Just down the block from the fabled Castro Theater, one of San Francisco’s quintessential historical sites (which is now having its 100th Anniversary celebration!), sits another Castro landmark more demure in appearance but of equal cultural importance: Fabulosa Books.
A quaint local bookstore is in many ways the binding glue of any neighborhood, for a bookstore can reflect and reinforce the cultural and political climate in which it finds itself more successfully than, say, a chain restaurant. San Francisco’s predominant LGBTQ+ district would then require a bookstore as unabashedly queer as itself.
Owner and proprietor Alvin Orloff created Fabulosa to fulfill precisely that function. As a bookshop, the storefront offers the Castro a robust selection of texts ranging from the most recent fiction titles to seminal works of queer history and theory to classic science-fiction. As a hub of queer-centered cultural and intellectual activity, Fabulosa also acts as an event space, hosting interviews with and conversations between visiting authors as well as a monthly LGBT book club.
We were very fortunate to have the chance to throw some inquiries Alvin’s way regarding Fabulosa, its history and current operations, and (queer) literature more broadly.
What was the impetus behind creating Fabulosa Books?
Every neighborhood deserves a good bookstore, but that goes double for the Castro. It would be insane if all the people from around the world who visit here – where so much queer history transpired! – couldn't find a queer bookstore. And though I wanted Fabulosa to focus on LGBTQ+ titles, I also wanted it to be a great general interest store because there can never be too many of those.
How important has literature, and queer literature, been to you? Do you have a go-to author(s) or genre(s)?
It’s hard to talk about the importance of literature without sounding like some patronizing campaign to encourage youth literacy, but I’ll try! Literature is how you figure out what other people are thinking. Films, drama, and TV can do that to a certain extent, but only books really convey the interiority of other people’s minds. And it’s essential to understand other people because A. unless you’re a weirdo hermit, you’ll be totally dependent on them for survival and entertainment for your whole life, and B. they are endlessly surprising and fascinating!
As for queer literature specifically… when I was a teenager (almost half a century ago) I didn't know any gay people and there was nearly nothing gay on TV or in the movies. So to figure out how to be gay I went to the library. There, I found and read "The Naked Civil Servant," a screamingly funny memoir by Quentin Crisp, an English queen who came out during the 1920s and combatted vicious persecution with femme flamboyance and brazen wit. His inspiration gave me the necessary moxie to come out and survive all the ambient homophobia without backing down or going bonkers. Ever since then I’ve been a big fan of funny memoirs, though I also love novels, short stories, essays, and narrative history.
What’s your favorite title the LGBT Book Club has covered thus far?
I'm going to throw modesty to the wind here and say my memoir: "Disasterama!: Adventures in the Queer Underground 1977 - 1997." It's about the period in San Francisco history when the wild exuberance of queer liberation collided with the deadly reality of AIDS. It’s an exciting tale full of street protests, punk bands, queer-bashings, exotic dancing, performance art, drag, drugs, night-clubbing, love, sex, and death. You should read it
What’s most rewarding about managing an independent, queer-oriented bookshop? What’s most challenging?
I love getting to hear about all the great new books coming out, discovering lost classics, and above all, talking about books with all sorts of smart, bookish people. Also true: bookstores, like libraries, are oases of sanity and calm in a mad and turbulent world. The challenging part is making do on a financial shoestring. If you happen to have any part of a million dollars to spare, please consider donating!
If you could mandate that everyone in the world read a (nonfiction or fiction) queer-authored book, which book would you choose and why?
I honestly don’t think there’s any one book that’s right for everyone. People’s interests are too varied. Fortunately, there are now queer books to suit literally every taste and in literally every genre.
Do you have a favorite guest speaker/reader out of those who have visited Fabulosa?
I used to work with Andrea Lawlor at Dog Eared Books in the Mission District about a million years ago, so it was a real thrill to have them read from their novel, "Paul Takes The Form of A Mortal Girl." It's an incredibly fun story about a character who can change sex at will and has all sorts of queer adventures in the 1990s.
What have been the most exciting LGBTQIA+ texts to emerge recently? Are there any promising future titles to which you’re looking forward?
I absolutely adored “Gordo" by Jaime Cortez, a book of interconnected short stories that take place in a farm labor camp outside Watsonville. They’re full of humor, poignancy, and LIFE. And I was crazy about "100 Boyfriends" by Brontez Purnell, a notoriously outré personality on the Bay Area queer punk scene. It's a series of interconnected stories and fragments brimming with pathos and zany energy. And for the last several decades I’ve been looking forward to a novel by the legendary New york wit, Fran Lebowitz. She may never finish it due to what she calls her “writer’s blockade,” but if it ever comes out it’s sure to be a doozy.
The next book club, this month featuring David Eugene Perry’s Upon This Rock, falls on June 8th, and don’t miss a conversation with Perry himself on June 14th! If you can’t visit Fabulosa in-person at 489 Castro Street, you can order online here, where you can virtually peruse and purchase books from their collection (including Alvin’s own work Disasterama!).
Photography by: Ben Mack/Pexels