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In Memory of John Mitzel, A Boston Institution

MitzelThe following memories were shared at a memorial service for John Mitzel (1948–2013) at Calamus Bookstore on Friday, October 11. Mitzel, a gay activist in the ’70s who managed Glad Day Book Shop in the ’80s and 90’s and founded Calamus in 2000, had passed away a week earlier, on October 3, after a long illness.

         I first met John Mitzel in 1987, the summer I graduated from high school and worked for about a month at Glad Day Book Shop in Boston’s Copley Square. It wasn’t until 2006, however, that I got to know John as a friend, when Brian Gale, John’s assistant, was about to take a leave of absence from Calamus Bookstore, and John asked me to step in for a while. When I said that I’d be delighted, he told me that two things would happen to me if I chose to work in a gay bookstore: I’d lose my interest in gay literature, and I’d lose my interest in gay porn. That turned out to be only half true.

         For now, I’d just like to share one anecdote about John that I think captures his personal ethos and the Calamus ethos perfectly: Once a year, usually in June, John would go to Chinatown to buy new fabric for the store’s window display. I remember watching him on a sunny day in June of 2006 as he stood in the store’s window box in his trademark security guard uniform draping pieces of lamé fabric over rickety wooden display boxes and thinking, “God, that looks dated.” When I suggested that perhaps his window treatment could use a makeover, John just looked at me dismissively and said, “Jim, there’s something you have to understand about me: In my mind, it’s always a beautiful sunny afternoon in 1973.”

         At that moment, something crystallized in my mind: despite the conservative-looking security guard uniforms, the unflagging work ethic, the stoicism, the seeming asexuality, and the dignified bearing John projected with his silver hair and glasses, he was essentially a hippy anarchist who wasn’t in it for the money. His business model was anything but corporate, which is why it was so much fun working at Calamus, or just hanging out with him and Brian [Mitzel's longtime assistant] and shooting the shit with customers. Against the backdrop of today’s book market and society in general, I’d prefer a beautiful sunny afternoon in 1973 any day.

Jim Farley is an associate editor of The Gay & Lesbian Review / Worldwide.

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