Eight years ago, Ted Jensen foretold the future of Church Street .
"I always said this would be the gay neighborhood in Nashville ," he said, standing outside the front entrance to the new OutLoud! near the corner of 17th Avenue and Church. "Back then people didn't believe there could be a gay district in Nashville ."
Many potential investors didn't believe a store like OutLoud! would be successful either. Those who frequented the Chute back in the summer of 1995 will recall Jensen set up a one-night-only store a couple times in that complex to great acclaim and brisk sales.
Still, the naysayers were saying nay. So it was from a personal liquidation of furniture and even clothing that Tennessee 's oldest GLBT community store was born. Within a year Jensen opened the first incarnation of OutLoud!, only one block south of its current location at 1709 Church Street .
Back then there was no Tribe, no Play, no acknowledgement in the mainstream media of a "burgeoning gay district." In the space where the current Club Blu can be found, World's End single-handedly represented gay life on Church Street .
Eight years later, Jensen and his partner, Kevin Medley, are putting together the third and largest expansion of their community store yet. The new facility will be located immediately adjacent to the current one. In recent weeks, passersby have seen dumpsters and heard hammers and even jackhammers tearing down the old and building the new.
At the time of this writing, the floor of "the new space," as Jensen refers to it, is covered by two-by-fours laying out where the walls, corners, hallways, storage rooms, and kitchen will be laid in the coming weeks. Exposed brick and warmer, earthier colors promise to add a cozier feel to each department which, in the present location, is hampered by the white on white color scheme.
"That was the color we found there, back when we could only afford just to move into that location," Jensen laughs.
As far as booksellers go, OutLoud! is one of only five independent bookstores in all of Tennessee registered with BookSense, the marketing arm of the American Booksellers Association (not including bookstores focused entirely on used product). The only others in the Nashville area are located in Dickson, Franklin and Green Hills.
Hidden back in the halls of the current store and empty spaces of the new building are framed articles from the Tennessean and (the defunct) INReview newspapers documenting the success of stand-alone, independent bookstores such as OutLoud! in the face of what, at the time, was a juggernaut of bookselling from the likes of Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon.
Of those five independent stores here in Tennessee , the niche of OutLoud! is – needless to say – unique even among them. Nashville 's OutLoud! is one of the last of the GLBT bookstores in all of America . With the mainstreaming of all things gay in the 1990s, many GLBT stores nationwide fell victim to price-cutting by the quantity discount purchasing power of the big chain retailers.
Jensen goes out of his way during this interview to stress his thanks to the GLBT community of Nashville . "We definitely wouldn't have lasted this long without the support of the community," he said. "We've always been here to serve the community."
The philosophy behind the store has never fallen out of focus for both Jensen and Medley in all eight years the store has been in operation.
"We rent and sell DVDs," said Medley from inside the current location, at the register where he is often found, "and books and gift items that, in many cases, can be found in other places. In here, though, it's specially selected locally for our community. Everything in here isn't necessarily gay but it should be something everyone might be interested in."
From book sections devoted entirely to coming out, GLBT history and how-to books for maintaining sexual and/or healthy monogamous relationships to a general release DVD rental section that is unparalleled and a well-tuned plethora of mainstream books/DVDs/magazines, the selection at the store is tailored to be a GLBT consumer's one-stop entertainment and wellness shop.
One of the unique functions of OutLoud! is that it strives to serve all members of the community. Ironic, for a minority group so seemingly well-coordinated, but in many cities there are lesbian bookstores, for example, that stand alone from ones catering to a gay male clientele. Those cities, of course, are larger and less conservative (overall) than Nashville but it does speak to the cohesiveness that defines the G, L, B and T of this city.
This "all things to all people" philosophy encompasses a lot of merchandise. Though specifics regarding the product layout of the new store are not yet available, the owners make it clear there will be room for a full expansion of all the products currently offered. A veritable gay-Media Play, the "new space," measuring well over three times the size of OutLoud!'s current location, will see an expansion of merchandise in all sections of the store: from books to DVD rental and sales, music, magazines, cards and gift items for both men and women.
To create a more cohesive and family friendly atmosphere, Jensen and Medley have chosen to move their specialty and mature-oriented products into its own stand-alone region within the new OutLoud! As well, it will undergo an expansion of everything from leather clothing to relationship aids; erotic cards, gifts and photography to its own film rentals and sales.
Acutely aware of the political nature of life in America and Nashville today, Jensen stresses his personal interest in contributing to a more politically active community in the future.
"Before the election, we had a lot of people, gay and straight, coming in, asking if we were the local Kerry-Edwards headquarters," he says, with a laugh, referencing the window and store displays and items available throughout September and October.
"We've increased our buying to get the political books and gifts sections bigger," he added, "and we're hoping to have an area in the store where people can have contact information for their local, state and federal representatives easily available to them."
Jensen reports many customers have referenced Outwrite, Atlanta 's Gay & Lesbian Bookstore & Coffeehouse when presenting the idea of a coffeehouse expansion to him.
"We've been planning this expansion for a long time," he said. In fact, one of the framed newspaper articles about the store acknowledges Jensen's long-term plan to equip his community store with a coffee bar as far back as 1997.
"We've set up Bongo Java as our supplier," he said, "mainly because most customers have requested it. And it's locally owned. We're planning on offering sandwiches, salads, lots of raw foods at first and eventually building a larger café-style menu." Michael Romanello, formerly a manager at LePeep in West Nashville , is coordinating this aspect of the expansion.
The input of Romanello is one of the main reasons the opening of the entire project has been pushed back from the advertised "coming this fall" to likely mid-January.
"Our original plan," said Jensen, " was to include the coffeehouse inside the new space. Michael pointed out the small space next to the new space would work well – we had been saving that for another project – and, after a while, it just made more sense, for the sake of the coffeehouse itself, to use it."
In the traditional form of the word "coffeehouse," Jensen and Medley are hoping to build one that will, at the same time, complement the store and continue the community-building aspect of their business philosophy.
"We'd like to use this space to eventually present acoustic performers and poetry readings like coffeehouses used to do a long time ago," he said. He points to the Webster's definition of "coffeehouse" which includes the following quote:
Coffeehouses were the chief organs through which the public opinion of the metropolis vented itself. Every(one) . went daily to his coffeehouse to learn the news and discuss it."
Perhaps realizing the length of time between now and the grand opening (about two months), Jensen reminds us the store appreciates its loyal and growing customer base which, he says, does not go unnoticed.
"We have lots of new stuff coming in for the Christmas season," he said, abruptly. Then, with a salesman's mischievous grin, he searches his memory for some last minute product plugs:
"We just got a new trivia board game with gay history questions. "
"Holiday cards are coming soon.
"Some DVDs are 20% off for the next couple weeks."