Riot Headline 10 Exciting Books to Read this Summer
Bookish History

The Gayest Books: Inside America’s First Gay Mail-Order Book Service

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Jeffrey Davies

Contributor

Jeffrey Davies is a professional introvert and writer with imposter syndrome whose work spans the worlds of pop culture, books, music, feminism, and mental health. In addition to Book Riot, his writing has appeared on HuffPost, Collider, PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and other places. Find him on his website and follow him on Twitter @teeveejeff and Instagram @jeffreyreads. He is also the co-host of a Gilmore Girls podcast, Coffee With a Shot of Cynicism.

In an age where books are sold at our fingertips from a variety of retailers, both online and physical, it’s easy to forget that books catering to all audiences and markets were not always widely available. Indeed, while queer bookstores are still few and far between and cater to a niche demographic, queer books and those representing marginalized communities are still much easier to access now than even a decade ago.

But it wasn’t always this way. What was a queer person to do in the ignorant and uneducated years of decades past when queer literature was declared obscene? In the 1950s and 1960s, an era when male homosexuality was illegal, it was exceedingly rare to find media of any kind, including literature, where queer people of all stripes were not portrayed as mentally ill or as villains simply because they were not heterosexual. And, if they weren’t portrayed as mentally ill or criminally reckless, queer characters were still most likely the punchline of every and any joke. Oh, and they also almost always suffered violent and tragic endings.

But once upon a time, in the late 1940s, one publisher started a contest that would secretly shift the queer landscape significantly. In 1949, Greenberg Publishers released Nial Kent’s The Divided Path, a coming-of-age novel that also happened to be a coming-out story. Unlike the portrayal of homosexual characters at that time, this novel was considered to have a hopeful ending, and, according to David K. Johnson’s Buying Gay, Greenberg described it as “the most forthright homosexual novel of the century.”

Brandt Aymar, The Dividing Path’s editor and the openly gay vice president of Greenberg Publishers, was aware that most novels with any homosexual themes often ended in tragedy, so the publisher decided to launch a contest seeking customer input, with a $400 cash prize. In an advertisement announced in periodicals, college newspapers, and trade journals, they wrote: “Many will think this should not happen. We want your opinion, because your opinion, along with those of many other readers, may establish a new writing trend in novels on this subject.” The subject, of course, being gay books.

“Rapidly growing interest in the subject of homosexuality has made novels on this theme a big seller,” stated Aymar. Even gay-themed books with more tragic endings, like The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal, were still high in sales, so the editor saw the large potential in queer books that ended on a more optimistic note. Aymar even ordered a dust jacket for the book that made it clear to gay people that this book was about them; it featured an effeminate man gazing at a more conventionally masculine man.

His master plan? He sent advance reader copies to a select few in the largest cities in the United States, encouraging them to “show it at gay bars and talk it up.” He targeted bookstores where previous gay-themed books, however problematic they were, had sold well. Considering being an out gay man was against the law, as were most gay bars, this was quite a bold move from a historical standpoint. As such, Greenberg’s contest for readers’ input was a huge success, receiving more than 500 entries, almost all of which advocated for a happy ending for the gay characters as well as more “open and intelligent” conversations about homosexuality.

Although critical reviews of The Dividing Path were unsurprisingly negative, the sales spoke for themselves — by 1955, the novel had sold over 130,000 copies. As a result, readers and merchants were thirsty for more. One library owner in Massachusetts even had to admit the staggering popularity of The Dividing Path: “Customers have been after me to get a few ‘so-called’ gay books.”

Looking back, it wasn’t surprising that a publisher like Greenberg had acquired a book like Nial Kent’s since they had a long history of publishing gay-themed books, dating back to the “pansy craze” of New York’s Depression-era (Twilight Men by André Tellier and Better Angel by Richard Meeker were big sellers back then). They weren’t limited to gay male stories, either, having published an English translation of the German lesbian novel Scorpion by Anna Elisabet Weirauch.

It was ultimately Aymar’s idea again to start keeping a list of customers, known in code as the “H” list, who were specifically interested in books on homosexuality. He started sending advance publicity announcements to people on the list, letting them know which gay books they had available, and would follow up with them not only to get their opinions but to ask for the names and addresses of their friends with similar requests.

