Thursday, September 29, 2011

Boadecia's Books

398 Colusa Avenue today
Boadecia's Books

Location: 398 Colusa Avenue, Kensington, California, USA

Opened: July 1992

Closed: June 2004

While much attention has been paid in recent years to lesbian bars as important womyn's spaces (Lost Womyn's Space being but one example), the women's bookstore has been more or less ignored. This is unfortunate, since for many of us more bookish types, the bookstores loom larger in our memories than the drinking holes. As Katherine Lidell has argued, "Feminist bookstores serve as hubs for the lesbian community, offering 'safe space' for gatherings, information dissemination, and personal exploration."

As part of Lidell's research, she surveyed customers at Boadecia's Books and at Charis Books & More in Atlanta, Georgia. As she observes, "The fact that 111 (56%) of the responses came from self-identified lesbians attests to the significance of feminist bookstores as lesbian places." To Lidell, this suggests that "feminist bookstores continue to serve as a powerful antidote to a mainstream culture that marginalizes difference and emphasizes heteronormative imagery. Far from being outdated, feminist bookstores hold great relevance in contemporary society, particularly for the establishment and maintenance of lesbian community."

Lidell's subjects recalled their first visit to a feminist bookstore with "great emotion and surprising detail," and for many others, that first visit "represented a turning point or rite of passage integral to their acquisition of lesbian identity." Those interviewed often described the bookstore as "an oasis" or "a home"--language we frequently see attached to lesbian bars. As such, the bookstores provided "a portal into the lesbian community" by providing customers with community information and women-identified cultural programming (literary readings, book clubs, writer groups).

Proof of this can be seen in the following list of random cultural events that took place at Boadecia's--and this in just one month (October 2002):

Friday, October 4: Reading from “Daughters of the Amber Moon” Katherine Forrest

Saturday, October 5: “Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual African American Fiction” Led by co-editors Devon W. Carbado and Donald Wiese, and several of the book’s writers.

Friday, October 11: Beth Glick-Rieman shares her findings on the status of women around the world, reading from her book, “Peace Train to Beijing and Beyond”.

Saturday, October 12: Lucy Jane Bledsoe presents a slide show based on travels in Antarctica

In addition, we see that in 2003, the artist Melissa West had a display of recent painting at Boadecia's. This suggests that the women's bookstores also played a significant role in promoting the visual arts as well.

But perhaps most importantly, Lidell suggests that the books made available and sold through the women's bookstores serve as "part of a dispersed lesbian community. Enfolded within their pages are the voices of a diversity of women--real or fictional--whose words provide comfort, encouragement, and guidance....In the absence of--or in addition to--personal support, lesbians may turn to books as they forge new identities."

So why are the bookstores--like Boadecia's--being lost? Several reasons are identified: skyrocketing urban rents, the desire of long-term owners to pursue different careers, and the proliferation of chain bookstores and Internet commerce. And yet despite (apparently) greater accessibility to lesbian books and greater lesbian social acceptance, Lidell's subjects were adamant about the importance of the women's bookstores--even in ostensibly liberal places like northern California. As one woman named Deb told Lidell,

Even though we live in the Bay area, there are still people out there who do not accept our lifestyles, with stores like Boadecia's for women, we're more likely to go there to buy. read, and meet because nobody cares what our preferences are when we're there! 

So why is it that more than half of these women admitted that they don't patronize the women's bookstores as much as they used to? The reasons offered are somewhat different than those we see for the lesbian bars. Many confess that they've been "lured away" by the ease of the chainstores and the Internet. Many are no longer within an accessible distance to a women's bookstore. Kids, longer working hours, responsibility for aging parents, and financial constraints are also mentioned. Plus, we see that bookstores in general have far less appeal to younger persons.

In Spring 2004, when the community became aware of the fact that Boadacia's was on her deathbed, there was an effort to rally around her.

Described as "as the East Bay's coziest, cat-friendliest, progressive bookstore," Boadecia's Books, a lesbian-owned independent bookstore in the East Bay city of Kensington, CA (near Richmond) is faced with closing unless it can get help from the community and booklovers. Use the link above to donate funds or to buy books from their online store. Or check out the store in person when you go and see poet Michelle Tea read there with Meliza Banales on Friday, May 12th at 7:30pm.

But alas, it wasn't enough to save her life. In June 2005, we see the following obituary in the Kensington Outlook.  

Longtime Kensington bookstore Boadecia's Books, will close its doors next month after struggling for the past several years. The bookstore, which specialized in feminist and lesbian titles, joins a list of independent booksellers that have closed in recent years. 

Not mentioned here is that in 2003, a Barnes & Noble had opened but half a mile away....Boadecia's was reputedly the oldest women's bookstore in the San Francisco Bay area when she passed. 

Suzanne Corson was the driving force behind Boadecia's. Let her words be the final say:

"Books can change lives. If someone is going through something and needs information, if the person behind the counter knows the inventory well, you can put the right book in their hands--whether it's [about] career change, abuse, or coming out, you can hand them a book with a smile, and that can make a huge difference. And it's an honor and a privilege to do that."

Book Garden: A Woman's Store

2625 East 12th Street today
Book Garden: A Woman's Store

Location: 2625 East 12th Street, Denver, Colorado, USA

Opened: 1985

Closed: End of 2009/beginning of 2010?

Here's one description of the Book Garden: A Woman's Store (sometimes called Book Garden: A New Genderation):

This feminist-angled shop is a literary paradise that promotes inner and outer peace. Selections include art, health, humor and history. The store also hosts a section of multicultural stories for children with the mission to promote equality between the genders. In addition to the fine selection of books, music is offered along with greeting cards and candles. Of course, men are welcome.

