Little District Books elevates queer stories in neighborhood rich in LGBTQ+ history

Media Credit: Krishna Rajpara I Assistant Photo Editor

The blossoming community surrounding Little District Books is especially open and welcoming, and in a space where community building forms the backbone of the shop, the safety and comfort of queer people is Little District’s primary focus.

Tucked in the heart of Eastern Market, an independent, queer-owned bookstore filled with LGBTQ+ authors and titles is reinvigorating a queer community that taps into to the neighborhood’s cultural history.

Little District Books has welcomed visitors with a store-front window studded with books and rainbow walls of countless queer must-reads since the quaint, cozy shop opened in June. Grace Burke, the store lead and social media manager, said the bookstore focuses on celebrating LGBTQ+ authors and sharing underrepresented queer stories through social media engagement, in-store events, a community board and a brand-new book club.

The bookstore, which is located on 8th Street Southeast in the historically queer Eastern Market, employs a diverse group of all-queer booksellers who contribute to the store’s curation process, each specializing in genres from contemporary fiction to horror to poetry. Burke said they and the bookstore’s staff loves sharing stories with queer youth that they wished they could have discovered growing up.

They said queer authors wrote roughly 95 percent of the books sold at Little District.

“Unfortunately, but also fortunately, the people who write queer stories are queer,” they said. “And I say unfortunately because it’d be nice if it was normalized to the point where everyone was writing queer stories. But fortunately, because it’s really easy to do it wrong, and so it’s nice that we can kind of rely on our authors to tell accurate stories.”

Courtesy of Little District Books

The blossoming community surrounding Little District is especially open and welcoming, and in a space where community building forms the backbone of the shop, the safety and comfort of queer folk is Little District’s primary focus.

“We are really intentional about having diverse voices both within the queer community but also in terms of disability and racial diversity and all of that, so that’s really important to us,” Burke said.

Queer local businesses used to populate 8th Street starting in the late 1960s after riots spurred by Martin Luther King Jr.’s death pushed locals to move out of the neighborhood. While many Washingtonians avoided the area, the area began to serve as a safe space for the queer community through the 1980s, dubbed “The Gay Way.”

And although many queer businesses like bookstores and bars left the area in the early 2000s, the bookstore is reclaiming the queer history of the area. Burke said many people from the queer community remain in the neighborhood, surrounding the store with a tight-knit community. They said queer businesses – like LGBTQ+ cafe and bar As You Are DC, located right down the street – are reinventing and bringing the queer culture back to life.

“We just want to be a space in D.C., and specifically in Eastern Market, for people who might not otherwise have a safe space,” they said.

Little District boasts four book clubs, exploring the themes of “Queer Escapsim,” “Real Queer Stories,” “Influential Queer Works” and “Small Press Queers.” Burke said they and other staff lead discussions each month centered on stories by and for queer folk. The store held its first two book club meetings over the last month, including the queer escapism club.

Burke said this club has already reached great success, drawing in many interested readers, with all but two attendees purchasing the book for the next meeting. While store owner Patrick Kern makes the final call, Burke said the booksellers’ opinions are heavily weighed when curating book club picks.

Among the store’s best sellers are “My Government Means to Kill Me” by Rasheed Newson, a novel that follows the coming-of-age story of a gay, Black young man in 1980s New York City, and Madeline Miller’s “The Song of Achilles,” a triumph of queer representation and an adaptation of Homer’s “The Iliad” told through a queer lens.

Krishna Rajpara | Assistant Photo Editor

But Little District’s community reaches beyond the bookshelves inside the walls of the store. Burke said the business’ social media engagement, which has reeled in nearly 6,000 followers between their Instagram and TikTok accounts, offers a rich source of community extending beyond borders and making queer literature accessible for customers who aren’t able to visit the store in person.

“It’s really beautiful to be a part of telling that story and increasing access to queer books for everyone,” they said.

Cort Flynn, an assistant team leader, said the store advocates for the publishing of queer authors, specifically queer people of color, in their effort to amplify diverse voices and expose customers to a wide selection of writers. Flynn is one of the only employees with previous bookselling experience as part of the young staff that works the floors and greets shoppers as they walk in.

“There’s so much good that we can do by spreading the messages that we are given in the form of these books,” Flynn said. “And I really think that with books, people can connect to it really well. And that can foster a lot of understanding, foster a lot of knowledge building, and it can change lives.”

The diversity of authors lining the store’s shelves has also translated to a wide variety of customers who drop by the store day in and day out. Flynn said they will often chat with customers about books as a way to build relationships and deepen their experience creating new connections through literature in the store.

“Everybody is so nice and so warm,” Flynn said. “People will come in and ask, ‘I need a book recommendation, any book.’ I can talk to them and kind of create a relationship. So yeah, it really is the customers for me. I love it.”

After opening with only 200 physical books, Little District has increased its number of titles to roughly 1,000 in the past few months.

“Every day somebody comes in and says ‘I didn’t know you guys were here – I love this,’” they said. “So just seeing the community response has been probably the best part.”

Senior Maya Younes, a bookseller and the president of the Trans and Non-Binary Students of GWU, said their heavy involvement in the LGBTQ+ community on campus first attracted them to work at the bookstore. They love the opportunity to share LGBTQ+ stories and authors with people who otherwise wouldn’t have discovered them.

“We are trying to be a bookstore that many people may not have had when they were growing up,” they said.

Little District’s focus on building a safe community space serves as an especially pertinent endeavor in a region that carries a rich queer history. Younes and the fellow booksellers’ deep appreciation for queer literature promotes the growth of queer spaces in the District.

“I feel so much joy when there is someone coming in, and I get to help them find something that they can see themselves in and love and are so excited to read,” Younes said.

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