Greg Newton and his lover, Donnie Jochum, were walking through Chelsea one night two years ago and passed by the spot where the queer bookstore Different Light once stood. Newton recalled for me, “I asked, ‘When did it close? And the Oscar Wilde Bookshop? Is there no longer a gay bookstore in New York?’ We both immediately said, ‘We should do it. With a bar!’”
And do it they did, with their Bureau of General Services: Queer Division, which opened in November 2012 at 27 Orchard Street in the now uber-hip Lower East Side. It’s a wondrous queer haven of literature and art curated with matchless discernment and far-reaching taste. They won’t be there for long, though, as their agreement with the space they occupy, Strange Loop Gallery, terminates at the end of the month. To facilitate their dream of opening a new place, they launched a fundraising website and are hosting a benefit on August 7 at the Pyramid Club (101 Ave. A at E. Seventh St.), where Justin Sayre will emcee a fabulous lineup of talent (bgsqd.tumblr.com/)
I recently had a ball introducing two films — “You Are Not Alone” and “Riptide” — at the Bureau and wanted to hear more about their story. Newton, who’s had quite a life, coming from a strict Baptist upbringing in Connecticut which helped bring on suicidal depression in his formative years, has found his mission, and said, “This all was pretty much a pipe dream. We met originally online in June 2011, and thinking about a gay bookstore, we’d be on our roof, smoking, wondering how could such a place survive? We launched the idea in June 2012 with 16 volunteers, collecting email addresses, handing out tote bags and info with our website, and a survey to get feedback from people.
“In September, we did the New York Art Book Fair and were selling for the first time. Right after that, a friend told me about these two women, Claire Fleury and Alesia Exum, who owned this gallery, Strange Loop, one of whom went to his yoga studio. He’d chatted about my project and they seemed interested. I went there and thought immediately, ‘Oh, yes, please!’
“Over dinner a few days later, they said, ‘Let’s do it,’ so easy. A marriage of two dykes and two fags! We opened November 15 and were only supposed to be there until the end of January, but we kept getting extended and, finally, we agreed to just keep it going and figure it out as we went along, checking in each month. We are definitely out of there August 31, however. We want to expand to have a café, and they want their space back to go more in a direction of photography and fashion — Claire is a designer — but with it still being a very different kind of gallery, which is cool.”
Newton really learned the business from the ground up, starting with not over-ordering books.
“It’s like I grew up in the Depression, always afraid of running out,” he said.
The effort’s basic philosophy is gleaned from AA Bronson of the General Idea art collective — “to say yes more than you say no, which has been very good, especially in terms of the art we show.”
The Bureau’s clientele has been steadily growing, although Newton admitted, “We are somewhat off the beaten path, although this area is getting more attention with its galleries and restaurants. I wish a gay bar would open here.”
Bestsellers at the Bureau include “Against Equality,” “Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?,” and “Wild Animals I Have Known: Polk Street Diaries and After.”
“There’s been a big revival of David Wojnarowicz, with the book ‘Fire in the Belly,’” Newton said.
The Bureau is also the one place where you can get a full range of ‘zines, which I was happy to find are very much alive and well, with “Butt,” ”Spank,” “Headmaster,” ”Pinups,” “Homocats,” “Original Plumbing,” ”Anal” from Mexico, and others on vividly subversive display. “And there’s ‘Bad Grammar,’ which plays with the negative stereotypes of African Americans not speaking proper English,” Newton added.
With an academic background in art history, Newton always wanted to show art as well as have readings and screenings: “I never wanted to have the word ‘bookstore’ in our name and saw a bigger project than that. We called it a queer cultural center from the beginning, with a synergy with what’s happening to bring people in because they have different interests and not everyone is a big reader, although they should be.”
As for that singular name: “I love institutional critique, artists who took on the airs and monikers of institutions and played with them. Like General Idea, Art in General, Work Material, and Marcel Breuer in the 1960s with his I Am a Museum. It’s not just about rich people getting together and starting a museum, it’s about taking it in your own hands, claiming authority. Now that we are being accepted by authority, this is a good moment to be talking about it. Are we really looking to be recognized by some authority that has historically despised us and say ‘thank you’? Do we want to join the military? No!
“You want to get married? Okay, I guess, but it’s not on my agenda. I get it, and with the military, I understand there are class issues where it seems like the only way out, but a sad one, I think, not only for themselves, but for what the military is doing to others around the world.
