City Paper is not for tourists
The closing of a women’s haven leaves the lesbian community short on institutions.
It’s the last Saturday in September, and the remains of a bookshelf are flying out the second-story window of 1607 17th St. NW. Crashing into a back-alley dumpster, the wooden shards settle into a heap of bags and boxes. Then, a piece of poster board floats down. It’s a handmade sign that reads, “LAMMAS. MORE THAN A BOOKSTORE. A MOVEMENT.”
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 storepaperbacks, T-shirts, and the sole remaining red-and-black rubber dildomust 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 ’80sa silver lambda earringSpector 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.” CP