John Mitzel, owner of one of the country’s last LGBT bookstores, Boston’s Calamus Bookstore, has died. Mitzel died at home in Arlington, MA during the early morning of October 4th from complications resulting from an earlier cancer treatment.

Miztel was a fount of knowledge when it came to Boston’s gay history, as well as an active participant in shaping that city’s queer cultural identity. Mitzel was also a prolific writer; he wrote ten books encompassing fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

From the Boston Globe:

Before opening Calamus Bookstore near South Station 13 years ago, Mitzel worked for years at the now-defunct Glad Day Bookshop in the South End. He knows gay history, in part, because he’s lived it. In 1971 he co-founded the radical newspaper Fag Rag, and in 1978 he helped organize a gay rights fund-raiser at which Gore Vidal spoke.

An in depth article about Miztel, written last year by writer Mark Thomas Krone, provided context and insight into Mitzel’s pre-Stonewall coming out process and his entrée into the gay political community:

Raised outside Cincinnati, “a beautiful city but very right-wing”, Mitzel’s parents divorced before he reached his teens. Both parents went on to marry two more times. In high school, Mitzel was popular and his grades were good. He had every reason to expect a bright future. There was however, just one problem. He began disappearing on nights and weekends, often returning in the early morning hours. At first, his mother was puzzled. She soon decided to hire a private investigator, who informed her that John was going to gay bars and bus stations and picking up men. Determined to halt his nocturnal activities she decided to forcibly admit him to a mental hospital. A distraught and confused Mitzel sought out the hospital psychiatrist assigned to him. “I asked him, why am I here? He said, ‘Well, obviously your mother does not like you being homosexual.’  If you were queer back then, psychiatry and institutionalization was very standard.” Mitzel was institutionalized twice more that year until finally, he ran away from home, moving to Boston in 1965.

In 1968, Mitzel was drafted and had to return to Cincinnati. As he stood in his underwear with several dozen other men, he was handed a questionnaire that included the famous line asking about homosexual tendencies — not asking if you were a homosexual–but if you had homosexual tendencies. “I thought, clever writing — someone had read Kinsey.”  Mitzel checked the box “yes” and was promptly sent to the psychiatrist. “So I sat down in his office, and crossed my legs. I tried to do my best Natalie Wood impression. And he said, ‘You have homosexual tendencies. Are you actively homosexual?’ I looked at him and flirted with my eyelids, and said, ‘Not as active as I’d like to be.’ He laughed and said, ‘You’re 4-F Freddy.” Deemed unfit for service, Mitzel was free to go. It was one year before the Stonewall uprisings. “It was good timing because Judy Garland died six months later and the gay revolution started. I didn’t want to be off in Danang shooting Vietnamese.”

Mitzel enrolled at [Boston University], where he studied with Howard Zinn, among other professors. He attended a Student Homophile League meeting there in 1971, where he met gay scholar Charley Shively.Mitzel and Shively both believed that the Boston gay community needed newspapers. They co-founded the radical newspaper, Fag Rag in 1971. “We published political essays, manifestos, movie and book reviews, and lots of poetry.”

Calamus Books will be hosting an in-store event celebrating Mitzel’s life on Friday, October 11 at 7 p.m. at 92B South Street, Boston, MA. Call 617-338-1931 for more information about the event.


Photo: John Mitzel via Vimeo

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12 Responses to “Writer and LGBT Bookstore Owner John Mitzel, 65, has Died”

  1. 5 October 2013 at 9:49 PM #

    This is very sad. John was almost singularly responsible for bringing LGBT literature to Boston before it became a trendy part of the mainstream. I had the honor of reading at his bookstore a number of time. As LGBT writers, we need to make sure he is remembered.

  2. 6 October 2013 at 10:45 AM #

    Although I met John just once, I’ve known of him for years,as Boston’s gay bookseller but also for Fag Rag and our mutual admiration for Gore Vidal. I made a trip to Boston with writer Bob Smith, and we had a delightful lunch with him across the street from the store. Drinking in the middle of the day has never been so fun. Who but John would write an ode to a martini, one of my favorite poems of his? John’s store is easily one of my favorites, especially his used book section, which is truly one of a kind. I came home from that trip with a shopping bag full of books. Something I can’t imagine doing at almost any other bookstore. John was also a terrific supporter of mine and gay literature in general, to put it mildly. I truly considered John a comrade, someone who’s knowledge, expertise, and passion for gay books isn’t something easily replicated.

