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TC Pride: Remembering the Battle of the Bookstores

Published June 27, 2014 by Kevin Ehrman-Solberg

Today’s blogger is Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, Historyapolis intern. 

This weekend, Twin Cities Pride will celebrate the myriad aspects of GLBT life in Minneapolis, which revels in its designation as the “gayest city” in the United States. Pride began as a subdued picnic in Loring Park in 1972 and most people see this quiet gathering as the beginning of a new era of openness for gays and lesbians in the city. It took more than a picnic, however, for queer Minnesotans to win the social, political, and sexual rights they enjoy today.

The struggle for these rights took place in a wide variety of community institutions. But a critical–and often overlooked–battleground for sexual freedom in Minneapolis was the city’s adult bookstores and movie theaters. From 1979 to 1985, the city’s growing adult entertainment industry was the site of intense conflict over the rights of gay men to seek sexual partners in public spaces. A critical turning point for gay rights in the city, this “battle of the bookstores” inspired queer Minneapolitans to seek real political influence in City Hall.

In 1979, police launched a crackdown against the city’s growing pornography industry. They were under intense pressure from neighborhood activists, who objected to the proliferation of pornographic bookstores and movie theaters in South Minneapolis. The ensuing police campaign targeted gay men who used adult bookstores and theaters as sites for sexual encounters. Men in Minneapolis, many of them unwilling to self-identify as gay, had been using those spaces since the early 1970s as a way to engage in sexual contact without fear of physical violence or discovery.

The experience of Mark Weintrob was typical. On August 17, 1982, Mark Weintrob left work and headed to the Adonis Bookstore downtown. He went up to the second floor where a small theater advertised “Hot Male Movies” from “Noon to Midnight.” After taking a seat, he noticed a man staring at him in the dim lights. The two men proceeded to engage in the “normal gay male cruising rituals” until the stranger finally took the initiative and asked Wientrob if he would like to “go somewhere a little more private.” Wientrob followed him to a small boiler room. There, the stranger asked: “Are you a cop?” Wientrob responded with a simple: “No.” “Well I am,” the stranger said, “and you’re under arrest.”

Wientrob became the first man to challenge such an arrest in court. He won, but very few of the men arrested for indecent conduct–a charge used almost exclusively for observed sexual conduct between consenting men–were willing to fight such a charge. Doing so meant public exposure, the very thing these men were trying to avoid.

That exposure could have dire–even fatal–consequences, as the case of the Reverend James Santo illustrates. On December 14, 1982, Santo went into the basement of his Hopkins church and lit himself on fire. His death, and the subsequent investigation, made the front page of the Star and Tribune. “The fire,” the story reads, “which police said may have been caused by Santo pouring gasoline on himself, was preceded 12 hours earlier by his arrest on indecent conduct charges in an adult-oriented bookstore in Minneapolis.” That line is the only mention of the indecent conduct arrest in the Star and Tribune coverage, but it hints at a problem that had been wracking the local gay community for years. Attorney Ken Keate, who regularly represented bookstore arrestees, reported that “about five percent of my calls on these cases are suicide calls.”

The undercover operations of the vice squad netted over 5,000 arrests for indecent conduct between 1979 and 1985. The vast majority of those arrests were gay men. In addition to the shame of such an arrest, many had to endure police brutality when taken into custody.       Activists began to mobilize against this harassment in 1979. But they made little headway until 1985, when a coalition of openly gay politicians and community members were able to force police to scale back their entrapment operations. The political muscle exercised by newly elected gay politicians Brian Coyle, Allan Speer, and Karen Clark, signaled a profound change in the dynamics of the local gay community. The Star Tribune, which had all but ignored the bookstore arrests, suddenly took notice. The paper remarked that the police department’s decision to end vice squad entrapment demonstrated a “broad and well-entrenched political base of support for gays” and was one of the first tangible signs of “growing gay political power.”

Porn protester for Kevin's blog post,  Pioneer Press, November 10, 1984

“Pornography is the theory and rape is the practice”

Published March 18, 2014 by Kevin Ehrman-Solberg

Today’s blogger is Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, a senior history major at Augsburg and one of the student interns at the Historyapolis Project for 2014. Kevin will be a regular presence on this blog. Today he shares some of the research he has been doing for his senior thesis, which examines the conflicts and controversies engendered by the burgeoning pornography industry during the 1970s and 1980s.

This photo from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, published in November, 1984, shows an angry group of women protesting a pornographic bookstore on Lake Street in Minneapolis. They were part of a national movement of women  who rallied under the phrase coined by radical feminist Robin Morgan: “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice.” The idea was that not only was pornography degrading to women, it promoted misogynistic violence.

By the early 1980s, communities across the country were consumed by this issue, which sparked what many observers came to call the “sex wars.” But there was no city where this issue was as contentious as in Minneapolis. And on December 30, 1983 the Minneapolis city council voted to ban pornography.

This ordinance was authored by radical feminists Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. But it had the backing of women like the protesters pictured here, who had become increasingly upset about the growing presence of pornography theaters and bookstores along Lake Street in South Minneapolis.