These ingenious marketing techniques led to Greenberg’s acquisition of James Barr’s Quatrefoil and Donald Webster Cory’s The Homosexual in America, both of which saw advance copies being sent to gay bars across the United States and Canada to help spread the word. Quatrefoil was even said to have outsold Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. But the U.S. Post Office was starting to catch on to Greenberg’s ploy to spread the gay around.

In 1951, Aymar and Jae Greenberg were indicted on charges of obscenity. Even though none of their recently published books had any explicit gay sex scenes, merely the suggestion of homosexuality was enough to break the law in the eyes of postal inspectors. Greenberg’s attorneys managed to drag the case out for several years, and, to avoid trial in 1953, Greenberg pled guilty and was forced to pay a $3,000 fine and remove all of their gay-themed books from the market. Soon after, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Lavender Scare was ushered in, which pretty much ruined any of the efforts for social change that the publisher had started.

Author Donald Webster Cory, however, was not so easily deterred. In the midst of his legal troubles, Aymar joined forces with Cory to form an alternate supply of gay books. The Cory Book Service (CBS) became the first independent book business dedicated to selling books to a queer audience. Cory, who had received widespread praise from readers with The Homosexual in America, had amassed his own mailing list of individuals interested in gay books. Together with Aymar’s “H” list, it was enough to take the show on the road.

The Cory Book Service worked hard to provide gay-themed books to its members. With the service’s launch in September 1952, they managed to get deep discounts from foreign publishers so members could enjoy a “buy four books, get the fifth one free” model. It was promoted almost entirely by word of mouth, with help from gay organizations like the Mattachine Society and One magazine. In a society where one could be arrested for merely having a book whose cover looked a little too “fruity” to police, this was a monumental resource for gay and queer people across America — especially those who lived outside of large cities and were not aware of any organized movements for queer acceptance.

And the proof is in the numbers. According to The New Yorker, an estimated 300 books about queer men were published in the United States between 1940 and 1969. Although the Cory Book Service was a type of silent book club that never met in person, it was thanks to Aymar’s efforts while working for Greenberg Publishers and the decision to create a full-fledged gay book service with Cory that helped move the cultural needle.

“More than a moneymaking opportunity, Cory’s effort to distribute gay books was, from the beginning, an act of political resistance — a confrontation with the U.S. Post Office and local censorship efforts,” wrote Johnson in Buying Gay. “The few historical treatments of the Cory Book Service assume that the indictment of Greenberg Publishers and the drying up of the domestic market meant it ran out of books to sell. But Aymar and Cory started their book service as a way around the censorship problems. And since they were still relying on the U.S. mails for distribution, it was not without risk.”

But sadly, Cory didn’t exactly share the same views on queer liberation. Described as a “homosexually active man,” he was still married to a woman and remained deeply conflicted about his true sexuality. As the CBS continued to soar, the author began psychotherapy that taught him he needed to acclimate to a heterosexual lifestyle. As a result, he sold the Cory Book Service to editor and publisher Arthur Richmond in 1954, unbeknownst to most members. When Richmond died of a heart attack a year later, Cory was back to square one.

This time, he sold the book service to Elsie Carlton, a Jewish housewife and mother from Farmingdale, Long Island. Considered an unlikely successor to Cory, Carlton knew little about the gay community but had experience in the publishing business. Fearing the queer male members of the book service would react badly to a woman taking over, Carlton adopted the pseudonym Leslie Winston and renamed it the Winston Book Service.

She successfully ran the book service for another decade until 1967, growing it to over 5,000 subscribers and becoming an advocate and ally for the queer community. It sold one final time to Russell Hoffman, who turned it into something of a gay newsletter featuring reading and travel suggestions before ceasing operation for good in 1969, the same year of the Stonewall riots that are said to have jumpstarted the modern gay rights movement.

Some historians believe that the Cory Book Service’s legacy is lost to history because its namesake, Donald Webster Cory (né Edward Sagarin), became something of an “ex-gay” activist, writing in 1973 that he believed homosexuality was something that could be cured and was caused by “faulty childhood development.” Despite that unfortunate development, the book service remains a pivotal piece of North American queer history, signaling that books and literature play a vital role not only in activism but in the silent art of combating ignorance.