is … do I want to do new or classic?
C: You can do both!
DJ: New favorite book, which is now a couple of years old but it’s still new, is Train to Pokipse by Rami Shamir. This is new fiction that’s worthy of your time and attention.
... and classic fiction ... Every gay guy that comes in and says, “Hey, what’s a classic gay novel?” This is the one that every gay guy should reader and it’s Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Holleran.
GN: Yeah, this is a tough call! I did love Cruising Utopia! An optimism that’s not naive optimism but says that this is not enough, I’m not settling for this say it’s impractical but whatever. No!
It seems particularly pathetic at this historical juncture like, oh no, we need a much bigger response. We need a much more open and visionary response than what we’re seeing. I just love being surrounded by it all - even things that I don’t read - just knowing that they exist and being part of the conversation is so lovely.
If you'd like to learn more about BGSQD and their programming, please check out their website!
Post by Ariel Hahn