The shelves are deceptively well stocked at New York City's A Different Light Bookstore, belying the fact that one of the country's largest gay and lesbian bookstores is currently engaged in a financial struggle for its life.
Taking his cue from other independent booksellers who have recently watched customers be lured away by deep-discounting superstore chains and online retailers, owner Norman Laurila alerted customers to the store's plight. "Our financial situation stems from being taken for granted," Laurila told PW. "Our customers think we're so successful that it d sn't matter if they don't buy here. But we need them to buy their gay and lesbian books here."
The tricky part about letting customers know that their purchases can help keep an independent bookstore alive is getting the word out while not scaring publishers and vendors. "The worst thing that can happen when a bookstore is struggling is for distributors to start getting worried and want their money right away," Laurila explained. "If you can't pay them on time, your book supply is cut off. And the fewer books you stock, the fewer customers come in to browse. It's a catch-22.
"We have absolutely no plans to throw in the towel," said Laurila. "We have an impeccable history with publishers. For almost 20 years, we were better than average at keeping our accounts paid up, and our returns are incredibly low”not much more than 5%”because we try to keep books in stock as long as they're in print." One of the biggest changes the bookstore has made recently is that it no longer keeps a title on the shelves without regard to its sales history. But Laurila still has an amazingly lenient criteria in this regard: he requires a book to sell only once a year to keep it in stock.
Twenty years ago, Laurila and his late business partner, George Leigh, opened the first A Different Light Bookstore in the Silverlake district of Los Angles. Its success enabled them to open a second store in New York City in 1983, followed by stores in San Francisco in 1987 and West Hollywood in 1990. The original store closed in 1992, when most of its business shifted to the West Hollywood location.
Five years ago, the 800-sq.-ft. Big Apple location reached the bursting point. "We were losing sales," said Laurila. "Our location on Hudson Street was so small it was hard for people to shop there." With no extra space to expand into, he decided to move the bookstore. The current 5000-sq.-ft. Chelsea location seemed ideal, especially with its 1800-sq.-ft. basement for meetings and events. With the store's move complete, business increased 75%”but expenses also increased. "After the move, our overhead became four times as much as our previous location," Laurila recalled.
Although the New York store currently boasts between 150 and 500 customers per day, the steep overhead continues to prevent the store from turning a profit. Financially successful branches have previously been able to take turns supporting locations that were having unprofitable years. But, that was then.
"The book industry has changed so much”even in the last year," said Laurila, who just completed his term as treasurer on the ABA board. In 1979, A Different Light carried a fairly exhaustive list of 5000 gay and lesbian titles; in 1999, it offers 23,000 titles. While the market has expanded, so have options for buying gay and lesbian titles. Customers no longer have to seek out specifically gay and lesbian bookstores to find the titles they want. And online retail offers anonymity for even the most closeted reader.
A gay and lesbian bookstore can offer a wide spectrum of titles general bookstores don't approach, but the truth is that the gay and lesbian community seems to be less interested in that depth. "There has been an enormous change in the sensibility in gay and lesbian books," noted Laurila. "Younger readers are into lighter reading. In the '70s, books like Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran [Plume] revealed our community. In the '80s, we moved from revelatory to how-to and health education titles like And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts [St. Martin's]. Now, one of our top selling books is Husband Hunting Made Easy by Patrick Price [St. Martin's]." While the reading taste of core customers has veered toward popular gay titles published by big houses, the bookstore has found it difficult to compete with deep-discounting chains and online booksellers for price and convenience. In the past, A Different Light carried titles few general bookstores stocked, but now the majority of its customers are apathetic toward those titles.
"I've been told that A Different Light's three locations have as many customers browsing as ever before. It's just that people aren't buying," author and activist Betty Berzon told PW. "People browse the bookstore and then leave to make their purchases at Amazon.com or at a discount store. What they don't realize is that the failure of institutions like [independent] bookstores affects their lives. It's one more opportunity for gay visibility lost."
One of the ways A Different Light has always maintained a steady flow of customers is by constant in-store events. Over the last year, there were more than 700 events held in the three bookstores, more than 300 of them in the New York location alone. One of the most recent casualties of what Laurila calls "cutting our expenses to the bone" was when he was forced to lay off the New York store's publicity and promotions director, Walter Vatter, in June. Vatter joined the store in 1991 and immediately set to work badgering publishers to book in-store author events. Not only was he able to book notable authors such as Armistead Maupin, Dorothy Allison, Edmund White and Katherine V. Forrest, he also created a free Sunday movie night in the Chelsea location's basement featuring guest curators and arranged for Date Bait”a singles social group”to host its events at the store. Unfortunately, while these events have increased traffic, sales have stayed flat. On average, only 20% of people attending an event purchase a book. These numbers soar, however, when there is a high-profile author such as Greg Louganis, Lorna Luft or Christina Crawford. When E. Lynn Harris signed, 1200 people showed up, and the store sold 800 copies of his novel.
"Walter has the Midas touch," Laurila told PW. "We'll miss him. If our business plan works out, we'll get him back. Our accountant told us we have to work harder with fewer people." To cover Vatter's former duties, Richard Labonte, general manager of the California stores, will spend two weeks a month at the New York store.
Recently many of the authors whom A Different Light has promoted over the last two decades have expressed in print their support for the bookstore. The July 9 issue of Los Angeles's Frontiers magazine published an open letter signed by eight authors”including Betty Berzon, Felice Picano, Gabriel Rotello and Terry Wolverton”urging the gay community to shop at the California branches: "The few extra dollars you may spend will be your contribution to strengthening the gay and lesbian presence as a force in the life of this city."
"A Different Light has always been about promoting a literary culture, not just a consumer culture," author and editor Mark Thompson told PW. "It's very shortsighted and narrow-minded for the community to be more concerned about saving a few pennies by buying books from chains and Amazon. A Different Light has been the point of light in our community for developing ideas and our identity. It's very important that we give back and support it."
Because Gay Pride celebrations in June increase tourism and traffic in bigger cities, Laurila has always thought of the month as "a second Christmas." This year's figures showed the usual increase over previous months (the New York location was up 20%, San Francisco 18% and West Hollywood 7%), but sales were down compared to last year (the New York location was down 15%, San Francisco 3%,West Hollywood 9%).
"We're taking lessons from the rest of the book industry," said Laurila, citing the store's renewed efforts to beef up its Web site (www.adlbooks.com) and working to integrate it with Booksense.com; its introduction of a customer appreciation program (a dollars-off stamp card); and its ability to work out payment schedules with the majority of their publishers in order to keep the shelves stocked. Laurila has also sublet an under-used portion of the Chelsea store's basement to Unity Church of New York for office space and meetings.
"Things are looking better than a couple months ago," Laurila told PW. "We're much more optimistic about our situation. It's terrible, but I think people hearing that Sisterhood Bookstore is closing [at the end of July in Los Angeles] has made us and some customers realize that nothing is forever."