“I know it’s an oversimplification, but what happened to queer liberation? What happened to envisioning a totally different society that’s loving and compassionate and free? I’m not naïve but also feel that people who become so pragmatic lose their souls, so the Bureau is playfully engaging the idea of what bureaucracy do we want to be part of or create.
“I feel so lucky that people have embraced this project, despite snarky comments I shouldn’t read on the Internet about gay people not reading anymore and objections to my use of the word ‘queer,’ which I fully embrace. People have really come to us, and it could have just died but it was just the opposite, in spite of all you hear about bookstores dying.
“People say, ‘We don’t need our own spaces anymore,’ and I don’t know how to respond to that. It’s not about ghettoizing. Yes, things are different now, but we still live in a very hateful society, and not just toward gay people. The word ‘queer’ to me is all-embracing and about making alliances with others who are marginalized and criminalized.”
“Donnie and I are two gay men starting this, and it’s obviously easier for us to connect socially to other gay men and they feel drawn to us, but, going forward, we want to get everyone involved — women, trans, intersex, the whole spectrum of anyone who is outside the world of heterosexual strict gender binarism. And that’s a lot of people.”
The New York Musical Theatre Festival, which attracted very healthy, enthusiastic crowds to a variety of venues, just wrapped and I was able to catch a few of the many shows. I was struck by the level of commitment and detail that went into all the productions I saw, some with nearly full stagings with costumes and sets. On the plus side was “Gary Goldfarb: Master Escapist,” which, although it could use some cutting, benefited from catchy music and lyrics and, especially, the wonderfully talented Jared Loftin — a kid with amazingly more colors in his voice than a rainbow — in the title role.
“Crossing Swords” was a moving take on the classic “Cyrano de Bergerac” set in a Canadian school. “Bend in the Road” was yet one more musical adaptation of the beloved “Anne of Green Gables,” which, though not earthshaking, was effective in its own right and blessed with a nice performance by Martin Vidnovic.
“Castle Walk” had an interesting concept, about the making of the 1939 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.” This real life pair was renowned for their terpsichorean skills, but the dances they performed, while effective in their day, don’t exactly scream excitement now, and the choreography, though authentic, was too demure and repetitive to sustain my interest.
“Icarus,” though colorfully produced and vividly performed, was a somewhat tortured retelling of the Greek myth, set in a freak show carny with unappetizing and repetitive music and lyrics. And definitely on the minus side was “Boys Will Be Boys.” I just felt bad for the hard-working actors, and the title alone — if not the festival brochure — should have warned me away from this beyond-tired and irritatingly obvious show dealing with Gay Attention Deficit Disorder. What amazes me is that anyone is even still doing cornball, unfunny revue stuff like this — as if it were 1972 and we were still inventing the gay entertainment wheel.
Sheer musical pleasure was happily vouchsafed by Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Town Hall appearance on July 8. It was titled “Simply Broadway,” as is his new CD, and it was all that, casting this truly beloved baritone in some of the most iconic theater roles singing repertoire warhorses. Memories of childhood came flooding back as, thanks to my musical-loving Aunt Gretchen who’d buy soundtrack records, I was exposed to most of these songs at an early age and — God forbid! — sometimes preferred the movie versions to original cast albums, case in point being “Camelot.”
Mitchell did two numbers from that show, proving that he would have made a stellar King Arthur or Lancelot. He also did two numbers from his personally beloved “Man of La Mancha,” and he is really the only person in the world I ever care to hear sing those songs, as he does them so magnificently.
He showed off his versatility, embodying two characters he will probably never play — Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” and Fagin in “Oliver!” Most renditions of “Soliloquy” from “Carousel” are groan-inducing and beyond the musical-dramatic chops of those who attempt them (see Nathan Gunn), but Mitchell carried it off with thrilling ease and power.
If you want to really laugh, by all means catch “The To Do List” in general release right now. It’s a deliciously raunchy female version of “American Pie’ and funnier than that entire franchise, about an over-achieving high school girl (Aubrey Plaza, fearless), who wants to do every sexual act all her less grade-conscious peers have long been enjoying before she goes to college. Outrageous and outrageously funny, but with heart and some nicely unstressed messages, it’s the perfect summer movie.