House Bill 1223 is threatening to ban instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity through eighth grade in Florida’s public schools. It also would prevent school employees from sharing their preferred pronouns or ask students theirs.
As a result, LGBTQ+ community members in Tallahassee struggle to find safe spaces to meet and have an open dialogue about the challenges they face and support each other through their experiences.
After living in Tallahassee for ten years, 37-year-old Alex Spencer said she noticed a hole in the community that needed to be filled. With recent hate crimes against the queer community making national news, Spencer said she wanted to create an LGBTQ+ and feminist bookstore for people to come together in a setting different from bars or nightclubs. That idea grew into what is today known as Common Ground Bookstore, a hub for Tallahassee’s LGBTQ+ population sincee Aug. 6, 2022.
“As somebody who doesn’t really frequent bars or nightclubs, it was definitely something that I felt was needed as just a gathering space in the community,” Spencer said. “One of my friends posted on Facebook that they were looking for a pansexual flag. In my own way, reply back, ‘It’s not June, you’re not going to be able to find one,’ and that helped spur the idea of, OK, well, maybe we need something in this town, someplace for people to go and get stuff when it’s not June and not have to order it online.”
A frequent visitor of Common Ground Bookstore, Maz Neamand, has been patronizing the store since its soft opening. Neamand said that the bookstore’s atmosphere inspires an important conversation that is being silenced in other public spaces.
“This is such a meaningful place for me,” Neamand said. “I find this to be an incredibly important conversation to be happening. I find that people who are queer really do need a safe space that isn’t quite as obvious or potentially as dangerous as a club might be. This is a place right next to the main library that is safe and accepting and has literature for people who want to find more out about themselves and Alex hosts events for all ages.”
Spencer recently hired Sam Beal to be the store’s event coordinator. Beal said that with the current political climate, the store offers patrons an opportunity to be exposed to storylines they may have a difficult time finding anywhere else.
“I think that specifically the representation in media is so important,” Beal said, “I think I can speak for a lot of people who grew up in Florida, especially in smaller towns in Florida. I had no LGBTQ representation growing up. So, having a bookstore in Tallahassee, where about 90% of the books are either about LGBTQ characters or written by LGBTQ authors, it gives people access to storylines that they might otherwise not have whether that be adults or children.”
Beyond creating an environment to support queer members of the community, Spencer also said the bookstore holds even more meaning for her because it allows her to support her daughter. She said that supporting her local businesses will offer a much more personal experience compared to more mainstream bookstores.
“This town is very cool and unique in the way that it supports local businesses and I think it’s great from the personal standpoint of this allows my kid to be able to go to dance class,” Spencer said. “If you come and buy a book from me, I can pay for her dance class. So I think it’s just that personal interaction that you get, you get to know people and you support your friendly neighbor. It’s very important to have that personal interaction. It’s not a billionaire who’s getting the money, it’s my 6 year old.”
Common Ground Bookstore is located at 128 N. Bronough St., across from the public library.