Instantly Illegal

After seventeen years in business, Lambda Passages, Miami's premier gay and lesbian bookstore, is in the fight of its life

In June 1998 John Drew purchased Lambda Passages, secure in the knowledge he had made a good business investment. After all, the gay and lesbian bookstore at 7545 Biscayne Blvd. had been operating successfully for fifteen years. In transient Miami that qualified Lambda Passages as a venerable institution, an excellent sign of stability promising good prospects for continued success.

Drew, who previously owned a janitorial service, jumped through every hoop hoisted by City of Miami officials. His store passed a fire inspection. He modified two corridors to comply with building codes. He obtained renewed occupational licenses from the county and the city. Also with the city he renewed Lambda's certificate of use, which defined the store as a retail business. Drew spent more than $500 in fees.

For nearly two years the business ran smoothly, Drew recalls, selling gay and lesbian literature, art books, and a range of titles addressing subjects such as self-help, coming out, and religion and homosexuality. Gay and straight customers rented foreign films. An adult room, marked by the obligatory “Must be eighteen years of age or older to enter,” offered adult videos, magazines, and sex toys.

Then something strange happened.

City officials, led by Upper Eastside Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) administrator Fred Fernandez, suddenly claimed that Lambda Passages was operating illegally. After receiving an anonymous complaint this past February, Fernandez declared Lambda's certificate of use to be invalid. According to city records, he said, the store actually was certified for use as business offices, not as a retail store. Fernandez took this argument before the city's powerful code-enforcement board in May. Drew's business, he asserted, was out of compliance and should not continue selling books or renting videos, even though it had been doing so for many years and even though neighboring businesses in the same building were not restricted for use only as office space.

But sure enough Lambda's classification somehow had changed from “retail” to “office building” when Drew renewed his certificate in July 1998, shortly after he bought the business from previous owner Jerry Sprouse. During Sprouse's long tenure as proprietor, the city had always issued Lambda Passages a certificate of use for retail. Drew says he didn't even notice the change. “I thought we'd be the same thing as before,” he shrugs.

As if this unexpected challenge to Drew's business weren't enough, another threatening issue arose this past February: Lambda was selling its “adult” merchandise at a location where city ordinances prohibit such transactions. Fred Fernandez also brought up this apparent violation before the code-enforcement board, which is empowered to impose fines and even shut down a business.

Drew has come to view this assault on Lambda Passages with suspicion. “They're going after us,” he says flatly, accusing city officials of targeting him for selective enforcement. Indeed Drew is not alone in believing that Lambda has become a victim in the city's ongoing battle to tame and gentrify Miami's Upper Eastside, where Biscayne Boulevard hookers still ply their trade on sidewalks adjacent to affluent residential neighborhoods such as Morningside and Belle Meade.

A former business partner of Lambda's previous owner blames Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton and the Upper Eastside NET office for the bookstore's problems. “Winton is the one who is pushing to get Lambda out of here, and there is no clear reason why,” claims the Belle Meade resident, who asked not to be identified. “Winton got the vast majority of the votes from this area, and there are a lot of gay residents here. Cocktail parties were thrown for him, people put signs in their yards -- I mean, the gay community supported him totally, and there are a lot of bitter feelings. We feel like we're being targeted.”

Winton denies he's turned his back on the gay community. “The jerks who are accusing me of being anti-gay weren't paying attention to my campaign,” he maintains. “If they had been, they would remember the principal platform of my campaign was to carry out consistent, vigorous code enforcement across the board. If Lambda can prove it's been grandfathered in, then hallelujah. The burden of proof is on them.” NET administrator Fred Fernandez echoes the commissioner's protestations. “I'm just trying to enforce the city code; I'm not trying to hurt anybody here,” he says. “I'm trying to make this area as healthy as possible.” (Fernandez also pleads prior ignorance regarding Lambda Passages. “I thought it was a Haitian travel agency,” he offers.)

Fernandez's boss, Miami NET coordinator Dennis Wheeler, puts it succinctly: “If it's not zoned for an adult bookstore, then the business doesn't belong there. It's as simple as that. There's no hidden agenda here.”

Fears of hidden agendas were not completely dispelled last week when Juan Gonzalez, Miami's acting zoning administrator, finally stepped in after months of controversy and sided with Drew regarding his certificate of use. Gonzalez now admits a simple administrative error caused the confusion, though it was a mistake that could have cost Drew his business. “Someone put the wrong code on the certificate of use,” he explains. “He can have a bookstore and video store there. However, on the hard copy it does say no adult entertainment. I think that's where the problem is.”

Yet Drew and Sprouse's ex-business partner claim that years ago the store was exempted from the adult-entertainment law. Besides, says the former business associate, “with the exception of Blockbuster, every other video store in Miami has an adult section. We've been to every one of them. It's a First Amendment right.” Lambda can trade in adult material, they maintain, because it's been doing so since the day it opened in 1983. When the City of Miami adult-entertainment ordinance was passed in 1990, Lambda Passages was automatically “grandfathered” in, says Drew. His assertion was corroborated by Upper Eastside code-enforcement officer Emilio Pellicer, who testified to that fact at the May code-enforcement hearing. But zoning administrator Juan Gonzalez remains skeptical. “We'll have to research that one,” he warns.

Not surprisingly, John Drew has had to hire an attorney to defend himself against the city. The lawyer, Fort Lauderdale's well-known personal-rights advocate Norman Kent, says Miami officials have already made a terrible legal mistake. “It's been an administrative hack on the part of the city, and I'm prepared to argue it in circuit court,” he vows. “The ordinance says that to be adult entertainment, you have to sell only adult materials and only to adults. Lambda is not an establishment that sells adult merchandise exclusively. It's not even a business that sells primarily adult products. It's like saying the Alliance Cinema is an adult theater because occasionally they show an adult film.

“So the city is wrong again,” Kent continues. “I've never been so sure I'm going to win a case. I'm so sure I'm right on this that to me it's a nonissue.... The bigger issue here is that the entire City of Miami seems to be targeting gay and lesbian businesses, and they're going to have some serious problems if that's true.”

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