Books have always been a part of Philip Rafshoon’s life.
In his family, they’ve been essential — and omnipresent. His father was a book collector who instilled the joy of reading into his clan, and the family spent a lot of time in bookstores and libraries.
“I’ve always had a book with me that I’m reading,” he says. “It’s always been a part of my free time, something I’ve learned from.”
Although he never set out to do it, Rafshoon, who moved with his family from New York when he was six, has succeeded in making books his vocation as well as his avocation.
In the early 1990s, Rafshoon, who had been selling computers for NCR since he graduated from Georgia Tech, was pondering his next career move. While mulling his options, Rafshoon answered a survey ad in Southern Voice newspaper in 1991 gauging interest from the LGBT community in starting a bookstore. He responded and met with the original investor. That backer pulled out after a year, but Rafshoon stayed with the idea, convinced it could work.
“Every place I had been to had a bookstore geared for the LGBT community, and we had nothing like that in Atlanta,” he says. “We had a great bar scene, a budding political scene, but we had no common place where people could go during the day. I thought a bookstore was the best idea ever.”
His decision to open Outwrite was a bold, unexpected move. For starters, he had never run a business. More importantly, Rafshoon was dealing with coming out and realized that operating Outwrite would make him a public figure — an openly gay one, to boot.
He sought guidance on all sorts of matters — securing funds, locating a space, finding a staff — and contacted various colleagues. Some were discouraging, and he himself wondered at times if Atlanta were literary enough to support it.
In addition, many landlords didn’t want the store on their property. At least six turned Rafshoon down.
“At that time no one wanted to rent to an openly LGBT bookstore,” he remembers. “They thought a gay bookstore was a porn store.”
But he kept on looking and was upfront to tenants about what he was doing and why he thought the business was important. In November 1993, he was able to open Outwrite in a 1,000-square-foot space in the Midtown Promenade Shopping Center.
It was an instant success. Just three years later, he was able to move to a new 3,000-square-foot location at the corner of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue. Now a hub, it was, at that time, a sleepy part of town, with little daytime activity.
“People said I was crazy to move there,” he recalls.
But he liked the pedestrian character and knew Midtown had a contingent of gay residents. “I saw a way to turn this into a living, breathing intersection,” he says.
Unlike the previous location, this one was visible and prominent — and that, he says, was one of the keys to its success.
“We had a rainbow sign outside. That was something people said not to do or we’d be vandalized. I thought we’d get more support by [being open about what we were].”
He made Outwrite a welcoming place to hang out, serving coffee, sandwiches and pastries. It wasn’t a novel idea — Barnes and Nobles had already been incorporating Starbucks into their locations — but Rafshoon thought it was vital.
Patrons would come in and shop, or grab a sandwich, take a seat and work. Organizations would hold meetings there and tourists would come by to visit Atlanta’s most prominent LGBT business.
“We were able to help people come out and grow, and support others seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 11 at night.”
And vandalism was never a problem
Cindy Abel, a filmmaker and former executive director of the advocacy group Georgia Equality, moved to the area in 1997 and was taken with the store. “You could go to some of the big stores, some of the non-niche stores and find some LGBT books,” she recalls. “But they never had the same selection as Outwrite.”
Outwrite became a community center. “It was a safe place, a gathering place. If something big [in the community] happened people would go there,” says Abel.
As Outwrite evolved into an internationally known and respected bookstore, it became a magnet for events. Tammy Faye Baker, Leslie Jordan, E. Lynn Harris, transvestite entertainer RuPaul, Armistead Maupin and former Olympian Greg Louganis were among the authors who held book signings there. Chelsea Handler autographed a thousand books in two hours one night, Rafshoon recalls, and Roseanne Barr came to the store as part of her comeback.
“Her publicist called during a snow storm and asked if we could host her,” he says. “I asked when, and he said, ‘Next week.’ She was thrilled to be there and our audience was thrilled to have her.”
Yet by 2011, book-buying habits had changed. Amazon and other online retailers presented a daunting challenge, and Rafshoon realized he, like bookstore owners across the nation, might have to close his store. At the same time as he struggled to weather a tough economy, rents were rising in the gentrifying neighborhood.
Society had changed, too. “The [LGBT] community . . . could go a lot more places and be comfortable,” he says.
Closing, he says, “wasn’t something I wanted to do. When we announced, so many people begged to do whatever to keep us open. But you have to move on. It wasn’t in the cards.”
Outwrite closed in January 2012. Rafshoon hasn’t gone a week since without someone telling him how much the store is missed. It was a job that was important for him and the LGBT community. Yet he doesn’t miss having to worry every day about keeping a business afloat.
He wasn’t in a hurry to find his next gig when Daren Wang, the executive director of the Decatur Book Festival, contacted him in the fall and asked him to be the festival’s programming director.
“My first thought was, I’ve had enough of books for a while and I want my next opportunity to be something different,” he says.
Yet he decided that this role was different enough to be tempting. “It was a great opportunity to bring my skills to this organization and work with some of the same people, yet challenge me with a wide range of authors and writers and editors,” he says.
He accepted the job and started in 2013, albeit nervously. “I hoped I could bring it to the same level it had been,” he says. “I also wanted to make sure it continued to be diverse. I wanted the festival to be for everyone.”
As the largest independent book festival in the country, the Decatur Book Festival is known for its adventurous programming. “I create a wish list each year and once we enter the submission process, people send us pitches,” he says. “We talk about what is new and different, authors that have appeared on our radar.
“It’s a negotiation of who is available and who fits into our vision. We want the latest; we want authors who are international to national to local, as well as a diversity in genre and age. It’s about the best mix. We work on bringing in quality and we try to be innovative.”
Rafshoon, 54, feels a festival such as this is even more relevant in a world in which people buy books online.
“I think especially as we spend more and more time on the Internet, events where folks can connect with others is important, to keep people engaged. It’s the cool thing to do.”
Last year’s festival, which featured Joyce Carol Oates as keynote speaker, was the most attended in festival history.
Rafshoon regards himself as well rounded. In his free time, he loves to run, travel and spend time with his family, friends and partner Robert. He also prides himself on being a hard worker.
“Whatever I am working on, I am committed to do the best I can. I am very happy that I am in a place now where I can do work that means a lot to me and still be able to work with the community I love.”
Maker’s Dozen is an annual series that spotlights a dozen creatives whom we think you ought to know or know more about. The profiles will run on Tuesdays and Thursdays through April 16.