A Look at the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division: New York City’s Queer Bookstore
Author: Steven Cordova
February 5, 2015
During the fall of 2012, partners Greg Newton and Donnie Jochum opened the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division (BGSQD), a New York City-based bookstore dedicated to showcasing LGBTQ books and authors.
Their powerful mission is eloquently simple:
We aim to foster a community invested in the values of mindfulness, intellectual curiosity, justice, compassion, and playfulness. The Bureau seeks to excite and educate a self-confident, sex-positive, and supportive queer community by offering books, publications, and art and by hosting readings, performances, film screenings, book discussion groups, and workshops
Originally located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Bureau recently moved to a space inside New York City’s LGBT Community Center.
Co-owner Greg Newton took some time to talk with Lambda about the bookstore’s recent move, the inspiration behind starting BGSQD, and the upcoming projects and goings-on at the Bureau.
First of all, congratulations to you, Greg, and to Donnie Jochum, your partner at the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division. You guys recently relocated the Bureau, making a big move from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to the West Village. Tell us about that.
Our move to The LGBT Community Center has done wonders for the Bureau! We’re getting many more visitors, making more sales and receiving more attention and support. We’re very happy to be housed in an institution that is dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT people. The administration and the staff at The Center have been wonderfully supportive of our work. It has felt like home from day one.
We are also very excited that the renovation of The Center is nearly complete! We’re confident that the Bureau’s presence and the addition of a café to the lobby will draw people to The Center, even when they’re not attending meetings or events.
The Bureau opened its doors fully conscious that The Oscar Wilde Book Store and A Different Light had been forced by hard times to close their doors. How is BGSQD like those bookstores? How is it different?
It was the closings of both of those stores that later inspired us to launch the Bureau. We just couldn’t believe that New York City, of all places, could not sustain a queer bookstore. But we were also aware that there were many reasons that independent bookstores, in general, and queer bookstores, specifically, had closed—the rise of big-box bookstores, the emergence of the Internet, the ruthlessness of Amazon.com, and the invention of e-books all played roles, not to mention free online porn. Regarding the closings of LGBT bookstores, we recognized that changing dynamics within LGBT communities and the loss of so many people to AIDS presented additional challenges that only compounded the difficulties faced by all independent bookstores. Furthermore, independent LGBT bookstores, like every other business, had to contend with the 2008 financial crisis. That’s a lot to have to adapt to in a couple of decades!
We had the advantage of coming to this project after LGBT bookstores had been confronting all of the challenges mentioned above; we aren’t having to adapt to all of those changes. We were able to learn how other indie bookstores—LGBT and otherwise—have managed to adapt and persist in this new landscape. We continually heard from indie bookstore owners that events and social media play vital roles in sustaining their businesses, and we took this to heart. Even before we began researching, we knew that this would need to be much more than a bookstore. Our goal was to found a social and cultural space for queers that included books. We still hope to add a café to the mix some day and create a space that people spend time in, even when we don’t have events; that was part of the plan from day one.
New York City, independent bookstores and the LGBT communities are so very different from when the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop and A Different Light opened in 1967 and ‘83, respectively. In spite of all of the changes, there are still many people whose identities as queer people are important, if not central, to their lives, and to their understanding of themselves in relation to others. Of course, that’s true of us, and we knew that we desired some type of cultural community space—a space dedicated to queer people and queer culture, and a space that queer people would actively use.
We knew that the Bureau would have to offer much more than books; it would have to provide other services. The primary service we provide is a welcoming and stimulating space where queers can meet and get to know each other; share our work and our ideas with each other; and encourage, inspire and learn from each other.
Also, we use the term “queer,” rather than “gay,” because it represents much broader concerns than sexual orientation, as important as that is. Queer has come to represent all those who do not comply with mandatory heterosexuality and/or the rigid gender binary. We see the term “queer” as having great potential to draw attention to all people who are vilified, demonized, criminalized and ostracized, and to all people who have been relegated to positions beyond our societies’ circles of empathy.
I’ve attended a handful of events at the Bureau now, mostly readings, but you have other kinds of events, too. Which events draw the most attention? Which draw the biggest audiences?
Events with multiple readers and/or performers tend to draw the biggest crowds. Each individual has his or her own audience, which adds up. Poetry readings also draw good crowds; we always see poets attending each other’s readings. We were thrilled to have a packed house for our grand opening at The Center hosted by Lady Quesa’Dilla (aka Alejandro Rodríguez), one of the charming information and referral specialists at The Center’s front desk, and featuring Rumi Missabu, Stephen Boyer, Cristy C. Road, West Vargina (a.k.a. Heather Acs), Dust Tea Shoulders, Drae Campbell, Mizz June, Max Steele and DJ Jade Payne! That was a magical night!
Has there been any writer at the Bureau who you’d long admired and really looked forward to meeting? Tell me about that?
Far too many to name! We’re very honored to have hosted so many writers, performers and activists whose work we admire.
You guys presented at the 2014 Lammys, and there are some really cute pictures of you together on the Lambda site. How was that experience for you?
We were very honored by the invitation to present two Lammys. Over two years ago (and seven months before opening our doors), we had a couple of volunteers passing out flyers announcing our project outside of the Lambda Awards ceremony, and at the same time, we were across town passing out the same flyers outside of the annual fundraiser for The Center. We were just beginning to get the word out. So it was particularly gratifying to receive this invitation only two years later. It was great to see so many people at the event with whom we’ve become friends in this time. We felt very welcome and appreciated.
What are some of the upcoming projects and goings-on at the Bureau?
We have a full calendar of events for the next few months, including off-site events with photographer and author B. Proud for her book First Comes Love. We’re also planning exhibitions with artists David Lavine, Adriana Varella and others.
Last question: what is it that the Bureau needs from the communities it’s serving? Inquiring minds want to know.
Thank you for asking! The Bureau’s most important need is the active participation of local queers and allies. Buying from the Bureau is certainly one important way to support us, but we also need people to participate by booking and attending events; proposing collaborations and art exhibitions; spreading the word about the Bureau, what we do and why that’s important; and volunteering. Volunteers help us run our events, manage the store and run errands. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We could also use pro bono help with legal, accounting and visual design services.
Donations of queer books in good condition are also always welcome, but we primarily need financial donations. At this point, any money that the Bureau makes from sales goes right back into the project—paying bills and buying more books, zines and supplies. So we are still very much in need of donations. Ideally, we’d love to have people commit to a regular monthly donation, however small. But every donation helps, whether people give monthly or on occasion. Both single and recurring monthly donations can be made on our member page on the Fractured Atlas website. Fractured Atlas is a nonprofit arts service organization, so contributions are tax-deductible. Please visit www.bgsqd.com/donate and click on the link. Thank you!