I also find a lot of customer loyalty and praise.

Here's Cindy M. from December 2005, who describes the Book Garden as "the best women's bookstore":

This is a wonderful store! They have an extensive collection of womens books, and music. They also carry jewelry, art, gifts, and more personal womens items ;) They also have a small used book section in the back. The staff is friendly and good humored. There is a cat in the store, so if you're allergic keep that in mind. Parking is on the street.

Then there's Alden C., who announced Book Garden's demise in February 2010:

Very sad to see this book store close. They had great books on lesbian history in the USA and around the world. The books were very detailed on a variety of topics though and one book got right down to the details of how a sex change took place for trans gender people. They had awesomely funny T-shirts as well. Yes I am sad that they are closed.

Photo: 2625 East 12th Street

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My Sisters' Words

Lavender Inkwell (2008)
My Sisters' Words

Location: 304 North McBride Street, Syracuse, New York, USA

Opened: 1987

Closed: November 23, 2003

Yet another women's bookstore that died a few years back. It was replaced for a while by a "GLBT" bookstore, Lavender Inkwell (see photo above), but even that is gone now. The space is currently a chiropractor's office.

This obituary is from the American Booksellers Association:

People often want a sound bite explanation of why the store is closing, said Mary Ellen Kavanaugh, owner of My Sisters' Words -- The Next Wave in Syracuse, New York. "But there's never one simple answer," she said. "It's a whole mix of culture, economics, the times we're in, all kinds of things. And how all of these things intersect with the bookseller's personal life." After 16 years, the bookstore will shut its doors, leaving central New York without a feminist bookstore.

The small (650-square-foot) store is located in a Victorian house built in 1896, which, Kavanaugh joked, wasn't nearly as charming during a Syracuse winter as in early fall. In an attempt to boost sales, My Sisters' Words had recently morphed from a feminist bookstore to a general bookstore. It was, according to Kavanaugh, one of only two feminist bookstores in New York and had been the oldest surviving one. The other feminist bookstore is Bluestockings Women's Bookstore in New York City, which came close to closing in February 2003, before being purchased by new owners.

My Sisters' Words will close on November 23. Kavanaugh plans to have a progressive sale that she's calling "the end of an era sale," a term she borrowed from Boston's New Words. "I hate words like 'liquidation' or 'closing,'" said Kavanaugh. "I intentionally chose November 23 because I wanted to express thanks. I wanted people to feel grateful that [our years here] have been a harvest, but to also remember that our celebrating is a harbinger of a barren winter. It's been a wonderful experience for me and the community, and I want it to end on that note."

Although Kavanaugh has no plans for My Sisters' Words to continue in another form or place, she told BTW that she loves the book industry and has begun to pursue ways to stay in it. In what capacity she'll stay involved "has yet to be revealed," she said. "But after being in the industry for a lot of years and having been on the ABA Booksellers Advisory Council and the Feminist Bookstore Network Steering Committee, I feel I have a number of connections in the industry around the country."

On a reflective note Kavanaugh said, "One thing I love about booksellers is they take the time to explain. They don't talk in sound bites. I encourage booksellers to keep doing it whether it's about the Patriot Act, the economy, pieces of education…. I encourage them to continue to explain the complex issues."

Photo: Lavender Inkwell in April 2008

New Words bookstore

New Words co-founder Gilda Bruckman

New Words bookstore  

Location: 186 Hampshire Street, Inman Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Opened: April 1974

Closed: October 6, 2002

I actually remember going here back in the 1980s....

Here's a selection from the obituary for New Words bookstore--from The Phoenix. (The same article also discusses the demise of Sojourner's, a feminist newspaper that started in 1975.)

FROM THE DAY it opened its doors in April 1974 through the next 28 years, New Words bookstore, in Cambridge, offered its customers what they could not get anywhere else. Not just novels by Latina writers, or essays and historical analyses by feminist academics, or national, regional, and local periodicals. And not just a large selection of women’s music, a true alternative in the era before Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, and Tori Amos became household names. For nearly three decades, New Words has been the city and region’s de facto community center and feminist-resource network. In the not-so-long-ago era before women cracked the gender barrier on the Supreme Court, on the playing fields, on Wall Street, and even in the local political arena, New Words was one oasis where no one snickered when a customer asked for a book about breast cancer, or inquired where one might find shelter for battered women or a support group for lesbians with kids. In the late ’70s and through the ’80s, long before the Internet, long before "gay and lesbian listings" were a routine part of the mainstream media’s "lifestyle" pages, New Words was the place where a lesbian new to Boston could learn where to find the local women’s bar or a poetry reading or a pot luck. It was, for many, a lifeline.

Just as important, New Words was the only place that sought links among women’s literature, political writing, and the nascent feminist movement. While mainstream bookstores, even sophisticated ones, boasted at best a shelf or two of "women’s books," New Words championed rising feminist authors such as Dorothy Allison, Marge Piercy, and Alice Walker, and poets such as June Jordan and Adrienne Rich, according their work the same respect and cultural importance that the mainstream routinely bestowed upon, say, Norman Mailer, John Updike, or Hunter Thompson.

These days, New Words, true to form, is still offering something its customers would never find at Barnes & Noble or even "Grief counseling," says management, only half-joking. That’s because on October 6, New Words closed the doors of its long-time digs at 186 Hampshire Street in Inman Square. It is the end of an era for the oldest continuously operating women’s bookstore in the US. But its founders, who still run the store, stress that it is also a new beginning for New Words. The management is in the middle of a long-term plan to transform the bookstore into the Center for New Words (CNW), a nonprofit literary, educational, and cultural center that, for now, continues to offer readings and live performances in its old space. By next year, plans call for a new, bigger, and more accessible CNW somewhere in Cambridge, where readings and events will be the focus.