In the early 1980s, these women decided to make it difficult for these establishments to do business as usual. Once a week groups of women would meet to “browse” the porn stores. This meant “walking unannounced through the stores, standing behind customers, watching customers watch the quarter movies,” according to the Minneapolis Tribune. According to protester Jacqui Thompson: “It makes the people in the stores uncomfortable, and that’s the point.”

These weekly “browsing” sessions sometimes became full-blown demonstrations like the one shown here. On December 2, 1983, nationally renowned radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, led approximately 150 women into a bookstore at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue. One of the participants was Bonnie Fournier who later wrote a letter to local gay and lesbian paper, Equal Time, chronicling her experience. “It began gently enough: wanting to see the reality, wanting to experience the shock, milling around, pointing, gasping…More and more women entered. Filling the aisles, marching, touching, depositing magazines on the floor, tearing, throwing objects, shouting, trampling.”

Usually, however, “browsing” was more of a low key affair involving around a dozen women, albeit one that most certainly made the bookstore customers uneasy. When several browsers stood in front of the bookstore on 401 E. Lake in the July of 1979 to pose for a picture, a man who had just walked out from the store dove over a bus stop bench to avoid having his face caught in the frame.

Browsing was a simple and effective way for women in South Minneapolis to demonstrate against the pornography business that they felt were endangering them and their communities. And it certainly worked, at least as far as making the customers uneasy. As the clerk at the 401 E. Lake bookstore said, “They been in here before. It just doesn’t look right to have a bunch of women standing in here.”

The city ordinance banning pornography was vetoed by Mayor Don Fraser in early 1984. But the protests in the Minneapolis pornography district continued until technological changes made brick and mortar theaters and bookstores obsolete and ultimately unprofitable.

-Information from: Tom Sorenson, Minneapolis Tribune, “‘Browsing; is the weapon women use to attack neighborhood pornography,” July 28, 1979. And Bonnie Fournier, Equal Time, “Feminists: This voice cries no,” December 28, 1983. 

Lost to History: the South Minneapolis Pornography District of the 1980s

Published March 17, 2014 by Kevin Ehrman-Solberg


It’s Map Monday. Today we have a custom map created by Historyapolis student researcher Kevin Ehrman-Solberg. It shows the geography of pornography in the 1970s and 1980s, when Minneapolis saw an explosion of the commercial sex industry. On this map, the red pins are are for theaters, the green denotes bookstores and the blue pins mark the location for other businesses related to the commercial sex industry. Pornography and prostitution had always existed in the city. But for the period between World War I to the late 1960s it had been driven underground by obscenity laws and zoning regulations.

Many of the theaters and bookstores shown on this map were owned by Ferris Alexander, who was known in Minneapolis as the “Patriarch of Porn.” Followed by the FBI and hated by city administrators, Alexander defied constant efforts to drive him out of business and perhaps out of town. The city passed a zoning law in 1977 to force his establishments off of Lake Street. Alexander challenged the law in court and won, much to the consternation of city leaders and the residents of the Powderhorn and Phillips neighborhoods, which adjoined the Lake Street corridor dominated by Alexander’s businesses. By 1986, the city attorney had charged the businessman with everything from housing code violations to obscenity charges. Nothing stuck.

Alexander was not the only person in Minneapolis in the pornography business. But he was the most visible. His businesses–shown on this map–attracted men wanting to explore gay sex in an anonymous environment. And they drew feminist activists, who began targeting his businesses in the early 1980s.

In 1983, feminist protesters attacked Alexander’s notorious bookstore at Chicago Avenue and Lake Street. The women knocked down shelves, tore up magazines and spray-painted anti-pornography slogans on the walls. The police finally intervened when the destruction turned violent. This crusade ultimately culminated in the short-lived city ordinance banning pornography, which was vetoed by Mayor Donald Fraser before it could go into effect.

Alexander’s bookstores were also a magnet for men seeking anonymous male sex. Ferris helped to facilitate these encounters. According to local gay activist Tim Campbell, “Ferris or his employees would put holes in [the plywood walls that separated the individual viewing cubicles] about the size of an orange…and they became known as glory holes and they allowed you to have sex with somebody in the other booth.”

Stymied by their inability to regulate or ban Alexander’s businesses, city officials appealed to the police department to help. Starting in 1980, the city’s vice squad targeted the bookstores, arresting thousands of customers each year. Undercover officers would hit on men, who might respond with a sexual overture. An arrest for indecent conduct would follow. These vice squad arrests prompted gay activist Tim Campbell to file a joint suit with Alexander to block the city’s bookstore entrapment campaign.

By the late 1980s, the Alexander pornography empire was on the wane, under siege from both feminists and technological changes that put VCRs in every home. His businesses on the decline, Alexander was unable to beat back criminal obscenity charges. He went to prison in 1992.

Today there is little sign that there was ever a contentious pornography district in South Minneapolis. Like the early twentieth century brothel district described by Penny Petersen last Monday, this once-sexualized urban space has disappeared from the modern streetscape.

Information for the text and map are drawn from: “The 7th Annual Urban Journalism Workshop Reports On Adult Bookstores in Minneapolis” August 4th, 1977. And “Empire/Alexander Called a Modern Robber Baron,” St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, January 26, 1986 and oral history with Tim Campbell, in the possession of Kevin Ehrman-Solberg.