  3. 7 October 2013 at 8:12 AM #

    I made it a point to meet John when I moved to Boston and did so right away. We would spend many a Sunday afternoon talking about friends we had in common and books we read. It was almost as if we shared the same address books. I will really miss him.

  4. […] To read the full article go to:… […]

  5. 8 October 2013 at 10:56 PM #

    John was such a part of my life; it really kills me that he has died, and very young, too—certainly by my standards. He coordinated so many book events that I did over the years in Boston at the old Glad Day Bookstore; I used to drop in on him at Calamus Books, and yes, he did love a good martini. He was so very much an old school gay in the best sense of the word, very gallant, suave, smart, incisive, and funny. I’ll miss him so much. Here’s looking at you, John. You’ll be waiting for us at that wonderful queer book Happy Book happy hour somewhere. Much love. Perry

  6. 12 October 2013 at 6:14 PM #

    Mitzel is in the running for best gay bookseller ever–so charming, so knowledgeable, so funny.
    He called last winter to say the doctor had told him he had a year to live and that he had a successor lined up.

  7. 13 October 2013 at 1:06 PM #

    John was a great champion of local gay writers. He always made time to chat with customers and authors whenever they stepped down the few steps into his little bookstore in the heart of downtown Boston. I will always appreciate the support he gave me with each of my Boston novels.

  8. 14 October 2013 at 11:08 PM #

    I like to think that I lived through the entire gay movement, from Stonewall to victory, and Jon Mitzel is my proof. He was my first publisher — and my best. He never changed a thing, but he did make one suggestion. “Why don’t you just tell them to go to hell?” he said. So I did, and he published it. Mitzel gave thousands not only a sense of freedom but gave them a clue what do with it. That was the very essence of our success because it was the essence of what we wanted, what we deserved, and what society benefited from. Mitzel was a gentleman, but a gay gentleman. He was proof that one could be both.

  9. 18 October 2013 at 12:34 AM #

    I visited John Mitzel at Calamus the afternoon before he died. Although I was shocked at how sick he looked, he talked as if he and the store would go on forever. He was as spirited, feisty and astute as always.
    He liked my first book (which was not particularly gay [thus, he could have taken a pass on it]) gave me a reading, stocked it and promoted it strongly. He did the same with the next two, which were gayer.
    His Calamus newsletter comments about everything he focused on were concise, yet showed his broad range of knowledge, literary and otherwise.
    I am only one of the many, many writers he was good to. We had met in the Sixties when it seemed like there were only ten gay men in Boston. However, we were not very friendly until after the Millenium and then, I suspect, because I visited him in the company of the talented and charming Joe (J.G.)Hayes.
    I suspect also that Mitzel was happy that we each had survived. Many of our connections from the Sixties had not.
    Mitzel delighted in, at the same time as he deplored, certain shenanigans and events in Boston’s social, political and religious history in the last half of the Twentieth Century. He loved inside stories, had more than a few himself, and knew that you had to trade some to get some.

  10. […] Mitzel, writer and owner of Boston’s LGBT Calamus Bookstore, died on October 4, 2013 at the age of 65. Both shaper and historian of the city’s LGBT history, he wrote ten books of fiction, nonfiction, […]

  11. 7 January 2015 at 9:45 AM #

    Mitzel had such a profound impact from the moment I met him in January 1995. He was as soft spoken as he was outspoken, one who enjoyed working hard and worked hard for his enjoyment. It was a privilege and pure joy working under his wing. I miss him greatly on this, the anniversary of his life so fully lived, and always. R.I.P. my dear friend.

  12. 17 September 2015 at 11:06 AM #

    Mitzel was so many things: queer activist, founder of the incomparable Calamus Bookstore, witty commentator on the more and foibles of the queer community in Boston and indeed the entire country. As publisher of Gay Sunshine Journal and then Press, I published many pieces by him (“Sports and the Macho Male” comes to mind). Because of my expat life in Europe (am now in Portugal) during the period 2007 until his death I had little contact with him. We had our differences, yes, but I admired him for his dedication. I was browsing the net looking for an email address for him intending to write him about our mutual friend, Charley Shively, when I came across the 2013 obituary: a shock.

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