Editor's note: White Rabbit Books & Things, which served the gay and lesbian community in the Triangle, closed this month after almost two decades in downtown Raleigh. Jim Baxter, a former manager of White Rabbit, collected the comments of many White Rabbit employees and customers, and here are some of the best—and funniest—of them. Later this month, we will be publishing a column by Baxter about the significance of the White Rabbit in our local history. For many years, Baxter helped lead and chronicle the gay and lesbian community as publisher of The Front Page.
When I heard the news about White Rabbit Books closing down, I asked around for people's thoughts and memories. "I am sad to see an icon of the LGBT community leave Raleigh," John Paul Womble said. "Much like losing The Front Page, saying goodbye to White Rabbit is painful."
Filmmaker Tim Kirkman wrote back: "The White Rabbit was an oasis for me back in the early 1990s. At the time, Jesse Helms had become the de facto face of North Carolina and, for me, sometimes that was too much to bear. Going into the White Rabbit felt like a rebellious act. I know that's hard to imagine now, but back then it was a brave thing to walk into an LGBT bookstore. I remember being proud of how large the store was!"
Neil Abernethy remembered White Rabbit as a de facto community center. "When I wanted to post a flyer for a new non-bar-scene social group, I went to White Rabbit. The fluid border between the bookstore, The Front Page, and the fly-by-night gay travel agency gave the space the feeling that anything good could happen there, and that – true to its name – this tiny ecosystem somehow added up to more than the sum of its parts. The fact that daylight shone on it during business hours certainly didn't hurt!"
Wayne Lindsey added, "The combination of White Rabbit and The Front Page offices created a great place for community. It was always a place where you could go and feel at home, at ease and comfortable with friends and like-minded folk."
Former White Rabbit employees had much to share. One of my first employees reminded me that she had to learn various nuances of gay male identity: when making up three-packs of old magazines, I apparently instructed her, you can't mix bears with twinks, or leather guys with preppy.
I blush to remember but cannot deny the truth of it. Another female employee, during her first week, was mystified when a man came in and asked for five dollars in quarters. She gave it to him and then watched him wander around the store for a time, peering into corners, before finally leaving. "What just happened?" she asked me.
"Wrong bookstore," I explained.
The adult bookstore over on the next block was the place to get change if you ran out on the weekend but no one else was shameless enough to go over there and ask. Even after my time as manager, I recall doing the "we need change!" emergency run.
The male employees had their confusing encounters, too. "The weirdest thing that happened to me was when a handsome man asked to use the phone. I heard him tell someone he was running late but he would be there in time for the meeting," Don Barefoot said.
The man looked around the store for a bit, and then asked Barefoot a question. "He asked if he could kiss me because he had never kissed a man. I said no because he freaked me out a little. When he left I hit redial on the phone to see who he called and it was the Southern Baptist Headquarters up the street."
Customers had unexpected moments at the store too. Chuck Small, then a copy editor at the News & Observer, told me: "I found White Rabbit a good place to go to begin to connect with Raleigh's LGBT community in ways I found comfortable, especially in my first few years in Raleigh."
"But then there were the more random connections," he added. "The one that stands out the most for me was running into a priest from the North Raleigh Catholic church where I was a parishioner! Our awkward conversation took on the tone of a confession for me (though not for him, evidently)."
Drew Rapp, who was editor of The Front Page for several years, remembered my literary snootiness. Or, as he phrased it, "watching you roll your eyes while James Baldwin novels rotted away and rainbow cat stickers flew off the shelf."
But, he added, "I really miss gay bookstores. They used to be the old reliable. If you were in a strange town you could always stop by the gay bookstore to find the newspapers, bar flyers, and get some restaurant suggestions from the pierced 20-year-old behind the counter. White Rabbit was just like that."
Jim Duley, another Front Page editor, said, "My memories of the store are all tied up with the newspaper office in the back," but he rambled off a list of impressions: "the looks on innocent non-gay customers who wandered in off the street for a newspaper or a Harry Potter book ... the content of some of the greeting cards ... the steady decline of books in favor of 'things' ... the ability of marketing people to put a rainbow on a roll of toilet paper or a cat water bowl and have it snapped up by the gays."
