To many, if there was ever a one-stop-shop that could be relied upon for a birthday or holiday present for the person who has everything, or a truly creative gift for a GBF that was not limited to an "I'm so gay, I can't even drink straight" angled coffee mug, a racy calendar, a wall clock framed by a feather boa, or a set of Yogi and Boo Boo salt and pepper shakers, Gay Mart was it.
After 21 years in Lakeview, owner Shelly Rosenbaum has made the decision to close the iconic store. "For the last four or five years, business has not been good at all," he told Windy City Times. "I've loved it, but Gay Mart has had its time."
Rosenbaum said that enthusiasm that for his unique items has declined, at least in terms of people walking through his door.
"The retail climate has changed," he said. "A lot of people are shopping on the Internet, and the Pride stuff isn't as big as it was when we first opened up."
The shop on the corner of Halsted Street and Cornelia Avenue was a destination for anyone looking to express their inner child with a remote control Dalek from Doctor Who or satiate their inner geek with limited edition or collectable figures ranging from Aliens, to Star Wars and Star Trek, Marvel and DC, the Flintstones, the Muppets and even an action ready Mozart or Wagner.
However, Rosenbaum said thatwhile many people would visit from all over the world to revel in such merchandiseultimately they would make the decision to buy it from a website. "It got very disconcerting over the years," he said. "I'd see customers looking at something and then they'd say, 'We should go online and buy this.' Me, I've always loved brick-and-mortar retail."
Rosenbaum began that life more than a half century agowhen he was 12 years old and living in New York. "I worked in a store just like Gay Mart when I was in junior high," he recalled. "New York was very specific to the kind of businesses that had a little bit of this and a little bit of that. You could call up the owner of the store and he knew who you were, and you could tell him what you wanted and he would have it wrapped up and waiting for you when you came in. That doesn't exist anymore."
Gay Mart was arguably a Boystown institution that opened around the same time as the third march on Washington in 1993which drew an estimated one million attendees demanding passage of an LGBTQ-rights bill and an end to discrimination. Rosenbaum said he had a specific store for a very specific time in LGBTQ life. "When we opened, we were the first business in the United States to use 'gay' in its name," he said. "The community was fun, everyone got along, everyone supported one another. But people aren't as friendly as they used to be. I think the internet has changed the way people interact."
During its heyday, both tourists and residents who walked down the narrow flight of stairs and into Gay Mart's wall-to-wall emporium of the uncommon would gasp in excitement at a rare piece of pop-culture history, enjoy a good laugh at some of the beautifully acerbic bumper stickers and T-shirts stacked high on a wall, or pet the store's constant sales assistantan enormous and extremely patient white Samoyed named Boris.
"We had some very loyal customers," Rosenbaum said. "The reason I stayed in business for as long as I did was because of [them]."
For those customers, Rosenbaum pointed out that the merchandise for which Gay Mart became renowned will still be sold in a smaller venue under the name "Boystown T's and Collectibles." The new owner is Gay Mart's former manager Chris Howard, and he will be taking up approximately one-third of the space Gay Mart used to occupy. The rest will form an expansion of neighboring store Tulip. Howard will also be ensuring a heavy online presence. "He understands the Internet in ways I don't," Rosenbaum explained. "He's going to take it and run with it."
Meanwhilealthough the Gay Mart name will be retiring, along with BorisRosenbaum will be sticking around for at least a year in order to mentor Howard. Looking back on his more than two decades in business, Rosenbaum said he wouldn't have had it any other way. "I loved what I did," he said. "I loved the interaction with my customers. I mean they came from all over the world to seek Gay Mart out and make it a part of their lives. I don't know any business that can say that as proudly as I can. The greatest gift my customers gave me was their friendship over the years."
Yetlike many of the masked heroes and villains he soldRosenbaum said it would be a mistake to ever count him out completely. "Who knows? Maybe I'll come back and do it again someday," he said. "If you ever see a rickety, gold Pathfinder parked in front of the store, you'll know Boris and I are there."