"I'm having an early midlife crisis. Some people buy a shiny new sports car. Some people leave their spouse and find a young chippy. I'm trying to simplify my life."
As he talks, Bruce Ground's brown eyes scan the shelves along the south wall of his Mills Avenue book store, Out & About Books.
Maybe it's the methodical way he talks, or maybe it's because he knows the end is near, but Ground looks a little weary. The next day, Jan. 31, Ground will open the doors for the last time as owner of the shop that anchored not just a small, eclectic retail strip of nearby gay-owned and gay-friendly businesses, but Central Florida's sprawling gay and lesbian community as well.
And though the store might continue with another owner -- Ground was negotiating an 11th-hour deal with a perspective buyer on Jan. 30 -- many already were lamenting the 38-year-old Kentucky native's departure.
"I'm going to miss him," says Debbie Simmons, president of the Metropolitan Business Association, sort of a gay Chamber of Commerce. "I'm going to miss walking in and saying, 'What's going on?'"
Part of the sense of loss is that Simmons remembers how far the gay community has come since Ground opened his store in May 1992. Orlando was so backwards at that time that the phone company at first refused to print an advertisement for Out & About Books because it mentioned the words "gay" and "lesbian."
That mindset quickly changed -- maybe not all because of Ground's involvement, but certainly because of the visible role he played in support of gay organizations and issues.
Says Simmons: "He really helped Orlando come out."
Out & About Books was much more than a trail-blazing business. Ground, who previously ran and sold a book store in Tampa before moving here, also encouraged and promoted gay-themed activities in his store.
He hosted MBA board meetings and gay celebrities such as Quentin Crisp, Patricia Nell Warren and Greg Louganis, who signed books and read stories in his store. Drag shows, Shakespeare readings and a musical version of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" were performed in a back room of the store.
Out & About Books gave gay Orlando as much visibility as the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Community Center, which eventually made a permanent home for itself just a few doors from Ground's store.
"Not everyone goes to the community center," says Jim Crescitelli, a columnist for the gay newspaper Watermark. "Not everyone goes to the bars. A book store makes the community seem more professional, more respectable."
Ground cites a number of reasons for getting out of the book business. The Internet has made a dent in his sales. And he's wanted to work on projects that the store doesn't give him time for.
But more than anything, his enthusiasm was snuffed out in 1997 when his father; his lover, Gary; and his grandmother all died within one year. Gary, who died of AIDS, and Ground's grandmother died on the same day.
"For the last three years I've been kind of treading water," Ground says. "Whereas I might have cared about a lot of things in the past, they didn't make a whole lot of difference any more. The desire to do this kind of disappeared."
So Ground doesn't know what to expect once he walks away. "I'm not sure if I'm going to miss the store. I'm not sure if I'm going to miss being the one people turn to when they want something or need something."
Ground still worries that gay Orlando isn't achieving its potential, that the transient nature of the city leaves people thinking more about themselves than each other.
"Even though the community has grown, I think we've become more cynical," he says. "It may be a reflection of me, but I think we've become more cynical and divided than we should be."
Sadly, Ground will no longer be in a position to unite them.
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