Lammas Women's Books and More

321 7th Street, SE, Washington, DC
Lammas Women's Books and More

Location: 1607 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, USA

Opened: 1974

Closed: 2000

One type of "lost womyn's space" is the women's bookstore. Hundreds of them started in the 1970s and 1980s, but few of them still survive. There are so many that have disappeared, that it's almost overwhelming to know where to start.

So somewhat arbitrarily, we'll start documenting these lost spaces with this obituary for Lammas in Washington, DC.

The closing of a women's haven leaves the lesbian community short on institutions.

For years, the sign hung upstairs, behind the cash register, in Lammas Women's Books & More, an institution in the lesbian community. Yet the sign, like everything else in the store—paperbacks, T-shirts, and the sole remaining red-and-black rubber dildo—must go. Tonight, Sylvia Colon, the store's owner, will shut Lammas' doors for good.

The news has shaken many of the longtime customers who have stopped by this afternoon. Staring at the half-empty shelves, Kate Le, a Manassas resident who visits Lammas every few weeks, clutches a copy of The Needle on Full: Lesbian Feminist Science Fiction and lingers in the store long after paying for two grocery bags full of books. Later, Lana Lawrence snaps a picture of her partner, Linda Palmer, with Colon, who's ringing up one of the store's final purchases. That night, Cheryl Spector, a lesbian activist, is in tears as she helps Colon break down the store's shelves.

Recalling her first purchase at Lammas in the early '80s—a silver lambda earring—Spector calls the store a "haven."

"It was a wonderful feeling walking in here, knowing you had a safe space," says Spector. "This is a devastating loss for the lesbian community. All of our spaces are closing. Where are we going to go now?"

For many women visiting Lammas during its final hours, that refrain sounds eerily familiar. Throughout the '90s, gay women repeatedly bid farewell to businesses that catered to them. In addition to the bookstore's closing, several District lesbian bars and clubs have fizzled out in the last few years, leaving lesbians with hardly any places to call their own. According to the estimates of several gay activists and business owners, the Washington area boasted a half-dozen lesbian establishments at various times between the mid-'70s and the late- '80s.

But the numbers have dwindled to only one full-time outpost. In the last year, Elan, a Capitol Hill lesbian bar, closed its doors, as did Tracks, a Southeast club that once featured a popular women's night. Before that, several other lesbian-friendly spots, such as Hill Haven in Southeast, also shut down after brief runs of success.

Ironically, Colon and her former colleagues weren't forced out of business by the hostile society against which they once wanted to build safe spaces. Quite the opposite: As gay culture continues to achieve greater status, say many D.C.-area lesbians, it has become less isolated at landmarks like Lammas. "The culture has changed," explains Colon. "Now, the environment is so much more accepting, so many more women are out. But there's less of a sense of community among lesbians, and many women no longer feel a need to support their own bookstore."

Founded in 1974, Lammas began life as a jewelry store near Eastern Market. Soon thereafter, it evolved into a nook for readers of feminist literature. Later relocating to Dupont Circle and then to 17th Street, the store emerged as the only wall-to-wall women's/lesbian bookstore in the Washington area. It was the place where many D.C. women might have purchased their first Erica Jong book or plucked a copy of Rubyfruit Jungle, lesbian author Rita Mae Brown's seminal coming-of-age novel.

More important for its regulars, Lammas was also a place where lesbians gathered to plan rallies, attend relationship workshops, and watch movies. Over the years, its well-worn couches were home to myriad conversations about coming out and breaking up. Recently, Lammas has hosted commitment ceremonies.

Like all independent stores in the last decade, however, Lammas suffered when online book outlets and behemoth bookstores arrived. Suddenly, the Internet and megastores could offer a sizable selection of books that were previously available only at Lammas or in a handful of other local independent bookstores that stock lesbian-oriented titles.

Given the proliferation of gay-friendly venues, Thecla Dantes, a junior at Howard University who's worked at Lammas since March, says her generation is less likely to think of Lammas as a "home place."

"Many younger people don't seem to realize that you couldn't just go into Barnes & Noble and buy lesbian literature 20 years ago," says Dantes. "They're forgetting where they come from."

Lambda Rising, a gay bookstore in Dupont Circle, attracts plenty of tourists. Although the store caters predominantly to men, Joy Sosnowski, one of Lambda Rising's managers, says gay women from other towns often stop in seeking the names of lesbian venues in D.C. But Sosnowski no longer has many places to recommend.

"I tell them there's the Phase One Lounge," says Sosnowski, "and that's basically all that's left."

Just a few blocks from the Eastern Market Metro stop in Southeast, the weathered blue façade of Phase One is hardly distinctive next to the bright windows of an all-night minimart and a late-night pizza joint. Inside the club one Thursday night, two young women onstage are doing stand-up comedy, part of the weekly open-mike night.

In the back, several 40-something women shoot pool. Barely audible on the muted speakers, the Chemical Brothers segue into Melissa Etheridge. A thin spotlight shines down on an enormous vase of pink roses atop the bar.

"This is it," says Sharon Ridenour, manager of the 30-year-old establishment. "We're the last outpost."

Some venues still cater to women on a part-time basis. A longtime lesbian night spot, the Hung Jury, functions as a nightclub only on Friday and Saturday. The Jury's demographic has shifted recently, according to many of the club's regulars. With its high-decibel dance-party vibe, it attracts a predominantly younger crowd of women. Many lesbians from the Lammas era say they don't feel at home there or at other gay male clubs, like Chaos, that host weekly ladies' nights.

