OutThere, More Than Cards and Gifts
To say that OutThere, formerly Larry’s Cards and Gifts, is an institution in the Kansas City gay community might be an understatement. Here’s the history:
Larry Gilbert, owner, began doing business in April 1989 and sold the shop in August, 2002. The new owners renamed the store, In the Life, and occupied the space at 205 Westport Road until they moved their store to the Crossroads area. It eventually closed. In the meantime the Lesbian and Gay Community Center moved into Larry’s first floor space and tried to create a retail environment with cyberspace connections and more meeting rooms for their growing numbers of patrons.
When by September 2004 that proved to be too ambitious of a plan for the Community Center and they consolidated their operations into a smaller space on the 2nd floor of the building Larry returned to his former locale with his partner of nine years, Brian Heinen—whom he had actually met in the store. They set up shop again as OutThere. (For those of you who can’t remember that, Larry has put some of the original “Larry’s” neon signs in the window.)
Larry had gave up the store after 13 years to spend time developing a gay men’s resort on 65 acres of woods at his home in Oskaloosa, north of Lawrence, Kansas. He’s still working on the resort and has turned his attention back to his store to help fund the resort. Although he’s designing the location as a resort, he’s open to the idea that it could perhaps involve year-round living at some point on the property. “It would be more of a guest resort, but the other part may work its way in as things evolve,” he said. “I know that when I first started the store in 1989 I had my idea of what the store was going to be. Well the store took over and showed me what it was and the store evolved itself.”
Asked about the difference between Larry’s and OutThere, Larry said, “This year part of our plan is to make it more sexual.” “Also, “We have more clothing.” The number of book titles will remain relatively the same; “books are hard to do when a lot of the small presses no longer exist.”
Most people visiting OutThere are drawn there for that special birthday or other occasion card that they’re just not going to find at the local Hallmark store. Once there, though, there’s an abundance of other gay-themed Pride merchandise, books and videos, clothing, and gifts.
OutThere has been a reliable location in Westport not only to shop but to pick up local community newspapers and find out about events, especially when the LGCC, with minimal volunteer staffing, is not open. “When I had the store before, customers would tell me they felt the store was a healing center to them,” Larry said. “They could come in and feel like they were alright.” They’ve opened the store for events like Health Department screenings and testing, and their store windows are often a reliable way to find out what’s happening with events like Gay Pride.
“I’ve even seen straight couples come in and then later on it’s just the husband, and the wife never appears again,” Larry said. He recalled an experience years ago when the store was Larry’s and a woman came into the store asking about an item she claimed she had seen in the window a few days before. Larry told her he had never carried that product, but it was a slow part of the day and he had time to talk and visit with the woman. “Then she saw something and she said, ‘That reminds me of my son who died recently, and I’m going to buy that because Mother’s Day is coming up.’ At that time I had a counter with chocolate penises in it. She looked down and she said “My son would have liked those. He was gay.’ Then she said, ‘Why am I telling you this?’ But she said, ‘You know I’ve felt the burden of my son on my shoulders since he died, but this is the first time I’ve publicly acknowledged that he was gay.’ “And she said, ‘I feel better.’” Larry added, “I think the son brought her in.”
Although younger people like those in the youth group, Passages, right around the corner or others visit, in Larry’s mind, they don’t need the store as much as some of the older people who did not grow up with the same sense of freedom that many gay youth experience today. “They’re not needing a store to declare who they are because they’ve already declared who they are,” said Gilbert. They once had a second store in Lawrence, Kansas for two years but it didn’t work out. Larry said, “People in Lawrence were more closeted than they wanted you to think. People that I knew lived in Lawrence would come in to the store here and I would say ‘You know we have a store in Lawrence’ and they would say ‘Well I can’t let people see me parked in front of your store there’.”
Asked about plans for the future, such as expanding into art galleries or other areas, Larry said “We are constantly trying something new and it’s as if the store has a mind of its own. If the store doesn’t like it, it doesn’t work. So we get rid of that and try something else. I believe that I’ve got spirit guides out there that are guiding everything so they’re the ones that are basically in control. I’m just their little pawn, because they can’t work behind the counter,” he laughed. As evidenced by the ads they run, underwear has been a big hit since they introduced that, but other products like bath and beauty have not really worked out. They even tried serving food at one point back in the days of Larry’s but that didn’t work either.
Like any other retail establishment, it’s a grueling schedule. The store is open seven days a week and days off are rare. Larry couldn’t even think of the last vacation he took since opening Larry’s in 1989.
When asked if he had considered moving to the Crossroads or any other developing areas of Kansas City he said, “Westport gets the tourists. Either they have their Damron guide or they come by accidentally while in Westport.” He said he didn’t get the feeling of the Crossroads area as “being that touristy yet.” “Besides the gays, I get a lot of straight people that come in and buy stuff. Especially straight tourists.”
“They’re looking for something fun and unique that you don’t get in Iowa.”
OutThere is located at 205 Westport Road across the street from the Post Office and below the offices of the Lesbian and Gay Community Center. (816)753-4757.