Spend a little time talking to Ted Jensen about his shop Outloud!, and you get the feeling that he and his partner Kevin Medley, who run the eclectic Church Street storefront together, may have missed their calling — particularly when Jensen reminisces about some of the customers they've served over the years.
There are the wives who suspect their husbands may be gay who come in looking for counseling and information. There are the closeted whose parking proximity and degree of stealth while entering the store is in direct proportion to their comfort with their sexuality. And there are the gay and homeless teens who walk in nonchalantly, announce that they "aren't gay or anything," and then look around until they finally feel comfortable enough to introduce themselves — years later, sometimes.
Oh, and the shop also sells books — at least until Feb. 20, when Outloud! will shutter for a handful of reasons, among them the economy, the long-suffering book industry and the health of the store owners, who both manage HIV and other illnesses. But if this bookstore's history of service to the gay community, from vigils to festivals to resources to just providing a place to hang out, is any indication, Jensen and Medley were always destined for community outreach in some form.
"People have been coming here since they were 13, and now they're 30, and are telling me how important this store was to them," says Jensen, 39, the store's founder. "I've got people coming in here — parents saying, 'You can't close, my daughter wouldn't be here if it weren't for this store. It was instrumental in her getting through and not killing herself.' "
Jensen understands. As a teenager, coming out was particularly stressful for him too — particularly in the '90s, when his period of self-discovery occurred on the dimly lit front end of increasing awareness of the gay rights movement.
"Back then, you couldn't go to the library and find anything, and you couldn't go to church," Jensen recalls. "It was a big crossroads. I fought with it for a long time, and was suicidal trying to find someone to say it was OK. So the outcome, the reason the store is here, is to provide a space open to everyone so people can find themselves."
And when Jensen decided to open a store here in the mid-'90s, everyone from his parents to the bank told him he was taking a serious gamble.
"I talked to people in Nashville and they said a gay store will never work in Nashville," Jensen says. The reason? "They said there's not enough people. There's no gay people in Nashville. People will boycott it, all kinds of things. But basically that there's not enough gay people in Nashville."
Is there anything to that thinking?
"God, no," he says with a laugh. "The number of gays and lesbians here is very large from what I know from customers. You can look at our mailing list, and East Nashville is very gay male and Antioch is very lesbian."
In some ways, it's that near-evangelical faith in his customer base and commitment to serving them that has led to Jensen and Medley closing the shop. Rather than focus on profits, they looked for ways to invite the gay community in to sit and talk a spell. When the shop opened in 1996 at the 1800 block of Church Street, it was the first gay business to hang the rainbow flag, says Jensen, who adds that the store has been a struggle "since the beginning."
Back then, Church Street was hardly a gay street, much less a district, and Jensen and Medley kept company with all-ages punk club Lucy's Record Shop and Nashville's first cosmopolitan destination for gay and gay-friendly residents, the restaurant and bar World's End.
But as Outloud! helped define the emerging gay district that welcomed more gay and lesbian entrepreneurs, they began to face difficult choices about how to remain an inviting presence for the gay community while also keeping the lights on. In 1998, Jensen added an adult component to the store he'd originally envisioned as a bookstore, coffeehouse and community center under one roof.
"We were never supposed to have the adult product here," says Jensen, whose previous efforts were in part a challenge to the stereotype that gay people are unusually driven by sex. "But it became necessary."
"There's more to gay life than sex," Jensen is fond of saying. But the profit he could bring in from adult-oriented materials could help him continue to educate the community. And quite frankly, they needed the income.
"It came down to money," he says. "Monthly publications keep people coming back monthly." Later, by email Jensen explains further: "It got people in the door, helped pay our bills, and allowed people to find all the other parts of the GLBT culture. Literature, film, music, arts."
Jensen and his partner focused on enhancing the bookstore's inventory over the years as well, often in favor of cultural and educational enhancement of the community over profits. In brick-and-mortar terms, some 70 percent of their book selection — which covers all manner of topics regarding sexual identity and politics — has been unavailable anywhere else in the city. Where mainstream or independent bookstores offer a rack to the alt-world, Jensen felt a duty to his customer to keep that selection broad.
"At one point, I tried to be a library basically," Jensen says. "I was stocking every gay book that was ever published." Whereas most bookstores remove titles that don't sell in a few months, Jensen was keeping a static title on his shelf for over 18 months.
"My philosophy on that is that people who are just coming out — which is happening every day — to them, everything in here is new," Jensen says. "Certain books appeal to certain types of people. I wanted to make sure transgendered people got their books and bisexual people had their books and gay men or even gay art directors."
In practice, though, it became unsustainable. In 2005, he began selling off the stock to reduce his inventory. Next, they tried expanding the bookstore by some 2,300 square feet to include his original goal of having a coffee shop and restaurant. That brought another difficult decision: whether or not to sell alcohol. He couldn't bring himself to do it for moral reasons.
"When you drink, you start losing your decision-making abilities," he says. "I also drank a lot struggling with being gay as a teenager."
The cafe closed in 2008, just as the economy settled into its all-too-familiar rut, cutting out another portion of his income — a loyal customer base that had once had discretionary income. On top of that, there was the Amazon threat.
"Amazon has hurt us," Jensen says. "It's a big thing: sales tax. I like that 10 percent discount, too, but I can charge the same price as Amazon and I'm still 10 percent higher all the time." And so a business already struggling to stay afloat suddenly saw its sales cut in half.
Beyond the financial and philosophical concerns were more pressing ones, like the toll that running the shop took on Jensen and his partner's health. Both are managing HIV — Jensen for 21 years, his partner for 10 — an illness that means careful attention to stress levels, diet and overall mental well-being, typically the first sacrifices one makes for a small business.
"I don't think we're supposed to live in this high-stress, crazy environment," Jensen says of the modern world. But that hasn't made the decision to close the store any easier.
"I'm torn," he says. "But I'm also very happy, because I've always wanted to go back to nature, to farm and garden and eat what we're supposed to."
He and Medley have decided to retire to their farm in Hohenwald, a 75-acre space where they plan to grow their own crops and focus on meditation, a raw-food diet and healing. They're in talks with several people about the possibility of taking over the space, and they're offering it at below-market prices. It's a steal for anyone in need of prime space in a growing district, a place once hostile to alternative lifestyles — now known for embracing them, thanks in large part to a spot that made it easier to come out and accept who you are.
In the meantime, everything down to the displays must go. Around the store are marked-down items, a pile of mannequins, well-worn furniture, novelty gifts and a slew of books — everything from rainbow crime-scene party tape to a Noam Chomsky book, waiting to be liquidated.
But for a shop that always struggled and was told many times that weren't enough gay people in Nashville to sustain it, 15 years is a success by Jensen's standards.
"The world is a much different place than it was 15 years ago," he says. "There's so many more ways to gather information and find diversity. Our mission was to help people find themselves. Provide a space that was open and accepting to all. I do believe we have helped many, and ourselves, on so many different levels, but our mission could span a lifetime and still never be finished. I believe that we succeeded in many ways and now it is the time for us to turn inward and for someone else to step up."