Know Milwaukee: Outwords Books – An enclave for LGBT lit
Tucked away in a quiet Eastside neighborhood that serves primarily as high-turnover off-campus housing for UWM students, Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee is relatively nondescript. Aside from a few posters in the window, passersby might have no idea that there’s even a book store here, let alone Milwaukee’s only LGBT bookstore.
Nestled amongst a corner store, laundromat, and a seemingly endless row of apartment buildings, Outwords is the kind of place that you might walk right past if you didn’t know it’s there, but for many gay, lesbian and trans Milwaukeeans, the bookstore and coffee shop is a bedrock of the community.
Carl Szatmary, a former employee of the long-defunct Webster’s Books, saw the popularity of that store’s gay and lesbian section, and recognized the demand for an LGBT bookstore in Milwaukee.
On what Szatmary calls “a sweltering Friday night” in the summer of 1993, Outwords (originally called Afterwords Bookstore and Espresso Bar) opened its doors.
“It was a very different Milwaukee then, [and] when we opened with the coffee bar, we were very unique at that point,” Szatmary says of the store’s early days. “In Milwaukee, there were a couple of coffee shops, but the proliferation of coffee bars in bookstores was not common.”
The coffee bar was soon dwarfed, however, by the LGBT community’s enthusiasm for the literary side of things, and after just one year the bookstore expanded, nearly doubling in size. Eventually Szatmary began stocking a diverse array of new items, making Outwards as much a gift shop as a bookstore. Greeting cards, bumper stickers, buttons, and a wide variety of rainbow items adorn the shelves, alongside books organized by category and subcategory like “Lesbian Mysteries” and “Gay Fantasy,” and a small but robust selection of adult DVDs.
In the 18 years since Outwords first opened its doors, Szatmary has weathered a depressed economy and the challenges of an ever-changing publishing industry. When asked if LGBT publishing has become more mainstream, he laughs and says that, in fact, it’s just the opposite.
“The mid-to-late 90s was an explosion for mainstream presses to pick up gay and lesbian authors, most of which stayed briefly and [then] had to find new homes elsewhere,” he says.
“Since the year 2000, there has been an explosion in lesbian publishing. More lesbians are writing fiction, more lesbian fiction is being published, but by lesbian presses. Since about 2005 or 2006, there has been an explosion of gay men’s fiction, not by mainstream presses, but mostly small romance companies, and online publishing that ends up in print as well.”
It is to Szatmary’s credit that he is so attuned to the changing dynamics of the publishing industry and ever able to roll with the punches. As sole proprieter, he sometimes refers to himself as a “one-man band,” in charge of all of the store’s operations.
Along with his adaptability, Szatmary understands the importance of community; booking events with gay and lesbian authors from around the Midwest and keeping up with monthly book clubs is a large part of that.
Szatmary himself is charming and incredibly affable, and Outwords exudes that same welcoming vibe. It is these attributes that have kept the store afloat for 18 years, through a recession which has contributed to the demise of a number of independent bookstores, LGBT or otherwise, both locally and nationally. Two of the largest and longest running LGBT-only stores, San Francisco’s A Different Light and D.C.’s Lambda Rising, have both closed their doors within the last two years.
Through all this, Outwords has found a loyal, supportive and long-standing customer base.
“Our core group are people who want to support an LGBT business,” Szatmary says. “[Many] have become friends, and people who are costumers will help us out at Pride Fest, work here part time or help out, so there’s a great sort of warmth between the store and our customers.”
At Outwords, customers can feel comfortable and accepted. They can trust that whoever is working (almost always Szatmary himself) is knowledgeable with the store’s products and will be able to make recommendations. Outwords also stocks all the local LGBT weeklies, so customers can use the store as a resource for upcoming events and even community activism.
What does the future hold for Outwords?
Szatmary laughs at the question.
“Who knows? Where we’ll be in 10 or 12 years is anybody’s guess.”
With the publishing industry rapidly changing due to the growing popularity of e-readers, and with the dominant culture slowly but surely becoming more sympathetic to LGBTQ issues as well, he’s probably right. It is hard to say.
But even if print goes out of style, there will always be those who prefer the tactile experience of reading a book, and even as straight America begins to accept queer men, women, and transfolks, the need for safe spaces carved out wherever they can be isn’t disappearing any time soon.
Neither is Outwords.