Too true, too true.
"Like The Front Page, White Rabbit is a victim of the success of the LGBT movement," Duley added. "When the store opened, there were really few other places in North Carolina to buy gay and lesbian book titles—or even to learn about them. The fact that those same books are now found at Barnes & Noble or can be downloaded to an iPad or Kindle should be seen as a success for our community."
Through the years, White Rabbit tried to be a good neighbor, too. In the early days, the photographer next door would leave his cats with us when he went out of town and they would race around the store trying to find new places to perch. Some years later, a different photographer—Steve Aubuchon—moved into the space on the opposite side of the store.
"White Rabbit introduced me to the gay community," Aubuchon said. "Until I moved to West Martin Street, I had little or no contact with the community. It offered me the opportunity to discover gay rights issues. It was an invaluable source of information when my daughter came out."
"At one point I shared my studio with another photographer who was quite homophobic. He was expecting a UPS delivery and when he did not see it, I explained UPS dropped packages off for me at the bookstore when I wasn't in. He went next door and identified himself as my partner. A day later I was in the store and the same clerk asked me if the person in question was my 'partner' or my 'partner-partner.' (You can see where this is going.) Back at the studio I told him, 'Way to go. You told the boys next door we're a couple.' He turned white as a ghost and ordered me to march back there and clarify the misunderstanding. I refused, telling him it was his problem, not mine. I spent the week calling him sweetie. As it turns out, over time, he lost his homophobic opinions."
I remember many of the author appearances we had, like E. Lynn Harris and Allan Gurganus. Or Armistead Maupin. For his visit, I dug into the Front Page files and filled the window not only with copies of his Tales of the City books but every publicity photo of him since the first volume. He looked at the display aghast. "It's like a Slimfast ad in reverse," he said.
The store always veered a little more toward gay men than women, although we tried to keep a balance. We did have some terrific lesbian authors come to visit, like cartoonist Alison Bechdel and erotica author Robbi Sommers. Her reading was more of a performance, with costume changes even. Her hats got bigger and her neckline lower with each story.
"A reading I did at the White Rabbit is one of the happiest memories of my life," Minnie-Bruce Pratt told me. "My book S/HE had just been published—about gender-boundary-crossing and my relationship with transgender activist Leslie Feinberg. At the time, my youngest son was in school in North Carolina and he brought his sweetheart to the reading—they'd just gotten together. Almost 20 years later, Leslie and I, and my son and his sweetheart, are still together."
For a generation or two, White Rabbit was a major asset in dealing with issues of identity. "One of my fondest memories about the White Rabbit deals with my early experiences coming out," Justin Pressley said. "As I became more and more comfortable with the gay aspect of myself, I found a store that catered to gay society. It came to me as a breath of fresh air to visit a store that had so much to offer gays and lesbians so they could feel less like an oddity and more like a member of a community. It was a great place to wander around, meet new people and buy fun stuff."
Another long-term customer summed it up: "Mostly it was just a great place to hang out and be around members of the community without being in a bar atmosphere. You never knew who was going to turn up," Al Parker said. "The merchandise was always fun and eclectic."
To some extent, what Pressley and Parker describe may have been the problem. White Rabbit was enormously popular as a social space for many years, but that didn't always add up to sales. I mean, how many rainbow thingamabobs can you buy? Looking back, I'm sorry we never figured out a way to make the place a coffee shop as well as a bookstore. If every customer who came in just to feel a part of their own community (and pick up a free newspaper) had spent a couple dollars on coffee and a muffin, perhaps that would have made the difference. Who knows?
But now it's gone. "I'm so sad that the White Rabbit is closing," Minnie-Bruce Pratt concluded, "but the ideas, organizing, relationships and love affairs that were made when we were brought together there still live on through us all."
Tim Kirkman agreed: "I am sad that it is going away, but its closing is also symbolic of our progress, in a way, so I'm proud of its heritage, of its contribution to my own growth and liberation."