"There's nothing wrong with mixing in with different crowds, as is the norm in Dupont Circle clubs," says Ridenour. "But this place has survived because it's been a second home for many women, going back a generation."

Hovering above a rum and Coke one evening, Joanne Friedenson, a Phase One regular, describes the place as the lesbian community's "Cheers." The back walls contain numerous photo collages of the bar's customers, young and old.

"You walk in here and you're overwhelmed by a sense of history," says Friedenson. "Now, this place has become even more cherished because our options have become so limited."

But the fading of physical establishments like bars and bookstores has coincided with the increasing popularity of other social activities. For instance, Bon Vivant, a nonprofit lesbian social group that convenes once a month in Northern Virginia for dining and dancing, typically attracts about 400 women from the D.C. area and beyond. According to Celeste Beaupre, president of the group's board, Bon Vivant thrives because many women in their 30s and older have tired of the bar scene.

"Women who ventured down to Southeast to socialize in their 20s don't want to do that when they're older," says Beaupre. "Gay or straight, women tend to nest more than men, especially when they couple off. It's a tough market for women's clubs. There's still an interest in having places to go to, but there aren't enough of us, and we don't go out often enough to support them."

Palmer, an occasional Phase One patron who stopped in to photograph Lammas on its last day, says the loss of hangouts is a byproduct of social desegregation.

"What's happened with clubs is the same thing that's happened to the bookstore," Palmer says. "The more organizations that cater to the lesbian community, the more options, the easier it is to find people. You don't necessarily need a place of your own anymore when your 'place' might be your neighborhood, even your church. But as good as it is to become mainstream, you lose something valuable in the process."

Photo: 321 7th Street, SE. "In 1973, a craft store was opened here called Lammas. It eventually morphed into a popular bookstore that became the de facto community center for Washington-area lesbians. The shop would later open a branch in Dupont Circle, eventually closing its original Capitol Hill locale in 1989 [actually 1990]"

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lesbian Cafe Society of Fin-de-Siecle Paris

Two Women Waltzing by Toulouse-Lautrec
Le Brasserie du Hanneton
Location:  Rue Pigalle, Montmartre, Paris, France

La Souris
Location: Rue Pigalle, Montmartre, Paris, France

Cafe du Rat-Mort
Location: Place Pigalle, Montmartre, Paris, France

Fascinating article about turn-of-the-century lesbian cafe society.

Lifting the veil on Paris's lesbian café society

By Clea Caulcutt

Decades before the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) movement, lesbian women in Paris carved out a space for themselves in the shadow of the Butte Montmartre. Several women owned cafés that catered for an almost exclusively female and lesbian clientele.

With its red curtains and discreet façade, Le Hanneton must have looked at first like any other Brasserie de femmes, a bar for men seeking female company. But Le Hanneton was a place where there was female company but where men were less than welcome.

“You'd enter a small room with low ceilings and red curtains which reminded one of brasserie de femmes. But there, they are not seeking men but seeking each other,” writes the 19th century Guide des Plaisirs à Paris (Pleasure guide to Paris).

Le Rat-Mort
“In the evening, members of the stronger sex were rare. Masculine women in charge of the place dine tête-à-tête at small tables. They then offer each other cigarettes, sweets and kisses.”

Such cafés, including Le Hanneton, La Souris and, to a lesser extent Le Rat-Mort, were an important development in lesbian history according to university lecturers working on the late 19th century.

Unlike some private salons for lesbians in the 18th century, these bars were public places, open businesses that were discreet, not secret.

“It’s an important cultural precedent,” says Leslie Choquette, lecturer at the Assumption College in the United States. “I think it is clear that they did create a space for themselves, a subculture.”

Both Le Hanneton and La Souris were managed by women and attracted women authors and artists. Mme Armande managed La Brasserie du Hanneton, rue Pigalle. Mme Palmyre, who appeared in several drawings by Toulouse-Lautrec, headed La Souris, in Pigalle.

Author and researcher Nicole G. Albert describes Mme Armande and Mme Palmyre as prominent lesbians in charge of maintaining order in a café where the clients were said to be quite rowdy. However, many descriptions of these brasseries were written by men for male readers, with a touch of voyeurism and prejudice. Albert says 19th century sources must be handled with caution.

Le Hanneton and La Souris were nonetheless places where women mingled from both ends of French society.

“The upper bourgeoisie and the aristocracy would not necessarily be seen there, but you would find women who had at one point belonged to that type of milieu,” says Albert. “Social boundaries were blurred. Lesbians from very working-class backgrounds and women of wealthier backgrounds who had chosen a more marginal existence, would mingle.”

However, it was not possible, according to Albert, for lesbians to lead a double-life, to be integrated into bourgeois society and to frequent such places. Women at the time were defined according to their role vis-à-vis men as wives, mothers, prostitutes, and so on.

Homosexuality was seen as perversion, and in the case of women, an offshoot of prostitution. But while male homosexuality was severely punished, and repressed by the police and courts, lesbians were more likely to be repressed in medical institutions.

“If you were bourgeois woman and you were found in a lesbian relationship, you could land up locked up in a sanatorium if your husband had anything to with it,” says Choquette.

In the light of the prejudices of the time, it appears unlikely that women would be able to open bars catering for lesbians.

None of the reports filed by the French vice squad of the late 19th century mention Le Hanneton or La Souris.

According to Choquette, the police at the time were more interested in seeking out prostitutes working without a licence. There were no laws condemning female homosexuality, unlike male homosexuality.

Were Le Hanneton and La Souris so avant-garde that the authorities did not even register their existence?

