Carrie Barnett never met the person who first helped her accept her homosexuality. It wasnt a lover, or a friend. It was an author.

“Actually, it was about 30 authors,” Barnett says as she takes a coffee break from laying the floor of her new store. “When I was a freshman in high school in Dayton, Ohio, I had to write a term paper for social studies. I decided my subject would be homosexuality. You see, I was about 14 and was just figuring out about myself. I went to the library to see what I could read on the subject–the term paper gave it validity. I checked out about 30 books and took them home, and I kept them stacked up in my room long after I finished the term paper. I kept getting overdue notices, but I just kept the books–I liked having them around, I guess. When my mother finally made me take the books back to the library it cost me $25 in fines.”

Most of the books were psychology and sociology books–“the literature of deviance, it was called,” says Barnett, now 28. “And there wasnt much about lesbians in the books–hardly anything; they mostly documented homosexual men. So there I was at 14 saying, ‘Are there any people like me?'”

Brett Shingledecker, growing up in Lima, Ohio, around the same time, had similar experiences. “The first gay book I ever read was Faggots [Larry Kramer’s novel about New York gay life], when it came out in the late 70s. I was 15. And of course there was John Knowles’s A Separate Peace and The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren–and After Dark magazine,” he smiles, recalling the now-defunct glossy entertainment publication that catered oh-so-discreetly to a gay male sensibility. “There was one newsstand in Lima that carried it, and it was such a big deal to go in and purchase it.”

The story’s the same for most gay men and lesbians: before they become sexually active or even just emotionally involved with boyfriends and girlfriends, their real–sometimes only–friends are books. So a safe place to find gay literature becomes not just a shopping stop but a haven.

Chicago, as political activists have pointed out, is the only major city without civil rights protections for gays and lesbians; it’s also, until now, been the only city without a bookstore devoted to lesbian and gay literature. That situation changes this week, when Barnett and Shingledecker open their bookstore, People Like Us, on North Clark Street.

“People ask us, ‘How are you going to fill a whole store with gay and lesbian books?’ Oh, please!” laughs Shingledecker. He points out that in addition to the numerous gay oriented titles published by major presses–a development of only the last 15 years or so–there are a dozen publishing firms specializing in gay and lesbian books. “Of course, some only carry four titles,” Shingledecker says; Alyson Publications in Boston, and Naiad Press in Tallahasee, each with about 120 books in print, are the largest.

Many of the alternative presses market their product through mail-order distribution, placing ads in gay and lesbian newspapers and magazines. At least two general-interest bookstores in Chicago–Unabridged and Barbara’s, both popular north-side shops–stock a substantial gay and lesbian inventory, and the feminist Women & Children First carries a good deal of lesbian-related material. But Shingledecker and Barnett claim that People Like Us will be able to compete “by having the widest selection available, by being exclusively gay and lesbian, and by being a community resource.” One entire wall of the shop is designated as a community bulletin board; the store also maintains a bin for people to donate old books to Horizons Social Services, the city’s gay and lesbian counseling and legal referral agency.

The store’s inventory is categorized the same way a mainstream store like Kroch’s & Brentano’s is: fiction, poetry, plays, science fiction (a remarkably vital genre), religion (another substantial category), travel, biography, health, and young adult. This last section is particularly important to Barnett, who–in addition to her full-time job as business manager of Evanston’s Northlight Theatre and her involvement with People Like Us–is a volunteer counselor for the Horizons Youth Group, a social and support group for gay and lesbian teenagers.

Shingledecker believes that People Like Us will be valuable to heterosexuals as well. “I spent time in the gay bookstore Lambda Rising in Washington, D.C., just observing the business and the customers. One woman came in who was married to a bisexual man and was concerned about AIDS. Another customer was the mother of a young lesbian, and she wanted to know how to deal with it and help her daughter. A clerk in a store like this often functions as a counselor as well. It’s very important sometimes.”

Indeed, People Like Us has received crucial support from at least one group of heterosexuals–Barnett’s and Shingledecker’s families, who helped the pair come up with the $75,000 initial capitalization the store required.

“I come from a family of entrepreneurs, small-business people,” Barnett says. “My mother’s reaction when I told her about the store was, ‘It’s about time you went into business for yourself.'”

Yes, both owners acknowledge with firm nods of the head, there will be an erotica section–a likely source of controversy in a community often put on the defensive over sexual issues.

“People think ‘pornographic’ when they hear the phrase ‘gay literature,'” says Barnett. “We’re going to have a clean, inviting, welcome space; we’re not a dirty-book store. At the same time, it’s not our business to censor, to make value judgments. Our customers are individuals as well as part of a community.”

“People ask me, ‘Are you going to be “PC”–politically correct?'” adds Shingledecker, referring to political debate over erotic literature within the community. “We want to be everything for everyone. Some people want to read [prominent antiporn activist] Andrea Dworkin and some other people want to read ‘Macho Sluts.'”

People Like Us is also devoted to the notion of equality and communication between gay men and lesbians, two groups that have suffered from division in the past. “We decided early on that we would share our cultures with each other,” Barnett says. “Don’t we all need to work together, to understand each other’s cultures, just as we want the straight culture to understand and support us as a whole?

“Brett and I each have strengths and weaknesses that complement each other,” she adds with a smile. “He picked up the tile for the floor. But I’m laying it.”

People Like Us opens tomorrow, November 12, at 3321 N. Clark. Hours are 10 AM to 9 PM Monday through Saturday, and 10 to 6 Sunday. More info is available at 248-6363.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.