The LGBTQ+-Focused Always Here Bookstore Aims to Create a Third Space for All Ages to Connect

Rafael and John Hart are actively looking for a space to permanently settle the bookstore.

Always Here bookstore (left to right) Rafael and John Hart relax at Always Here Bookstore. (Courtesy of Always Here Bookstore)

“I read a lot when I was younger—up until high school,” says Rafael Hart, co-owner of Always Here Bookstore. “And then between college and my eyesight getting worse, I stopped reading for pleasure.”

But when Hart and their partner John moved to Portland in 2018, they got glasses, visited the Portland library and started reading again.

“I think the first year I started reading again I read like 200 books,” Rafael says. In the four or five years that they had stopped reading, they say, the number of queer books for kids and young adults had skyrocketed.

“It was really comforting to read these stories that I was definitely looking for when I was in high school,” they say. “That feeling of being able to find younger me in books and [be] represented now, it’s something I wanted to share with other people.”

After taking a road trip in April 2023 to Utah to see national parks and visiting Under the Umbrella, a queer bookstore in Salt Lake City, the Harts decided to pursue creating a queer bookstore themselves. From that came Always Here, a queer-, trans- and disabled-owned bookstore focused on providing LGBTQ+ stories for all ages.

When the couple returned home to Portland, Rafael Hart created a website and they launched that summer, having booths at street fairs and markets and exclusively selling books either written by an LGBTQ+ author or containing queer-focused content. At one of the recurring markets, they met Jenna Pham, one of the co-founders of Jelly Cup Collective, an Asian American entrepreneurial art collective and event space. Pham brought up that she had room in a North Williams Avenue brick-and-mortar space for Always Here to host a pop-up store.

The agreement was originally meant to last just through the holidays, but as the new year rolled around, the Harts and Jelly Cup Collective decided to remain in the space for the time being, renting out the two joined rooms month to month until the landlord finds a permanent tenant. The couple is actively looking for a space to permanently settle the bookstore.

One of the impacts of currently having a physical location, John Hart says, is making a space that’s truly made for and by queer people of all ages to be in a community and to learn about each other.

“There’s a gap where you leave high school and, all of a sudden, you’re kind of cut to the wind where it’s like, how do you form community?” they say. “It’s like, I guess I’ll wait until I can go to a bar, or a queer something. There’s a middle period where [a space] is missing, and a bookstore can be that space where community can be together and mesh.”

The idea of creating a third space for queer people to connect is important to the couple and is one of the reasons that is continually pushing them to find a place for the bookstore to permanently call home.

Outside the store, the couple has been doing events and outreach, including bringing books to multiple local elementary schools’ Gay-Straight Alliance clubs.

“It’s very sweet being brought in and then [feeling] so welcomed by that little group,” John Hart says about a visit the couple made to Peninsula Elementary School. “These GSA kids, they’re gonna keep each other safe all the way through high school, hopefully further.”

The uncertainty of Always Here’s Williams location creates some logistical obstacles, such as not being able to paint the space or have uncertainty about booking future events at the store, but the Harts remain positive.

“There’s little ways that we’ve had to get scrappy to make this thing work,” John Hart says.

On July 30, they’ll host debut author Sydney Langford and their book The Loudest Silence at the Williams space. Coming Aug. 2, they will host author Chuck Tingle at the Clinton Street Theater to discuss his latest book, Bury Your Gays. The couple has also worked with Pride Northwest and recently put on a mixer for queer educators.

“People in Portland want to support us—they want us to exist,” John Hart says. “And now we just need to finally move to the next space.”

GO: Always Here Bookstore, 3808 N Williams Ave., Suite 114, 503-208-4799, Noon–6 pm Wednesday and Thursday, 11 am–7 pm Friday and Saturday, noon–6 pm Sunday.

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