According to Albert, the authorities were in denial when it came to female homosexuality. It was a criminal offence to write about lesbian sex, but French authorities preferred to turn a blind eye to lesbian meeting places.

“The courts condemned authors who wrote about lesbians and their physical relations because they feared the visibility it gave lesbians more than the so-called vice itself,” says Albert.

According to this source, Le Rat-Mort had been around SINCE AT LEAST 1886, and was "popular with artists and writers by day and a lesbian hangout at night." The artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec  (1864 - 1901) frequented both Le Rat-Mort and La Souris, and had a "troubled fascination" with the lesbians who dwelled there. Many other French (male) writers and artists had something of an obsession with lesbians and these bars as well--but that's another story.

Painting: At the Moulin Rouge: Two women waltzing
Jan Sedlák, Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec, Odeon, Praha 1985, Photo of Le Rat-Mort

Monday, September 26, 2011

Riverview Bar

Inner Loop by the South Avenue exit, Rochester
Riverview Bar

Location: South Avenue (by the Inner Loop), Rochester, New York, USA

Opened: early 1970s

Closed: early 1980s

In a longer essay on the history of Rochester, New York's lesbian community, we find this lone sentence:

Here in Rochester, the Riverview Bar on South Ave. by the inner loop was the hub of the lesbian bar culture in the ‘70s and into the ‘80s.

But nothing more than that.

An essay by Felise Eskel  talks about growing up in a working-class family, and the struggles that Eskel faced when she eventually attended the University of Rochester in the early 1970s. She worked hard, and after graduation, she got a job as a researcher at the University of Rochester Medical School. But as she concedes,

My real work was coming out of the closet, and I spent many nights in my car across the street from the Riverview, Rochester's lesbian bar. I stared at the door for many months before I ever walked through.

We also find out that a Rochester-based (male) punk/new wave band called the Cliches once recorded a song about the Riverside:

In 1982 the band was asked to contribute a track to WCMF’s Homegrown Album and Riverview Restaurant, a song about a night at Rochester’s infamous lesbian bar was the most requested song on the album.

Then there's this little factoid. Lou at the Riverside helped sponsor Rochester's First Annual Gay Community Picnic in 1975.

Fortunately, there's more information than these tantalizing tidbits.

That's where Kelly Hankin's The Girls in the Back Room; Looking at the Lesbian Bar (2002) comes into play. Seems that an amateur documentary was made about the the Riverside in the early 1990s, a documentary that is seemingly little known these days:

Like the interviewees telling of bar life in Forbidden Love and Last Call at Maud's, the participants The Riverview: A Lesbian Place, point to the Riverview, of Rochester, New York, fondly called "the Riv" by its unnamed regulars, as a multipurpose sanctuary. Many women regard the bar as a place to relax and socialize with other women; others see it as a daily or weekly respite from the straight world. More than one narrator defines the bar as home away from, or in lieu of, straight home life. Moreover, as a bar that emerged in the early 1970s, during the post-Stonewall era of second wave feminism and gay liberation, and which operated until the early 1980s, the Riv is also remembered as a location of political organization. One narrator, a founding member of Rochester's first gay and lesbian student group, which met at the Riv, recalls the integration of what she calls the Riv's "street dykes" and "old-style role-playing women" into this student organization. Thus, the bar space offered a common meeting ground for young college lesbians and bar dykes. And, as a home for newly politicized lesbian feminists, the Riv is also remembered as a rendezvous point following dangerous political actions in the public realm. One woman recalls that the Riv served as a meeting place for members of the organization Women against Violence against Women. After wheat-pasting flyers about battered women in public places, lesbian activists would congregate at the Riv to find out if any members had been arrested during the course of the evening. Of course, the Riv is also remembered as a general safe house for lesbians. One narrator remembers the owner's vigilance at turning away people whom she thought might be uncomfortable at the Riv or threatening to its customers, even to the point of assuming that the narrator herself was heterosexual on her first visit and denying her entrance.

Hankin goes on to examine the documentary itself in extensive detail, and it is certainly a fascinating analysis. She also includes photos, including the front of the building that once housed the Riv--unfortunately with no address. Do take a look.

As for other Rochester lesbian bars from the early 1980s, we have the following names: Rosie's, Colvin 212, and Phase. But little else.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mama Peaches

Mama Peaches by Edie Fake (1980)
Mama Peaches

Location: Northside of Chicago, Illinois, USA

Opened: Early 1970s?

Closed: 1978

This beautiful depiction of Mama Peaches was done by Edie Fake in 2000. The artist was born in 1980, two years after Mama Peaches closed.

Mama Peaches was a 1970s era lesbian restaurant. The blogger Altivo lists it among it among his/her top four  "all-time favorite restaurants." The blogger Wiredsisters also mentions "the late lamented Mama Peaches" as her "favorite veggie restaurant."  Lauren Weinberg lists Mama Peaches as one of the Chicago LGBTQ community's "vanished safe spaces." So there's certainly a lot of lingering nostalgia for a place that's been gone for over 30 years.

In 1976, the Moutain Moving Womyn's Coffee House (also previously featured here at Lost Womyn's Space) moved their operations to Mama Peaches when they were priced out of their former northside store front (shared with a feminist crisis line). They were to stay here until Mama Peaches closed in 1978.

Feminist Art Workers, a collaborative performance art group, did a work called "Heaven or Hell?" at Mama Peaches in 1977.

West coast feminist folk singer Janet Smith even wrote a song called "Mama Peaches."

