Inside The Oldest Gay-Owned Bookstore In The South
Faubourg Marigny Art and Books has been a part of New Orleans' gay literary history since it opened in 1977 and you've never seen a bookstore quite like it.
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When I say that it's a relief to push open the forest green-painted door and step inside Faubourg-Marigny Art and Books, I first mean "relief" in the sense that it's wildly hot outside and the bookstore is quiet and air-conditioned. But it's also "relief" to have found that a bookstore like FAB, as its frequently known, is not just a figment of my heat-addled imagination. Before my trip to New Orleans, I'd read accounts of visits to the "oldest gay-owned bookstore in the South." There are even YouTube videos of current owner, Otis Fennell (who has been running the store since 2003), meandering through the store he rightfully considers to be more a cultural institution. But, just like so much of New Orleans and the Queer South, you really just have to see it for yourself. FAB is about as far from the conventional idea of a bookstore as New Orleans is from the conventional understanding of an American City.
The shelves and piles and stacks of original paintings, photography, new, used, and vintage books, old porn magazines, and erotica are overwhelming only until you wind your way — straight lines of movement are all but impossible here — towards the cash register where Fennell sits on a makeshift throne in front of an electric fan, surrounded by a collage of posters, postcards, Mardi Gras beads and more books. "It's Not Just Porn," a poster just over his shoulder reminds us, and as Fennell talks, it's clear that this store isn't just about selling books either.
"It's a one-man operation, so I don't have a crew to come in to do filing and making it look pretty," says Fennell, running his hand over a pile of books waiting to be shelved. "It just sort of happens. But I like the style. I like it funky and I like it as it was." The "was" he's referring to is the 1970s, during which ten or twelve gay-owned bookstores opened across the country, among them the famous Oscar Wilde Bookshop which opened in 1967 New York City and Giovanni's Room Bookstore in Philadelphia which opened in 1973.
Fennell, who worked in the tourism industry before taking over the bookstore, traveled frequently during that time, visiting some of the bookstores across the States and Europe that would inspire FAB's New Orleans founders to open the bookstore in 1977. Fennell says the store's aesthetic is an attempt to hold on to part of how those first few bookstores, most of them now closed, felt in the seventies.
"They were not organized as normal bookstores, but had all the content that a gay or lesbian reader wanted to review. So, I wanted to make that happen." As such, a hardback copy of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, Tom of Finland postcards, used copies of novels by John Waters and Tennessee Williams and anthologies like The Best of the Best Meat Erotica find equal footing in a store that quietly defies the prevalent American obsession with "correctly" labeling and categorizing books and the people who write and read them. It takes a little getting used to, or rather, it takes a guide, like Fennell, to find the book you're looking for, but — I'd argue — that's part of the point. It takes time for you to find what you're looking for in FAB, so much so that you'll likely give up on looking for a specific book and instead find something you didn't expect.
"I just do it so I'm happy… 'cause I'm the one who has to live here," says Fennell.
He lets out an easy laugh when asked whether or not the store is thriving. "The definition of thriving is an open definition. I don't know. I'm just morally committed, and spiritually committed to making this space work, so it's not a profit-loss decision to me, which it should be, but it's more of an institution."
It is easy, perhaps, to think Fennell is laying it on a bit thick, unless you remember walking into Crossroads Market, the gay-owned bookstore in Dallas, Texas, for the first time when you were fifteen or sixteen. You saw men holding hands, sipping coffee in the café, and pulling books off the shelves. And, even if you didn't know it at the time, many of those books were going to save your life one day. But Crossroads Market closed it doors a few years ago, as did Outwrite Bookstore in Atlanta, as did Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York.
And so, somewhere between nostalgia and heat-induced hopefulness, I'm wandering Otis Fennell's cramped little store with a copy of Dancer From the Dance by Andrew Holleran in my hands while Fennell takes a break from our interview to chat with someone who "just wants to say hi." This happens pretty frequently during my visit. A man cracks open the door, peeks to see if Fennel is at his perch, then moseys in with a few used books to trade or just some mid-afternoon gossip about the neighborhood. When his most recent visitor says goodbye and steps back out into the heat, Fennell sees the Holleran novel in my hand and says "Ah, that book is pretty close to how things were then. A little exaggerated, of course. But Holleran gets it."
Straight tourists come in too, quietly usually, meekly most often. There's no need to by shy, though. FAB is a neighborhood bookstore just like any other — except with an extensive gay porn collection if you're so inclined. "I really have no limits in that when somebody's kind enough to visit with me here, I accept whoever they are. I accept them equally with everybody else, and that's just the way I've always thought in my mind about people, or tried to. So when people come in, they're maybe a little shocked, and I try to engage them in conversation, make them feel a little comfortable."