Thursday, November 17, 2011

Outwrite says goodbye to landmark Midtown corner

Posted By on Thu, Nov 17, 2011 at 9:30 AM

OVER THE RAINBOW: Owner Philip Rafshoon will move LGBT bookstore Outwrite from the corner of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue at the end of his lease.
  • Joeff Davis
  • OVER THE RAINBOW: Owner Philip Rafshoon will move LGBT bookstore Outwrite from the corner of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue at the end of his lease.
On Nov. 14, Philip Rafshoon sent out an early morning press release stating that Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse, the LGBT shop he opened 18 years ago, will soon vacate its iconic storefront at the corner of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue. No longer able to afford the rent there, Rafshoon is looking for a new, less expensive property for his business.

There are plenty of reasons why bookstores of all kinds are closing nowadays: online shopping, e-readers, Americans' overall lack of spending money. This year, mega-retailer Borders went bankrupt and liquidated, shuttering stores across the nation, including a Ponce de Leon Avenue location minutes from Outwrite. But this is different. This is unlike any big-box bookstore closing because Outwrite is more than a bookstore. Outwrite brought a new kind of center to Atlanta's gay and lesbian community. It wasn't about drinking or going to a bar, but about being connected and visible. The store proved to many Atlantans, gay and straight, that you can be gay even at 9 a.m., with a coffee in your hand instead of a vodka-cran.

Rafshoon opened the original 1,000-square-foot Outwrite in 1993 in the current Rice Box restaurant location in the Midtown Promenade shopping center that now houses Trader Joe's. At the time, "Atlanta was the largest city in the country that didn't have a gay and lesbian bookstore," says Rafshoon (Charis Books & More was catering primarily to women).

By 1996, business was booming, both for Outwrite and the city of Atlanta, which was readying itself for the Olympics. Rafshoon wanted to take time off to help an ailing friend, but a real estate agent urged him to check out a vacant space. They met at Red Square, a small dance club on the corner of 10th and Piedmont that had barely lasted two years. Friends warned Rafshoon that it was a "horrible" corner. "Everything's failed there," Rafshoon remembers hearing. But, "you had [a neighborhood] that's mostly gay, yet you had this corner with nothing going on. Why not a bookstore? What could be more perfect?" says Rafshoon. Outwrite's expanded Piedmont Avenue location opened in May 1996.

Rafshoon remembers 1,500 people waiting eight hours to meet Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis when the store hosted the athlete/author after he came out as HIV positive. When a bomb went off at gay nightclub Otherside Lounge in 1997, injuring five, Outwrite became a political hub. The shop was a gathering place for younger gays, too. Without a need for ID, people of all ages could interact in a safe and intellectual way. Outwrite cemented both the Midtown corner and the gay community. "We're very visible," Rafshoon says. "A beacon to people coming from out of town. A flag on a major corner in the South."

But as the neighborhood gentrified, moneyed straight people moved in and rents raised. Where drag queens used to perform at sushi restaurant Nickiemoto's now stands an overpriced New York burger chain. The gays are being out-priced of their own gayborhood. Outwrite's relocation raises the question of what community means today for Atlanta's LGBT population.

Does Atlanta even need a gay ground zero anymore? The fact that the city's LGBT population has spread not only throughout neighborhoods but also into adjacent suburbs is proof of Atlanta's wider acceptance of homosexuality. But there's something to be said of both strong community centers and preserving cultural institutions. Outwrite's first move made the shop and its surrounding neighborhood stronger, but maintaining a community is hard work. Atlanta loves to sell out — just look at Midtown. It's hard to see how a third location will be the charm.

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