Chicago lesbian activist Nancy Reiff has also mentioned going to Mama Peaches back in the day, though the women associated with Mama Peaches had a somewhat different political spin on things:

"I used to go to Mama Peaches all the time. That was the closest I got to radical lesbian separatists. I got on OK with them. Just OK. When I had Marilyn's, I was always trying to do things, to get community involvement, get the women involved, and when I would do dance contests, the feminists would be up in arms, 'Who was I to try and judge my sisters?' They were always upset about dance contests, so I was never really involved with them. Their politics and mine were completely different."

And though the women at Mama Peaches apparently did business with men, they weren't particularly, um, peachy keen about it--at least according to one male restaurant manager:

The Bakery goods came from a lesbian restaurant called Mama Peaches. Sometimes I would go pick the stuff up and the tone would change when I would enter the place.It seemed to me the chopping of the knives on the cutting boards picked up a notch and I got a few ever so slight icy stares, like WTF are YOU doing here?

Unfortunately, I can't find any comprehensive account about Mama Peach's existence. Or even an exact address. But it sure sounds like it was a cool least if you weren't a male restaurant manager.


3445 North Halstead today


Location: 3445 North Halstead Street, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Opened/Closed: early to mid 1980s

Ladybug was reputedly the only lesbian bar to hold her own on Halstead Street, which is right in the heart of the Boystown (gay male) neighborhood. Ladybug sometimes gets mentioned in the recollections of various Chicago lesbian activists, but there isn't much detail.

By 1986, she was gone--only to be replaced by a gay male bar called Rick's Retreat.

Rick's Retreat was later replaced by Tapas Gitana and Arco de Cuchichillos, both of which were Spanish tapas places.

Photo: Arco de Cuchichillos, 3445 North Halstead, a "gay friendly" eatery

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Suzi B's

Three women at Suzi B's
Suzi B's

Location: 1829 Montrose Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Opened/Closed: 1980s/1990s

It's very difficult to know for sure when Suzi B's was open and alive.

In August 2000, Kathy Edens related the following story about the birth of Suzi B's:

"When Debbie ( Rae ) was looking for a bar she took me to several places that were for sale, and she said, 'What do you think about this place?' And I was, 'Oh, I don't know.' Then when we walked into where Suzy B's was, I said, 'This is it. I feel it.' We sat there and we drank, and they bought the place. It was just an old man's neighborhood bar, and there was a beautiful skylight in there; they had a fake ceiling below that. It was very dark, but it was just the layout of the bar, it was small and comfortable. I used to go there a lot."

Unfortunately, Kathy doesn't tell us when this happened. (Note that every account I have seen spells "Suzi B's" in a different way. Kathy called it "Suzy B's." I'm going by what was on the t-shirt above.)

We see that Cynde Schauper: CYBERFEM! had a performance there in October 1989. (Cynde called it "Susie B's".) So we know it was open then.

In a 1998 essay on AIDS activism in the late 80s and early 90s, ACT UP/Chicago member Mary Patten describes the ways in which the personal and the political were hopelessly entangled. Suzi B's is mentioned of course. And also that Suzi B's was now gone at the time of her recollections:

'Those were the days when we would go into Suzi B's ( a since-closed dyke bar ), and we knew everybody ( and everyone knew us ) .' The connective tissue between our 'private' and our 'public' lives—between the ways we did political work and organizing, had sex, played, theorized, and mourned—was strong, elastic, sometimes barely noticeable."

After Suzi B's went out of business, it was replaced by Scot's, a gay men's ("LGBT-friendly") bar.

Photo: "Short-lived" women's bar, Suzi B's, Photo of Scot's exterior

Monday, September 19, 2011

Key West Hotel

Key West Hotel Rainbow Room
Key West Hotel

Location: Second Avenue, Asbury Park, New Jersey, USA

Opened: 1982

Closed: 1990

Patricia A. Post at Curve Magazine did a great piece on the Key West Hotel in June 2011:

It was the early 1980s and Asbury Park N.J. was the popular, if inconspicuous place for gay and lesbian bars. When three local businesswomen gave new life to the abandoned Albion Hotel, they created the Key West Hotel, a place to unwind, meet friends, future loves, party, swim or dance the night away without the pressures of the heterosexual world. For the majority of women, the hotel offered the only means of interaction with other lesbians, since being gay was still taboo. The Key West Hotel would eventually become the 1980’s most popular club for New Jersey lesbians, and possibly the oldest lesbian venue of its kind on the East Coast.

It all began in the early 1970s when lovers and California transplants Carol Torre and Camille Neto settled in Asbury Park and met Kay San Fillippo, a bartender at a small straight bar which featured a weekly “gay day.” The three women were frustrated with the over-all conditions and treatment of lesbians at the gay clubs in Asbury—to have a bathroom that functioned was a rarity and some of the women’s bars excluded gay men, even if they were friends of the women patrons. So, Torre, Neto and Fillippo decided to open their own bar. “In the beginning we just wanted a bar that didn’t demean women and take this attitude that you have no other choice because you’re gay,” explains Torre.“We wanted a bar where people would be treated respectfully. If women came in with a guy, the guy was welcome. They didn’t have to grovel because we were nice enough to give them a bar.” The women opened The Owl & Pussycat, on Main St. in Asbury. “The Owl,” as it became known, was a success, so when the opportunity arose in 1981 for Torre to purchase the nearby deserted Albion Hotel, she could not refuse. Torre saw its potential, despite the fire damage, broken windows, dated interior, antiquated plumbing and electricity. Convincing Neto and Fillippo was another story. When she took them to see the hotel, they thought she’d lost her mind. “They both cried and said, ‘This is a joke, right?’” Torre recalls. But she convinced them to throw caution to the wind.

