Apache Junction, Ariz. • Abby Maestas was driving back to Salt Lake City from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival — in an old Honda so packed with camping gear that she and her two friends could barely move — when the idea for the bookstore was first spoken into existence.
It was 1979 and Maestas, a self-described “Chicana dyke” who grew up in Magna, had been operating a mail-order bookstore for the previous few years. She was helping women get titles about feminism or lesbianism that they couldn’t find anywhere else in conservative Utah.
For those discovering their identities in a world without the internet, it was a significant service. But as her name began circulating more widely, Maestas started receiving hate letters from homophobic people who proclaimed she was “really sick” and told her “you should just die.”
On the way back from Michigan, she told her friends, “I think I’m gonna stop doing that. Because it’s not productive anymore, and I’m not having a good time.”
“And they said, Well, why don’t you make it a walk-in business?” Maestas recounted in a recent interview from her home in an all-women’s community in Arizona. “And I said, ‘What? Are you nuts? I don’t want to own a store.’”
Long before there was Under the Umbrella — a new queer bookstore hosting its grand opening later this month in Salt Lake City — there was 20 Rue Jacob, a lesbian bookstore and coffee shop that was born shortly after that road trip conversation and existed in Utah’s capital city from around 1979 to 1984.
While Maestas was initially hesitant about opening it, she was convinced there was a need for a women-only space in a gay and lesbian scene that was dominated by bars and alcohol consumption.
“That was one of the reasons that I was willing to do this, is because I knew we needed a women’s space. I needed a women’s space,” she said.
“It was a place for us to talk about what it was like to be in a place where we were so isolated,” she continued. “And how do we deal with our children? And how do we do it? You know, many of these lesbians were married to men. ‘How do I do this?’ ‘Honey, I don’t know. But let’s find out what other women are doing.’”
‘We did everything quietly’
When Maestas and her friends, Marilyn Hage and Ingrid Davis, returned to Salt Lake City from Michigan, they dove headfirst into the idea of opening a bookstore despite their lack of business experience.
They pooled their savings, and with a $3,000 investment were able to secure a storefront in an old, yellow building on 200 East and 800 South that had once been a Mexican restaurant. The neighborhood was associated with drinking and drugs, Maestas said, and the building was “a mess.” But the rent for the place, now the site of Moochie’s Meatballs and More, was doable, at something like $80 a month.
“So we got in there, and while we were cleaning it up, I said, ‘Well, what are we gonna call this place? We can’t call it ‘bookstore,’” Maestas said with a laugh.
That’s when Hage came up with the idea to name it 20 Rue Jacob — a nod to the Paris address where Natalie Clifford Barney, an American writer and lesbian, held weekly salons from before World War I to the 1960s. She brought together some of the best-known thinkers of those decades to share their ideas and creative pursuits.
“I think they met weekly on Fridays for conversation and arts and everything,” said Hage, who now lives in Maryland, in a phone interview. “That idea seemed so appealing to us.”
Maestas built a wooden sign bearing the name and the women hung it up themselves. They brought decorations from their own homes to spruce the place up. And on the day they decided to give the building a fresh coat of paint, she said, dozens of lesbians from the community showed up, uninvited, to help with the job.
It was an early indication of how the Rue, as it affectionately became known, would operate in a time when its owners weren’t advertising their presence as a lesbian bookstore: “Girlfriends would tell girlfriends would tell girlfriends,” Maestas said. “We did everything quietly,” she added. “We had to.”
When the bookstore and coffee shop opened, it quickly became the “primary gathering place or community center for feminists, and particularly lesbian feminists, in the area,” according to an account of the period by then-University of Utah student Lynette Eastland.
It was a space where women could come in for a sandwich (like the Susan B. Anthony, served with roast beef and your choice of cheese) or a cup of coffee; sell their jewelry or artwork; listen to music from lesbian artists and buy their records; and advertise services they could provide, like plumbing and car repair, on the shop’s giant bulletin board.
True to the salon that inspired the name, the Rue would also host Friday night events that ranged from poetry readings and panel discussions to health seminars.
On those latter nights, Maestas said, she would lock the doors and hand women a flashlight and a mirror so they could discover and reclaim the most private parts of their bodies, in a practice that wasn’t uncommon among some feminists during the period.
“I’ve always thought that women should know their bodies,” Maestas said, noting that this was both embarrassing and empowering for the women who participated. “Always. And particularly lesbians. I mean, to know another woman’s body and not know your own body? That’s craziness. I mean, that just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Luci Malin, a North Salt Lake resident who was part of the collective that helped fund and run the bookstore in its later years, said there were always at least three or four women in the shop when she’d visit.
She remembers it primarily as a gathering space where women could “connect and talk.”
“The community was so vibrant and so affirming and yet so hidden,” she said. “There used to be a very special feeling of membership or something, like ‘Oh. I found my place.’ The only other place lesbians could go were the bars. And [they weren’t] the healthiest environment and it was at night, it was dark, it was dingy. It still had that feeling of you’re sneaking off to do something bad just to be who you are.”
