This week’s blog is an important one. It’s about a long-standing Melbourne institution that’s been supporting the LGBTIQ community – and Rainbow Families – for over twenty years and which now needs the community’s support.
Crusader Hillis and his partner, Rowland Thomson, own and run the bookshop, café, bar and venue, Hares & Hyenas in Fitzroy. Hares & Hyenas – like many independent bookshops everywhere – is working very hard to keep afloat right now and its future is far from assured. I talked to Crusader about the long history of the bookshop and his concerns about the future.
Jacqui: How did you come to open a queer bookshop, and what was the political climate like at the time?
Crusader: We opened the bookshop in December 1991 so it will be 22 years this December. We had both been working in independent bookshops and Rowland was managing Hartwigs in Fitzroy which had a large gay section and a big gay market; there was a huge growth in gay media at the time.
In our very first interview we said that we saw Hares & Hyenas as being a cultural development business and we expected to be presenting events, developing a queer writing culture in Melbourne and having a really strong community connection, as well as selling books.
Our focus right from the start was to future-proof the shop to take in the possibility of social changes happening in the queer community. We recognised very early that transgender people, for example, were not really being including in the overall community and we stocked the shop accordingly.
We came up with a name that took in everybody really. Hares & Hyenas comes from a book by John Boswell called: Christianity, Homosexuality and Social Tolerance. You can’t tell whether a hyena is male or female from looking at its genitalia and so when hyenas were mating they were often seen as homosexual, and there’s a long association of hares with homosexuality. The name just came to Rowland one night; he literally woke up and said: Hares and Hyenas!
Jacqui: I remember 25 years ago being in London and the bookshop, Gay’s the Word being raided regularly by police and customs. Did you ever have any of those problems?
Crusader: No. We never had any problems with censorship and we’ve never had any real issues getting stock through customs. It was a different approach here than it was in London and the US. I think in Australia if it gets through customs it’s fine and we were very careful.
When we opened in Commercial Road we had a few customers who tentatively came in and said: When are you going to put the blinds up? Like, when are you actually going to close this business off to the street?
And at the same time seventy and eighty year old residents would drop by and tell us the history of homosexual activity in the area and say how nice it was to see how things had changed.
Jacqui: So how have things changed since those early days?
Crusader: The nineties was the gay publishing boom. We started a book review magazine which also had literary articles and at its height was being distributed in the UK, Canada and the US. Then at the end of the nineties the GST came in and that had a serious impact on book sellers and led us to close one of our two shops.
But it was really the advent of the eBook and social media that have brought about the biggest change to people’s reading habits. People are spending more time on line and are finding their information in different ways so they’re not relying on books so much and they’re not reading as much.
Jacqui: So tell me what other things you do apart from selling books?
The bookshop and café is open all day and we’re also licensed, and we run an average of three to four events per week. We have film nights, performances, spoken word, burlesque, panel shows and comedy and trivia. And we do lots of special events: book launches and community fund-raising.
Very early on we focussed on smaller community organisations that needed more support with fund-raising and that’s one of the reasons Rainbow Families Council has always been high on our list. Our first serious charity was Positive Women, even though 95% of the women affected by HIV in the early 90s were heterosexual (there was only one lesbian in the group) and we know our support had quite an impact.
We’ve also devoted a proportion of our shop to free information and we try to keep really strong ties with community groups. We see ourselves as part of the community not just living off the community. In 20 years we’ve given away about 2000 gift vouchers to community groups.
Jacqui: Independent bookshops are facing a lot of challenges right now so how is your future looking?
Our future is dicey and at the moment the bookshop wouldn’t survive if we were not a venue as well. Independent bookshops right across the world are struggling right now. Fifteen years ago there were about 250 queer bookshops in the world and there’s probably only about 25-30 now. We have about twelve months to turn things around and to think seriously about whether we have the energy and the resources to continue.
Jacqui: What can the community do to support the bookshop?
Crusader: Buy books, come for a drink or a coffee, or come to an event. People can get onto the Hares & Hyenas Facebook page and check our updates and share them; that will be how we reach the most people. Or they can go to our website and subscribe and they will get an e-zine a week – generally one on books and one on events – and if they share that on social media that has an exponential effect on our marketing which we don’t have the capacity to do by ourselves.
We think it’s really important to meet the specific needs of people in the community, rather than necessarily just pumping out novels. So, as you know, we’ve got a really strong section on reproductive technology and on same-sex families, for example. We’re more about selling a person the right book, than selling a book under any circumstances.
We really offer a service that is about young people coming out, people facing a serious crisis in their lives around sexuality or gender identity, or people with very particular needs that aren’t going to be met elsewhere. If they come into Hares & Hyenas they walk into a safe and welcoming space with people who have very specific skills.
If the shop closes, people will be forced back to an online, isolated and anonymous environment, because books for all those people won’t be stocked elsewhere. And you’re also not going to get that first introduction to a space that is filled by both straight and queer people and a sense that there is no stigma attached to being in that space. That can be a really important impetus for people to move to the next stage of their own self-acceptance.
If people value all that, and value the services we provide – even if they don’t need them right now – then we really need them to support us.
Jacqui: And to finish off: what’s your favourite book?
Crusader: Non-fiction: The man who fell in love with the moon, by Tom Spanbauer, and fiction: Emma Donohue’s Hood, which is an Irish lesbian novel.
Jacqui: I might just have to pop in and buy those! Thanks very much for talking to me and I hope the community can rally around the bookshop. It would be extremely sad to see you go and it would leave a great big hole in the LGBTIQ community. Thanks.