Renovating the hotel wasn’t easy, but the women were determined—and resourceful. An old dining room was converted into a disco and a smaller bar was created in the lobby. They constructed tables for the restaurant but other furnishings came from auctions: Tables and chairs for the disco, and bar stools for the lobby bar came from the Playboy Club in Manhattan; the disco bar came from a local Italian restaurant and the beautiful bar in the main lobby from a New York City restaurant. Although the women were meticulous about renovating the interior, the hotel’s exterior was foreboding. But they preferred it that way—if the outside was appealing it would attract straight couples and locals from the nearby biker bars.

In 1982 the Albion was ready for its second life and was renamed the Key West Hotel. It became more than a hotel: It was a community of women who shared friendships, holidays, softball games, bowling, pool tournaments, picnics, birthdays and holiday parties. There was something for everyone. If dancing downstairs in the once famous Rainbow Room or upstairs in the Over the Rainbow disco was not your thing, you could relax in the quieter Owl & Pussycat lounge, shoot a game of pool or get acquainted with a potential love. In summer, the Floridian pool was the perfect place to cool off. Occasionally, the Rainbow Room gave local gay musicians a chance to play for the hundreds of women who filled the hotel’s dance floor on summer weekends.

For many New Jersey gay women, the Key West Hotel was the beginning of becoming comfortable with their identity. Going to a lesbian bar for the first time could be frightening for young lesbians. Torre instructed her staff to be aware of women with a “deer-in-the-headlights” look and go the extra mile to make them comfortable. For some, the hotel was home—literally. At any given time as many as fifteen women resided in the studios, large apartments and penthouses in the hotel. If you were too merry to drive home, rooms were available free of charge.

But by the end of the decade there was trouble in paradise. Rumors about the Asbury waterfront redevelopment circulated and many believed the hotel had closed. Other gay bars opened, especially in northern New Jersey. But it was the AIDS epidemic, rampant during the late ’80s, which threatened the establishment. Not much was known about how the disease was spread, which caused paranoia.“By 1986, I had women afraid to go into the pool because they heard a guy had been in there,” says Torre. “People no longer wanted to drink out of glasses. I had to switch to plastic.” With the imminent redevelopment of Asbury Park’s waterfront, the hotel’s days were numbered. New Year’s Eve 1989 was the last hurrah for the Key West Hotel and its doors closed forever.Torre took it in her stride.“I felt I was at the end of my 10-year stint. I have no regrets. It was a good time—a time that we could never recreate.” 

Key West Crew--Kay San Fillippo, Carol Torre, Camille Neto
That time saw a generation of lesbians became comfortable with their sexual orientation and many formed lifelong friendships and relationships. Unfortunately, the hotel was demolished in the mid 2000s as part of the redevelopment and has been replaced by blacktop. Most young lesbians who stroll by the site are not aware of the community that existed just a few short decades ago. But to those who remember, Joni Mitchell’s lament, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” really hits home.

Photos: Facade of the Key West Hotel, the "Key West crew"--Kay San Fillippo (from left), Carol Torre, and Camille Neto


432 North Clark Street today

Location: 432 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Opened/Closed: 1970s?

This is one woman's description of Marilyn's from a 1999 article in Windy City Times:

"Oh that was fantastic! They had really great ideas. I think Nancy Reiff was the front for Felicia, Jim Flint ... that´s my own personal opinion. You walked in there and there were tree branches in the ceiling and there were Italian lights ... they were way ahead of their time. The hostess wore a tuxedo, you knew she was a woman but she was a very feminine looking type. Nancy would show you around, or be around, or whatever. I don´t know why they didn´t take off, it was so great, such a great bar."

In a 1996 article in the Chicago Tribune, Marilyn's is referred to as "one of our town's legendary lesbian hangouts." Nancy Reiff also clarifies that she managed Marilyn's from 1976 to 1979. But Marilyn's apparently existed before then, as Nancy clarifies here:

"I joined [the Tavern Guild] about 1974, and we used to have some of the meetings at Marilyn's bar. It was set up by bar employees. All the bartenders would network and talk about what was going on in the community, trying to build a sense of cohesiveness between all of us. I think what they were trying to do was unionize without the formality of unionizing, trying to push for benefits and employee rights and things like that."

Reiff went on to become Mayor Richard M. Daley's liason to the Chicago's gay and lesbian community. And then in February 1996, she opened her own place called Icon Bar, which we're told was just up the street from the old Marilyn's. But Reiff's new place made sly referrals to its predecessor, as this little anecdote reveals:

The guy in the red jacket steps into Icon and looks around. There, behind the bar, is a mirrored skyline of the city. And on the dance floor, a solitary woman turns and turns as if in a trance. Above her is a huge portrait of Marilyn Monroe, the movie queen to whom the club's name alludes.

The guy surveys the bar, where women sip on creamy drinks, dozens of beers and a long list of natural and flavored waters. The women chatter, lean into each other, laugh with easy familiarity. Then the guy in the red jacket, his face expressionless, turns and leaves, pausing for just a minute on his way out, looking back one more time as if to make sure he really gets it.

Nancy Reiff laughs. "You know, we're really very boy-friendly," she says. "He certainly could have come in."

Though Reiff was aware of the fact that Chicago's lesbian bars were plagued with short lifespans, she was optimistic about Icon Bar's chances of survival:

"This whole area's very hot right now," she says. "It's fun and safe and I thought it was a great time to open up a new place -- a place for women who work in the Loop and want to relax afterwards, a place for sophisticated women, women who love salsa and other dance music like tribal and house. Besides," she adds, "the business that was in this place just before us was called Norma Jean's -- it just felt so right, like it was meant to be."

