Why a San Francisco bookstore is shipping queer books to conservative states — for free

SAN FRANCISCO CA JUNE 17, 2024 - Becka Robbins, manager at Fabulosa Books in the Castro District, picks out books to fill a box for the Books Not Bans program inside the store on Monday, June 17, 2024 in San Francisco, California. Robbins runs a program out of a closet inside the store called Books Not Bans, sending LGBTQ+ books to LGBTQ+ organizations in conservative parts of America. (Loren Elliott / For The Times)
Becka Robbins, events manager at Fabulosa Books in the Castro District of San Francisco, picks out books to fill a shipment for the Books Not Bans program, which sends LGBTQ+ books to queer-friendly groups and organizations in parts of the country where they are censored. (Loren Elliott / For The Times)

Lots of out-of-town visitors to Fabulosa Books in San Francisco react emotionally when they see what Becka Robbins calls the "Big Gay Wall" — which features a stack of shelves brimming with LGBTQ+ titles.

But Robbins, the store's events manager, remembers the response of a 15-year-old Ohio boy the best.

"Wait a minute! Is every single book on this whole wall gay?" the teen asked after walking in from Castro Street last year.

When Robbins said they were, the boy went quiet, then smiled back at her. "Can I hug you?" he asked.

A person looks at books in a window of a storefront with the words "Fabulosa Books" on it.
Fabulosa Books in the Castro District. (Loren Elliott / For The Times)

The moment was "super moving and sweet," Robbins said, but also "kind of terrible" — a reminder, in one of America's queerest neighborhoods, that LGBTQ+-affirming books are still hard to come by for many young queer people in the U.S.

Robbins said she still thinks about the exchange when she's packing up boxes of LGBTQ+ books for shipment to Alabama or Idaho, Oklahoma or South Carolina, Texas or Florida as part of a grassroots effort she launched from Fabulosa last year called Books Not Bans.

The initiative is a West Coast counterpunch to the well-organized and rapidly growing effort by anti-LGBTQ+ activists and lawmakers in more conservative parts of the country to ban queer-friendly books from public schools and libraries.

Read more: Our Queerest Century

According to the American Library Assn., more than 4,200 book titles were targeted for censorship in 2023, representing a 92% increase in challenged titles at public libraries and an 11% increase at school libraries compared with the previous year. Nearly half of the titles have to do with the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people and people of color, the group found.

Emily Drabinski, the association's president, said librarians in smaller communities are being bombarded with ban requests, threatened if they don't comply and forced to remove books from shelves by zealous lawmakers eager to flex self-proclaimed moral authority.

The Castro District has long been a beacon of queer hope for the country, and this is one of the latest iterations. Fifty years have passed since San Francisco County Supervisor Harvey Milk — one of the nation's first out gay elected officials — started drumming up local political support for the gay community by giving speeches about gay boys in more rural parts of the country finding hope in the neighborhood's message of acceptance.

The need for such hope remains — as does San Francisco's instinct to fill it.

"They need more than books, obviously, but this is what we have," Robbins said. "This is a thing I can do that is concrete."

People browse books on tables and high shelves.
Customers shop at Fabulosa Books. (Loren Elliott / For The Times)

Books Not Bans operates with Fabulosa owner Alvin Orloff's blessing out of a closet in the bookstore. The nonprofit is heading into its second year, and its concept is simple.

Signage in Fabulosa talks up the program and solicits donations from customers, many of whom are transplants from more conservative parts of the country or visitors from such places.

Read more: This trans author toured red-state libraries. What she found might surprise you

Once enough money has been raised for a full box — usually about 20 books, worth about $400 — Robbins finds a group she thinks might need it and reaches out. If the organization is interested, Robbins then works with its members to select titles that would best suit their needs, whether that's kids books, young adult books, guides for parents or anything else.

So far, Robbins has sent off 35 boxes, or about 700 books, she said. Recipients have included an LGBTQ+-affirming high school in Alabama, a Gay Straight Alliance in South Carolina, a drag queen story hour in Idaho, a graduate student working with queer elders in Oklahoma and a queer youth center in Florida.

A woman puts books in a box.
Robbins packs a shipment for a Books Not Bans recipient. (Loren Elliott / For The Times)

Recipients have sent thank-you cards and other mementos of appreciation, Robbins said, though not all want attention. Some have faced death threats for their work.

Jason DeShazo — aka drag queen Momma Ashley Rose — recently received a box of books from Fabulosa for the Rose Dynasty Center, an LGBTQ+ safe space, health clinic and community center that DeShazo just opened in Lakeland, Fla.

DeShazo said he has been performing family-friendly drag story hours since long before they became the political lightning rod they are today. He believes deeply in the power and importance of books in the fight for queer acceptance. The intense hatred and discrimination he's experienced from anti-LGBTQ+ protesters recently has only solidified that belief, he said.

Read more: Queer people have shaped America. Why celebrating that fact protects kids

The books from Fabulosa are a big boost for the library he is trying to build at the center, he said, but they also send a powerful message about the bonds of the LGBTQ+ community — near and far.

"It gives me hope," DeShazo said. "It brings joy to think that there are people in other parts of the country who know what we're going through and are willing to support us, to make sure we can have that safe space for people."

A hand rests above a box of books.
So far, Books Not Bans has sent off 35 boxes, or about 700 books, across the country. (Loren Elliott / For The Times)

In San Francisco, queer acceptance is often taken for granted — including in the literary space. The San Francisco Public Library calls itself the "queerest library ever," has a dedicated queer collection at the main library's James C. Hormel LGBTQIA+ Center, features LGBTQ+ titles in all of its branches and hosts special events encouraging people to read LGBTQ+ and other banned books.

"We see our role as a place for representation and also for joy and goodness, so people can come in and see themselves represented," said Cristina Mitra, the Hormel Center's program manager.

But the picture is vastly different in other parts of the country.

"There is a lot of fear and trepidation," said Drabinski, of the library association. In addition to targeting queer-friendly books, she said, anti-LGBTQ+ activists are mounting "a pressure campaign to undermine trust in libraries and librarians."

Drabinski, who grew up in Idaho and is queer, said that books helped her understand herself in crucial ways, and that part of her mission is to make sure young people today have the same learning opportunities. She praised Fabulosa for being part of the same fight.

Read more: The 15 most banned books in America this school year

Robbins said she hopes that Books Not Bans continues to grow, but also that other queer institutions in places such as San Francisco find ways to connect with those in less accepting parts of the country — to see how they might help.

"A lot of folks in the LGBTQ community on the coast feel very, very confident that things are fine, but that's not what I'm hearing," she said. "It really matters to show up for each other."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.