On Nov 3, owners Keith Orr and Martin Contreras announced Common Language Bookstore, one of about 10 LGBTQ-oriented bookstores remaining in the U.S. and Canada, will close at the end of the year. Orr and Contreras have been together for 32 years and have owned the Kerrytown bookstore since 2003.
Since its establishment in 1991, Common Language has been a vital part of Ann Arbor’s LGBTQ community. When Kate Burkhardt and Lynden Kelly, Common Language’s former owners, decided to retire, Orr and Contreras were compelled to keep the bookstore alive.
“It’s an important part of gay culture,” Orr said. “Bookstores are where people a lot of times have their first time in a safe space to figure out who they are.”
Common Language is located in Braun Court, a long-established Ann Arbor hub for LGBTQ shoppers. Among the joys of owning the bookstore for the past 15 years, Orr said sharing the love of reading and promoting work by and for LGBTQ individuals has been enriching.
“Seeing yourself is important,” Orr said. “In a lot of literature, LGBT characters are only a reflection of what people wanted to see, so we were often either the villains or the victims. It’s important that there is a culture out there which allows for celebration of the community.”
Though large-chain bookstores carry texts by LGBTQ authors, Orr said the selection can be limited, and it can be difficult for new writers to promote their work. The bookstore has been struggling financially for years, and sold a substantial amount of its stock in 2009 to make ends meet.
“More and more authors are having a hard time getting a foothold somewhere,” Orr said. “LGBT authors, because Barnes and Noble doesn’t have a big gay section. They may have a few of the blockbusters, but that’s about it. Sometimes you get lost in the noise on a site like Amazon.”
Though some Common Language customers come just to talk about books, Orr said many patrons visit to discuss their identity and personal struggles.
“Sometimes this is the first place they come because they’re just trying to figure out, ‘Am I strange? Am I normal? Or do I belong somewhere?’” Orr said. “And to be able to help them find there is a community can just be really powerful.”
School of Social Work master’s student Alex Kime first discovered Common Langauge in high school, and said they treasured it for years to come. Kime noted that school work can often impede on student’s ability to read for pleasure and said they want to brainstorm ways to make spaces like Common Language even more accessible.
“Ann Arbor is often described as a ‘gay’ or LGBTQIA+ friendly, but dedicated spaces are not always readily available for community interaction, especially outside of a club or party scene,” Kime said. “I’m truly sorry to see it go, and I’m thinking deeply about what can be done to support these spaces. The way in which support in the form of online orders was caused by a viral post has me wondering if we can intentionally support a digital network of these spaces going forward.”