‘We didn’t know how afraid we were’
While the women who were involved in the Rue largely remember their days in Salt Lake City’s burgeoning queer community fondly, it was also a time that, for many, was tinged with fear. At the top of the list was the prospect of physical violence against people who were openly living their lives as lesbian or gay.
“We didn’t know how afraid we were,” Maestas remembered. “Until somebody would say, you know, ‘One of our own got beat up last night.’ Or we’d hear in the news that a couple was killed camping. And we’d hear a lot of that.”
J. Seth Anderson, a historian of Utah’s queer history and the author of “LGBT Salt Lake,” said there were a few “very horrific” attacks against gay people in Utah in the 1970s, but it wasn’t common.
Social disapproval, he said, was the larger risk for gays and lesbians in the conservative state.
“For a long time, even into the ‘90s, the dominant religious community in Utah will disagree with you, but … they’ll use other means, particularly legislatively,” he said. “They’re not going to throw a brick through your window and try to murder you. That’s not common for Utah.”
Maestas said there were women who visited the store but weren’t out yet, who had husbands and children and worried their families or other people in the community might discover their secret if they were seen at the Rue. Other women circled the block again and again but never came in, said Maestas, who would sometimes watch them from the store window.
“They were afraid that somebody would see them or recognize their cars,” she said. “Some of them would park way down the street. Some of them had kids. In those days if you had a kid and you were a lesbian, you lost your kids. They took your kids away, right? Or husbands and fathers would take them from us. It was stressful.”
And for young people who had grown up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there was a fear that their families would disown them if they were outed, Malin remembers.
That became a reality for some, she said, who were “just completely crushed.”
“They’ve lost all their family connections, all their cultural traditions,” she said. “It’s a hard thing.”
The store was broken into at least three times, forcing the women to start over from scratch because they couldn’t afford insurance for the business. And the old Salt Lake City vice squad, which was disbanded in 2012, once threatened to shut down the store over its display of a book called “The Joy of Lesbian Sex.”
“They wanted to shut us down because of pornography,” Maestas remembered. But she realized Cosmic Aeroplane, a counterculture bookstore also in Salt Lake City, “had that book, but it was behind the counter. So I said, ‘I will put this book behind the counter.’ Because their concern was that children might see it.”
When she talks about this period, Maestas says people sometimes tell her that she and the other women were brave.
“We were just stupid,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t think we were brave at all.”
‘Real and lasting societal and cultural change’
A few years after it opened, interest in the bookstore began dwindling, and it became more difficult to keep operational a shop that had never really been a moneymaker, Maestas said.
Women were graduating from Utah’s universities, moving back to their hometowns or moving on for their careers. And those who had been keeping the store running while simultaneously working or going to school full time were starting to burn out, she said.
Maestas felt that the Rue had run its course — but that didn’t make it any less devastating when it closed its doors for the last time.
“I was sad,” she said. “Because I wasn’t losing the store. I didn’t care about the store. The store was stuff. I cared about the women. And I was losing the women.”
Many of the women lost touch after the bookstore closed, and no community space popped up to fill the hole the Rue had left.
“It was sort of tragic,” agreed Malin. “I mean, it was really sad. A lot of hopes and dreams went down the drain.”
But 40 years later, the years that the Rue was open remain meaningful for the women who were involved, some of whom continue to share their memories of that time on a private Facebook page Maestas created.
And Maestas said she still hears from some of the women who discovered themselves and the community there, and for whom the bookshop was the beginning of their journey to understanding that there was “more to us than bars.”
“When the books started coming in, and we started reading them, it was like our whole world opened up,” she said. “And I still get letters and notes from people that I haven’t seen in 30 years saying, ‘Thank you. Thanks for giving me a place to come out.’”
Maestas said she’s excited to see that legacy carried on by Under the Umbrella, the new queer bookstore that will hold its grand opening in Salt Lake City on Jan. 15 at 511 W. 200 South, Suite 120.
Kaitlyn Mahoney, the new bookstore’s owner, said she wasn’t aware of the history of 20 Rue Jacob, though her store will incorporate similar community-building elements, such as a closet of gender-affirming clothes and opportunities for queer people to sell their products.
“That’s beautiful to hear, that it existed and was part of this community,” Mahoney said of the Rue. “I’m excited to continue that tradition.”
Anderson said the Rue has an important place in the city’s queer history and was also part of the broader trend toward a national LGBTQ community that emerged in the 1970s — organizing efforts that ultimately set the stage for the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
“To change hearts and minds, to live your life and to thrive is really the best way to succeed,” he said. “And to show people no, gay people are happy. Like, we live normal lives. We’re business owners, we started this bookstore to serve our community.”
The presence of the bookstore didn’t result in policy changes at the time, he said.
”But did it serve a function in the lives of people who needed it? Who found community there? Who learned oh, I can be a writer, I can tell my story, I can organize, here’s a deficiency that I think I can contribute to helping fix?” he said. “Those are the necessary stepping stones to real and lasting societal and cultural change.”