The first week of April brought the news that one of the LGBT community's oldest and most beloved literary institutions, San Francisco's A Different Light Bookstore, was going out of business. Though it follows a trend that has seen the closing of ADL's L.A. and New York locations, the loss of the original Castro district shop, first opened in 1979 by Richard Labonté, hit the shrinking community of LGBT booksellers particularly hard.
Philip Rafshoon, owner of Atlanta's Outwrite Bookstore, told PW, "It's been hard to watch the bookstores close, but that one in particular is tough to swallow. When I opened in 1993, they let me come out, work in the store, and learn the book business. And even though [those guys] don't own that store anymore, it's still tough to see it go—it makes it that much tougher to tell the story of LGBT stores."
A Different Light joins other late, celebrated LGBT stores like Washington, D.C.'s Lambda Rising and New York's Oscar Wilde Books; both closed over the past two years, victims of a down economy that has hit bricks-and-mortar stores particularly hard. Not only are consumers fleeing to the Internet for deep discounts; many publishers are increasingly unwilling to take a chance on LGBT material. When LGBT publisher Alyson Books got out of the print book business last October, booksellers felt it: "They were producing to the heart of our market, publishing what our customers wanted," says bookseller Ed Hermance, owner of the nation's oldest LGBT bookstore, Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia.
Another shop with a long history is Chicago's Unabridged Bookstore, which was opened—and still owned—by Ed Devereux, in 1980. The store has expanded four times, in the process becoming just as well-known for its selection of kids, travel, and remainder books as for its extensive LGBT titles; says Devereux, "We always considered ourselves a neighborhood store, and we're in a gay neighborhood." He notes, however, that Chicago's LGBT community has expanded: instead of confining itself to the "gay ghetto," the community now permeates the city. Devereux sees A Different Light falling victim to an economy that has shut down specialty stores of all kinds: "having a tiny store, it's tough to make a go of it."
Fortunately, LGBT booksellers do have unique resources: a focused, vital mission and a tight-knit community that's familiar with adversity. According to Hermance, the energy level at his store is higher than it has been in years, and they're nearing completion of a fund-raising drive that's amassed $45,000 for needed building repairs. "Hundreds of people organized events," Hermance says, but about $26,000 came from the sale of "bricks and lentils," i.e., "people just literally giving us money."
Rafshoon insists that "the challenge for us is making sure that we have what [the community] wants at the right time." On that note, a number of former staffers and customers have pointed out online that A Different Light had been in steady decline since owner Bill Barker took over in 2000. In a comment on the Web site of the Bay Citizen, author and former ADL employee Tommi Avicolli Mecca wrote that the store "stopped being a community center" under Barker, gutting its stock and ignoring the needs of customers: "ADL failed because it didn't nurture local writers and became irrelevant to the community."
John Mitzel, proprietor of Boston's Calamus Bookstore, indicated some surprise but little worry over the fate of ADL, reporting that business at his 10-year-old store was "pretty steady," that his customers "stay pretty loyal," and that keeping it so is a matter of "hard work and being smart and doing what you're supposed to do." He also believes that "one of the secrets of the niche book people is to keep it small." A Different Light, he says, simply grew too big too fast: "It's hard to be a one-man operation and operate five stores."