But it doesn't appear that Icon Bar survived very long, as I have been able to find out very little else about it. Not even a precise address.

Photo: 432 North Clark Street today


2124 North Clark Street today

Location: 2124 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Opened/Closed: 1950s/1960s

So far, I haven't found too many accounts describing Volli-Bal. This one is by an anonymous woman who first came out in the late 1950s, after a medical discharge from the Air Force. It was originally published in the Windy City Times in 1999.

"When I left I came home to Chicago and my mother found out I was lesbian, she was pulling out of the dresser drawer all my jeans. She blamed herself, of course, like all mothers do. But then my whole family came to understand it, or accept it, not understand it. That was around 1960.

"My mother introduced me to the first gay woman in this city that I ever met. My mother was a cook and a waitress and they used to work at Edward Don and one woman always reminded my mother of me. I was in the Air Force at the time and when I came home she was so proud to introduce me to these ladies, and that was my first circle of friends. They took me to bars. The first one was the Volli-Bal on Clark Street. 

"The first time was scary because I wasn´t used to the whole gay scene. I was so controlled; when you´re in service you´re very controlled. You´re told when to eat, when to dress, and how to dress. I was very scared because the women were very into playing parts at the time and there were a lot of women there that seemed to be big bold brassy butches, and their femmes were really femmes. You didn´t mess around with them, you didn´t even talk to them. The butches wore men´s clothing and the femmes wore women´s clothing, ultra ultra dressed. I remember going into a bar and we had to have three articles of women´s clothing. We couldn´t wear a fly front in our pants. 

"But some of the women used to wear men´s jockey shorts, or boxer shorts, T-shirts. They emulated the guys an awful lot. We had no rules, none to follow, so we emulated our brothers. That´s exactly what it amounts to. So what you look like now, we looked like and then some. And we were subjected to maybe the bar being raided. We couldn´t dance together. All the bars were then were gathering places."

Quearborn & Perversion is a great documentary about Chicago gay and lesbian history. Around the 2:18 mark, you can hear a woman describe a police raid at the Volli-Bal, and look at what appears to be a home movie of Volli-Bal's interior.

Photo: 2124 North Clark Street today




Location: 2625 North Halstead Street, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Opened: June 1995

Closed: 2001?

Here's the rather coy venue description from Clubplanet:

Girlbar - What's in a name? We'll give you a clue -- this bar doesn't feature exotic dancers, if that's what you're thinking. The lipstick chicks are cute though. Wednesday is "Boy Bar" night.

But make no mistake. This was a bar for girls--"for girls who like girls"--as this December 1996 article in the Chicago Tribune makes abundantly clear:

Girlbar is exactly what its name says -- a bar for girls. More specifically, a bar for girls who like girls.

But unlike the so many other girl bars -- with their off-street entrances, dark windows and generally unfriendly neighborhood environs -- Girlbar is in the heart of Lincoln Park, with shiny Windexed panes overlooking Halsted Street.

"You know what I love about this place? That it's in a neighborhood where lesbians actually live and work," says Laurie, a regular at Girlbar. "It's nice without being flashy."

From the outside, Girlbar looks more like a house where somebody's having a party. And on the inside, though stylish in an understated sort of way, it's friendly and unpretentious. The girls are mostly white, mostly middle-class, attractive and urban. Boys -- regardless of sexual orientation -- are welcome, but good behavior's required.

Open since this year's Gay and Lesbian Pride Day last summer, Girlbar is a two-level comfort zone.

There's a second floor with darts and two pool tables. Music plays throughout the bar but flirting and conversation are encouraged upstairs by both lowered volumes and plenty of seats for those who just want to hang out and make pithy comments at the table sharks.

The first floor boasts a dance floor that's dark enough for sexy grinding and deep kissing but also a well-lit front bar surrounded by tables and chair that look out on Halsted Street.

"I love this part," says TJ, a charming raconteur with a seat at a table with a street view. "Just look at them out there. . . ."

A bunch of guys are outside trying to be cool while looking up at the windows. Some are actually the valets from the hyper-hetero Indigo Oyster bar next door.

TJ waves, threatens to make a face, but finally turns her attention back to the table. A ravishing, sinewy blond has just joined the group.

"She's an aspiring bisexual," a friend informs TJ about the newcomer.

"Oh, no," says TJ, eyes twinkling, "I'd say more like an inspiring bisexual."

Customer reviews from planet99 were kind of a mixed bag:

Girlbar's awesome!!!....Wed nites 'GoGirlsMusic' features great female musicians....and it's FREE!!!! - anonymous, 10/15/2001

I have been to GB numerous times and have always found it to be a huge meatmarket and quite clicky. The manager/owner is as mature as a 3-Year-Old. I do not recommend Girl Bar to anyone. If you want a decent bar go to The Closet or Stargaze in Andersonville. -
anonymous, 08/27/2001

you've been around a couple of years now and you are by far the best lesbian club/bar in chicago. When you walk in the door you get a feeling of pride and you know you are in a classy place where people know how to handle themselves unlike a certain suburban club where there is nothing but DRAMA. -
Anon., 05/31/2001

Girlbar is a cute bar with a great crowd. The bartender, Jen, she's amazing! And my girl spins there every Thursday! If you like to shake your ass, Beth's got the right music :-) So, every Thursday and every first Friday of the month are amazing. - Carrie, 05/07/2001

I saw one informal blogger account saying that Girlbar closed down in 2001, but nothing more definitive than that. Something called Girl Bar Chicago started up in February 2007, but this was a monthly circuit party imported from Girl Bar in Los Angeles. Not the same thing.

Photo of Girlbar exterior