Last month, after 26 years as a Seattle institution and a decadelong battle for a functional share of the ever-shrinking book business, Broadway's Bailey/Coy Books closed its doors for good. This Thursday, December 3, brings the Bailey/Coy Books Wake and Auction, in which the store's former space will play host to a boozy farewell blowout, featuring performances by Dina Martina and Fuchsia FoXXX, food from Poppy and Table 219, music from Trouble Dicso, and a live auction, including original artwork by Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, and Ellen Forney, dates with hot queer politicians Ed Murray and Sally Clark, and a pair of underwear signed by David Sedaris. In advance of Bailey/Coy's final blowout, it is my honor to commemorate what will forever be remembered as a fucking great bookstore.
Founded in 1983 by Barbara Bailey and Michael Coy, Bailey/Coy Books did an exemplary job of connecting book lovers with the objects of their desire for a good couple of decades, but its essential mission was accomplished as soon as the store opened its doors. As Bailey—who took over as sole owner in 1988—tells it, she first and foremost wanted the store to be a safe space for gay people to buy gay books. But she also wanted people to be able to buy Joy of Cooking, Pride and Prejudice, and Harold and the Purple Crayon, along with whatever pulpy junk was steaming up best-seller lists. Bailey/Coy's visionary move was situating its perfect little gay bookstore in the center of a fully functioning regular old bookstore—a layout choice that was simultaneously in-your-face (the GLBT section had its NSFW visual elements) and all-inclusive, presenting homosexuality as both a proud subculture and just another component of life.
To appreciate the importance and daring of Bailey/Coy's mission, you need to remember the era when it was undertaken: the late '80s/early '90s, when AIDS had given "gay culture" unprecedented visibility and notoriety, while galvanizing the gay community with a communal battle. During this era of sudden, brutal visibility, the accuracy of media depictions of gay life rightfully came under fire, and literature produced by gays—from AIDS memoirs to coming-out stories to splashy books on queer theory—flourished. Bailey/Coy showcased it all, from the most benign small-press lesbian romances to the most extreme Robert Mapplethorpe photo collections, all of it welcomed and tempered by the surrounding normalcy. Not 20 feet from Jack Morin's Anal Pleasure & Health was Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Carl Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections and T. H. White's The Once and Future King and M.F.K. Fisher's Consider the Oyster, with the cumulative moral of the Bailey/Coy experiment falling along the lines of "Be as insular and capital-g Gay as you need—when you want, there's a big other world right around the corner."
I should probably mention that I worked at Bailey/Coy for almost a decade. I landed there in the summer of 1991, when Queer Nation was waging war against Hollywood over The Silence of the Lambs' queer psycho and the closest thing America had to out gay celebrities were Martina Navratilova and the guy who played Monroe on Too Close for Comfort. For me, a recently out young gay man with residual issues, Bailey/Coy was the graduate/finishing school of my dreams and a veritable far-left utopia. Not only was this a universe run entirely by women, from the owner to the bookkeeper to the day and night managers, it was rigged with policies that went beyond gay acceptance to affirmative action, designed to compensate for the shortcomings of the world outside. For example: Besides Christmas and New Year's Day, staffers were granted two additional paid holidays—their birthday and Gay Pride Sunday, with employees literally rewarded just for being born and being gay.
Of course, not everyone who worked at Bailey/Coy was gay—a good half of the staff was straight, with employment open to anyone who loved books and didn't have a problem with queers. The store's stock and clientele were both predominately straight, and eclipsing Bailey/Coy's reputation as a gay mecca was its stature as an unusually vital and beloved neighborhood bookstore. Every retail job requires employees to interact with customers, but few encourage the depth of connection enabled by a bookstore, where shared affinity for a work of art can trigger what feels like instant friendship.
I saw it happen a thousand times during my time at Bailey/Coy: Human icebergs melted by the discovery of their mutual affection for Jesus' Son or Geek Love or any one of the hundreds of titles that inspired deep, possessive love in a vast cross section of readers. Often such communing over abstract ideas is relegated to the religious world, but Bailey/Coy offered a secular alternative whose scripture was the whole of world literature, up to and including People magazine and the gay-porn monthlies Mandate, Inches, and Latin Inches.
It gives me no pleasure to point out that the ultimate goal of Bailey/Coy's utopian mission was to make itself obsolete: Should the rest of the world catch on to Bailey/Coy's inclusively gay ways, the need for such designated "safe space" would evaporate. In the latter half of the '90s, Borders and Barnes & Noble set up shop in Seattle, with both chains boasting respectable gay and lesbian sections. Online customers flocked to Amazon.com, which sold every gay book in print, often at a discount, always shipped in a plain brown wrapper. Still, Bailey/Coy soldiered on into the new millennium, with longtime employee Michael Wells assuming ownership of the store upon Bailey's 2003 retirement. But the international financial crisis of 2008/2009 proved decisive, and Bailey/Coy was forced to join the ranks of independent bookstores in the great hereafter.
This Thursday brings a last hurrah for a Seattle literary institution that will never be replicated (though Elliott Bay Book Company and Third Place Books are required to keep trying for as long as they can). If you care, see you there.