• Common Language owners Martin Contreras and Keith Orr pose with State Rep. Yousef Rabhi and a representative from Congresswoman Debbie Dingell’s office after being presented with an award that recognizes their contributions to the LGBTQ community and Southeastern Michigan at large. (BTL photo: Jason A. Michael)

Closing Party for Common Language Revives Years of Memories

Jason A. Michael
By | 2018-12-19T13:32:38-04:00 December 19th, 2018|Michigan, News|

It was Winnie the Pooh, with an assist from author A.A. Milne, who said, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” Such was the emotion at the closing party for Common Language Bookstore on Saturday. A crowd of about 65 came out to walk through the store one last time and enjoy snacks and drinks in Ann Arbor’s intimate Braun Court near a warming fire pit. The party was hosted by Between The Lines publishers Susan Horowitz and Jan Stevenson.
“The closing of Common Language signifies the end of an era — a time when LGBT bookstores thrived as resource centers, meeting places and informal community centers,” Stevenson said. “[The store’s owners] Keith [Orr] and Martin [Contreras] value this legacy and role and provided this space for years, long after it made any kind of economic sense. It’s so important to recognize their commitment and to thank them for their leadership and compassion for the LGBTQ community.”
Both Contreras and Orr said they were genuinely pleased with the party and with the community’s turnout.
“I love seeing so many people in the bookstore,” Contreras said. “I love hearing the stories and learning that people have fond memories. A lot of people were coming to the bookstore even before we purchased it. You never realize how you affect people. You just slug along and do what you enjoy doing or you feel it is the right thing to do.”
Orr said that he has made peace with the business’s closing.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “For us it’s a little bit out of kilter with other folks because by the time we made the announcement [to close] we had gone through a lot of this process already. … There’s five stages of grief so we may be a couple steps ahead of the rest.”
Orr then added that the bookstore’s closing signifies a greater trend of change for LGBTQ bookstores across the nation.
“It’s not so much about a sadness about his place as it is about a sadness in general,” he said. “LGBTQ bookstores are closing and it’s harder for LGBTQ authors to find an audience. It’s harder for readers to find the stuff that they want. When they come in here, they’re getting something that’s already curated in a sense. No matter what algorithms Amazon creates, it’s not going to be the same.”
On hand to recognize Contreras and Orr’s contributions to the community were State Rep. Yousef Rabhi and a representative from Congresswoman Debbie Dingell’s office. They presented Contreras and Orr with a special tribute from the Washtenaw County contingency of the state legislature and a recognition in the congressional record respectively.
“It’s a thank you, basically, for being around for so long to be a place where people could come and feel safe,” Rabhi said. “They all signed, the Washtenaw delegation plus some of our gay members of the legislature. It’s been an interesting journey for you, but you should know there are people all across the state who appreciate what you’ve done here in Ann Arbor.”
Returning customers to the store came from near and far to pay their respects and say goodbye. Will Daniels and Arne Spohr, for example, came all the way from Bowling Green, Ohio.
“I used to live in Ypsilanti,” Daniels said. “I went to school at Eastern Michigan University and I studied literature and I would always come to this bookstore to finding cutting edge stuff.”
Spohr, who is originally from Germany, said he’d been coming to the store for almost a decade.
“I grew up in a time in the 1990s that gay bookstores were happening and they were amazing places,” he said. “I feel very attached to bookstores like these. You can connect with people, meet people. These are great places and you don’t get these places online.”
Brian Derey of Royal Oak said he’d been coming to the store since just after it was originally opened in 1991 in a location on Fourth Street.
“I have fond memories of being at the original store, buying copies of Out magazine and the Advocate and putting them in Tower Records bags [to conceal them].”
Looking back on the store’s history and the legacy that will live on, Contreras said he has accepted the fact that the store is closing but that he will miss the customers.
“You’d get people who’d come in for the first time that didn’t know a gay book store existed or that there was gay literature and not just gay erotica,” he said. “So we’ve had a lot of those conversations. Or people dealing with a change in their life, ‘I’m coming out to my parents,’ or, ‘My dad is in transition,’ or, ‘My mom is a lesbian. What can I do?’ We’d help them understand what’s going on. So I think it’s sad that the bookstore won’t be there for people, because that need will always be there and you can’t get that online through Amazon and you can’t get that from going into a straight bookstore because they don’t know the catalog as well.”
Common Language will shut its doors for good on Dec. 31, 2018.

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University before joining Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. Jason has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author having written the authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," which he released on his own JAM Books imprint.