December 11, 2009 at 3:07 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
End of an era, as Lambda Rising to close

Lambda Rising will close in January after a 35-year run. (DC Agenda photo by Aram Vartian)

Lambda Rising, a bookstore serving the LGBT community in the nation’s capital for 35 years, is closing its D.C. store in Dupont Circle and its remaining out-of-town store in Rehoboth Beach, Del., in January.

The closings, announced last week, become another in a series of gay bookstores that have shut down in recent years in other cities, including New York and Baltimore.

Deacon Maccubbin, 66, the store’s founder and co-owner, told D.C. Agenda in an exclusive interview that he plans to retire soon and that he and co-owner Jim Bennett, his domestic partner of 32 years, decided they would rather close the stores than sell them to a new owner who might change their focus and mission.

“The phrase ‘mission accomplished’ has gotten a bad rap in recent years but in this case, it certainly applies,” Maccubbin said.

“When we set out to establish Lambda Rising in 1974, it was intended as a demonstration of the demand for gay and lesbian literature,” he said, noting that few if any mainstream bookstores and newsstands carried gay-related books and periodicals at the time.

“Today, 35 years later, nearly every general bookstore carries GLBT books, often featuring them in special sections,” he said.

Maccubbin said the Internet also enables people today to access LGBT-related information from almost any location in the country, accomplishing yet another part of Lambda Rising’s mission: to provide up-to-date information to a community that could not obtain it elsewhere.

He said he first opened the store in June 1974 in a converted townhouse on 20th Street, N.W., near Dupont Circle, with an initial investment of $3,000 and an additional $1,000 borrowed from a local gay activist. The shop consisted of 300 square feet of space and just 250 gay and lesbian book titles.

“That’s all there were at the time,” Maccubbin said.

The store, along with the LGBT community and gay civil rights movement, grew dramatically over the next three decades, moving in 1977 to a larger storefront space on S Street, N.W., a few blocks away. In 1984, the store moved to its current location at 1625 Connecticut Ave., N.W., in a storefront building that Maccubbin and Bennett own.

Lambda Rising, which opened in 1974, will close in January as its owners prepare to retire. (DC Agenda photo by Aram Vartian)

In the intervening years, the two opened branches of the store in Baltimore, Norfolk, Va., and Rehoboth Beach. In 2003, Lambda Rising bought the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York’s Greenwich Village, recognized as the nation’s first gay bookstore, having opened in 1967. Maccubbin said Lambda Rising bought that store to save it from closing.

After more than three years of helping rebuild the Oscar Wilde store, Lambda Rising sold it to its manager, to return it to its status as a locally owned business. But earlier this year, due to the national economic downturn, the New York owner said he was forced to close the store.

In its three decades of operation, Lambda Rising became one of the nation’s first gay businesses to advertise in mainstream publications and the first to advertise on TV in the 1970s. It has brought in hundreds of authors to its various store branches, including Andy Warhol, Sandra Bernhard, Armistead Maupin and Rita Mae Brown.

“Closing the store now will certainly leave something of a hole in Washington’s literary and political scene, 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,” said Maccubbin.

“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,” he said. “It’s just time to move on.”

Maccubbin said he and Bennett are happy to offer advice and support for someone interested in opening another LGBT bookstore in Washington.

Veteran D.C. gay activist Frank Kameny, who described himself as a loyal customer of Lambda Rising since it opened, said Maccubbin and the store deserve “enormous credit” as a nationally recognized gay community resource.

But he said he regrets that at least one aspect of the store’s mission has not been accomplished.

“No non-gay bookstore that I know of has a gay section with content remotely comparable to that of Lambda Rising,” he said. “And many of the publications found there will be unavailable elsewhere. Lambda Rising will be truly missed. Progress is often sad.”

Rick Rosendall, vice president of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance, called Lambda Rising a “landmark” for the LGBT community.

“It will certainly be a major loss for our community,” he said.

Maccubbin said the store will begin a holiday sale as early as this weekend for many of its books and other products, such as gifts items. He said a “huge liquidation sale” will begin immediately after Christmas, with the store expected to close in early January.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • Does anyone else find it odd that the owners of Lambda Rising were unwilling to sell the biz? The whole “would rather close the stores than sell them to a new owner who might change their focus and mission” just doesn’t sit right with me. I think there is much more to this story than meets the eye (or reported here).

  • You sound like a Fox News entertainer – looking for some dirt?

    Maybe they are so proud of their accomplishment they just didn’t want anyone to change what they impressively created over the last 35 years.

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