White Rabbit Books & Things, which served the gay and lesbian community in the Triangle, closed this month after almost two decades. That there ever was a White Rabbit store in Raleigh is a tribute to the drive and determination of John Neal, the original owner. John was running a mail-order calligraphy supply business in Greensboro when, in the mid-1980s, he took a chance and added gay-themed books to the front of his retail space. That was his first store.
I ran a gay community newspaper at the time, The Front Page, and worked with John on advertising. I wanted him to succeed. Gay men and lesbians my age can often cite a particular book that was crucial to their coming-out process—Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation or Sappho Was a Right-On Woman, for example. Newspapers and books were a lifeline in those pre-Internet days.
John occasionally talked with me about a second store, maybe in Charlotte. Then, one afternoon in 1990, I was leaving Raleigh to visit friends. I drove past the The Paper Plant, a used bookstore downtown that was popular with local artists. The store, however, was empty, and a large sign in the window said "Space For Lease."
A lightbulb went on over my head and stayed on all during my long drive. "Ridiculous!" I kept saying to myself, but I couldn't shake the idea. Once I got to my friends' house, I called John and said, "I have to tell you about this crazy idea." I figured he'd laugh, and I'd laugh, and that would be it.
To my surprise, he said, "What's the phone number?"
He jumped at the chance to open a store in Raleigh, and even more shocking, he thought I would make a good manager. I had been working part-time at Waldenbooks for several years, and that must have seemed sufficient experience.
John drove over and looked at the space on West Martin Street. It was huge. We decided that the bookstore would be in the front of the space, and the newspaper—then operating out of the house I lived in—would be in the back. The Front Page would swap advertising space for rent, and we'd all benefit.
But first there was work to be done. John took the space "as is," and it was a dump. The Paper Plant had a certain raffish charm that appealed to Raleigh's bohemian set, but if we were going to lure gay men and lesbians out of the Raleigh suburbs and over from Durham and Chapel Hill, we needed to spiff the place up considerably.
Everything that could be done with paint and carpet was done. The big plateglass windows in the front of the store made the space bright and cheerful, and John and his crew from the Greensboro store made everything shine. John bought beautiful wood shelving and fixtures from a defunct bookstore, we stocked them, and the store opened in 1991.
At first, we broadened the subject matter of the store a bit beyond LGBT titles because we weren't sure what kind of walk-in customers we'd get, and we didn't want to lose any potential business. As it happened, nothing sold except the gay stuff, but it took awhile to figure that out.
This led to some interesting encounters. We originally designed the store so that it got gayer the farther back you went. Sometimes folks would wander in, get right to the middle of the store and then stop, levitate slightly, spin around and head—polite but panicked—for the door. We always said "Thank you for stopping by," and they always said "No, thank you." So Southern.
One day a young couple came in around lunchtime. She immediately gravitated toward the calligraphy materials (back stock from Greensboro). He got bored and wandered a little deeper into the store. Moments later, he zipped back to her side and stayed there, whispering urgently. She bought some books and paid with a check. I blanched a bit when I read that they were a Mr. and Mrs. Helms from Monroe, N.C., but I smiled and said "Thank you for stopping by."
I can't prove a connection, but the very next day we had a city inspector come in demanding to see our business license. They'd had a complaint that we were running an adult bookstore at that location. A quick look around determined that we were doing no such thing, and that was the end of that.
The store was broken into that first year. Somebody kicked in the front door in the middle of the night, ran past the CDs, DVDs, computer, etc., grabbed as many T-shirts as he could and ran out again. Now, what he planned to do with several dozen T-shirts emblazoned with "Nobody Knows I'm A Lesbian," I'm not sure, but customers assured me they never saw them for sale out at the flea market. We got a stronger lock for the door.
Frequently, in those early years, customers asked for help with coming out. I always recommended two books. "This one is for your parents to read," I would tell them, handing over a copy of Is It a Choice? "And this one is for you," I would add, offering a copy of Who Cares If It's a Choice? (a parody).
Over the ensuing years, we added more and more nonbook items: rainbow flags, rainbow stickers, rainbow candles, rainbow tchotchkes without end; greeting cards; dance music CDs; DVDs for rental; even overpriced underwear. We joked that perhaps we should change the name to White Rabbit Things & Books.
John and I had a bumpy relationship, but he kept me on as manager for seven years and then—after a short intermission—hired me back as a book buyer for all three stores (the Charlotte store had opened by this time). It took a couple of tries to find another manager, so I was also the Emergency Management Hologram—popping up as needed. (What the heck, I was always in the back with the newspaper anyway.) Chris Newlin was finally hired and managed White Rabbit for many more years than I did and was always a pleasure to work with.
In 2006, I sold The Front Page to my competitor, the owner of the Charlotte-based Q-Notes. A few years later, he also bought the White Rabbit chain from John. A move to a new location wasn't successful, but more than that, there was less and less to sell. Most of the gay consumer magazines are gone. Most of the gay—um—"gentlemen's" magazines are gone. One of the biggest publishers of gay and lesbian books announced this year that it's only going to publish e-books from now on. What's left to sell besides rainbow jockstraps?
I remember one early customer, having braved I-40 to visit the store, asking me, "Why didn't you open this store in Durham?"
"Raleigh needed it more," I replied without thinking. But it was true. White Rabbit Books & Things made a difference.
Jim Baxter is a former staffer and occasional correspondent at the Independent. He is currently working on a Ph.D. in Journalism Studies at the University of Maryland-College Park.