In May of this year, the nation’s oldest gay bookstore, Giovanni’s Room, closed its doors after 41 years. But then, earlier this week, it was announced the store would reopen. Philly AIDS Thrift, a secondhand store whose proceeds benefit local organizations fighting HIV/AIDS, says it plans to continue running the landmark bookshop.
That’s the good news. Now for the bad.
Giovanni’s Room might be in the clear, but another group of gay institutions is in serious trouble. More and more bathhouses are switching off their “Open 24 Hours” signs and closing their steam room doors for good.
“The acceptance of gays has changed the whole world,” 75-year-old Dennis Holding, who own a small bathhouse Miami told the AP. “It’s taken away the need to sneak into back-alley places … Bathhouses were like dirty bookstores and parks: a venue to meet people. Today, you can go to the supermarket.”
The supermarket? Grindr is probably more likely. But we get what the man’s saying. The need for discreet locations for gay men to enjoy the company of other man has decreased in recent decades, thanks primarily to the growing acceptance of gay people within society.
Gay bathhouses first rose in popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when homosexual acts were still illegal. They provided a safe place for gay men to rendezvous. Bathhouses saw their heyday in the late 1970s, with nearly 200 located in cities across the country. But by 1990, that number had been cut in half. Today, less than 70 bathhouses remain nationwide, and the patrons tend to skew older.
“The younger generation’s main fear is that it’s some dark, seedy place,” T.J. Nibbio, the executive director of the North American Bathhouse Association, told the AP.
NABA was formed two years ago by a group of bathhouse owners hoping to find new ways of marketing their businesses.
“You’re either hooking up online or you are here, or you go to bars in West Hollywood, get drunk and hook up,” Sykes added. “Here it’s a safer environment — there’s condoms and other protection.”
Some of the strategies bathhouses have used to attract new and younger clientele have been through offering discounts. The Midtowne Spa in downtown Los Angeles, for instance, lets in 18- to 20-year-olds for just $5. Los Angeles’ Melrose Spa offers free admission to 18- to 25-year-olds on Tuesdays. Whether these strategies work to keep a once-thriving industry afloat remains to be seen.
Will gay bathhouses soon go extinct? Or will a deus ex machina come down and save the day like it did for Giovanni’s Room? Only time will tell.