A New Dawn at A Different Light
John High -- 2/12/01
With a history of rescuing businesses, two new owners purchase the gay-lesbian bookstore chain

In This Article:
Also, Buck-A-Book Files for Bankruptcy

After 22 years of business, Norman Laurila has sold the A Different Light Bookstore chain of gay and lesbian bookstores located in West Hollywood, San Francisco and New York City. Though negotiations were underway throughout last year, the sale was concluded in December when Laurila passed the mantle to new owners Bill Barker and Stanley Newman.

One of the nation's largest gay and lesbian bookstores, A Different Light had experienced financial problems for several years. Laurila told PW that the time had come for a change. "Twenty years ago, we created a market in and for the gay community. Now, we've done it. There are both more publishers and availability."

"We're very excited," Newman told PW. "We're seeing good signs already." Both Newman and Barker come to A Different Light with a history of rescuing organizations in financial trouble. Newman became a partial owner of Liberation Publications Inc. (which owns Alyson Books and The Advocate and Out magazines) in the early 1990s and is credited with keeping it from going
Barker is working with creditors.
out of business. Barker, who mastered several turnarounds for small corporations as well as stepping in to grow Addison-Wesley, is presently working with creditors to get A Different Light back in good shape.
The individual stores' autonomy will remain, but there will be more consistency. According to Newman and Barker, the gay and lesbian community supports the new management. "We're thrilled and, quite frankly, inspired by the feedback we're getting," said Barker. "We feel things are going extremely well. In fact, we thought it would take longer, but sales are already on a dramatic upswing. We've spent a lot of time renovating and restocking."

ChangesIn order for the stores to be viable, A Different Light now stocks fewer titles. However, Newman and Barker told PW, they're committed to the gay and lesbian genre.

"We absolutely feel we have to bring every new gay and lesbian title to the community," said Barker. "But it's not as easy as before to identify these books as when they were segregated. The positive side is that discrimination has decreased. My table at home is literally covered with catalogues, and going through each one is an effort I hadn't imagined."

The stock is changing dramatically. Whereas Laurila would keep a title as long as it was in print, the new owners will update inventory each year according to how well the books sold. But while there are fewer titles, the new owners are giving them more display potential: they have decided to order five copies of each book so that titles can be displayed face-out on the shelves.

Laurila told PW that he is optimistic about the change as well as the expertise Newman and Barker bring to the store. "Brick and clicks will endure and so will A Different Light," he said. "Luckily, we were able to hang in there long enough for them to come along. When Stanley Newman first approached me, he told me he saw the store as a national institution that needed to be saved. We share the same philosophy. It's a bittersweet ending, but I'm happy the tradition will continue."

Laurila and his late business partner, George Leigh, opened the first A Different Light in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles in 1979. Their business savvy and insights into the literary history of the gay movement led to their successful opening of three more locations: New York City in 1983, San Francisco in 1987 and the West Hollywood store in 1990. With its L.A. customer base shifting to the West Hollywood location, the original store in Silverlake closed its doors in 1992.

Erosion BeginsPart of the financial problems with the New York City location began in 1994 when the store moved from its 800-sq.-ft. West Village location to its present 5,000-sq.-ft. space in Chelsea. Ironically, whereas the old location's cramped quarters lead to losing sales, rent at the new location quadrupled Laurila's overhead.

According to Laurila, the gay community's perception of A Different Light as a gay and lesbian stronghold backfired just as the store needed the community most. Customers didn't realize how important their patronage was to the store's survival. Many customers were browsing the bookstore and then making purchases online or at deep discounters. When the store went public with its financial w s, customers began returning, but it was too late to overcome the debts Laurila had accumulated in keeping the bookstore alive over the past five years.

"Nearly a quarter of a century ago we created a market," said Laurila. "But our success also helped to erode our market shares." With the emergence of the chains, A Different Light could no longer boast of being the only outlet for gay and lesbian titles. The superstores could offer the same titles--at discount. The publishing industry also noticed the new market, and the number of titles increased. In the early '80s, the bookstore stocked 5,000 titles, but by the end of the '90s, it offered 23,000 gay and lesbian titles.

"That changed with the gradual erosion of sales and transfer purchases to and B&N," Laurila told PW.

Once word got out that A Different Light was experiencing financial problems, the store's distributors started to bear down. "In the end, cash flow and inventory became a Catch-22 problem," said Laurila. "We couldn't keep up the stock. Our customers started coming back a
Founder Laurila
remains board
couple years ago, but we could no longer offer the same selection they could find at the superstores." Distributors wanted payments up front, and if the money wasn't available, the store's book supply was cut--nearly by half by last year.
Despite launching a Web site and hosting more than 700 readings in 1999, Laurila had to lay off staff and cut costs by renting out the Chelsea location's basement level. In the end, he had to sell. Laurila remains on the new owners' board of directors.

"I'm just thankful to Ingram and St. Martin's, in particular, because they kept us alive," Laurila emphasized. "They helped us ride out the storm long enough to keep the store alive and facilitate the sale. Most publishers and distributors were scared. You have to understand that a tremendous amount of our titles are from independent and small publishers--5,000 vendors for over 20,000 titles."

The new owners are reviewing their stock and upgrading what Barker calls "our fourth store": their Web site, which will be ready in the next couple months.

They are committed to the small presses, to the less than well-known authors and to the tradition gay and lesbian writers are creating.

With four to five full-time staffers at each location and three to four part-timers, the job is to get customers and new staff familiar with one another.

Size D sn't MatterNewman and Barker are concentrating on turning around the Chelsea store in New York City now. In San Francisco and West Hollywood, they have already given the stores a fresher look by repainting and putting in new lighting and carpeting

TLA Videos will start sharing half the space inside the New York location within the next couple months. (A video rental outlet, TLA has stores in Philadelphia and Manhattan as well as an online presence.)

"We can't afford the luxury of 5,000 square feet in Chelsea," said Barker. "But just as important, we don't want it. That much space gives the store an impersonal sense and requires a huge inventory. We have about 1,600 square feet in Hollywood and San Francisco, and that's about perfect. Our customers feel comfortable and the space gives a strong community feel."

"For the first time in a long time, independents are optimistic," said Laurila. "A few years back we had these horror stories of how people were browsing our stores and then buying online. At my last ABA meeting, we got the opposite story. Now customers are printing out their title list from and bringing it to the independents to make their purchases."

As for Laurila, he's back on the job beat and ready for offers--with no regrets. "The crucial thing is that Stan and Bill are carrying the tradition forward for a new generation," he said. "We've done our work. I'm actively looking for a position that will allow me to capitalize on all the expertise I've developed as the owner and chief operation officer of a group of independent bookstores that over the years have been enormously successful."

Buck-A-Book Files for Bankruptcy

Buck-A-Book, the discount book chain based in North Dighton, Mass., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on January 23. This marks the third bankruptcy of a regional New England bookstore chain in almost as many years. Lauriat's, which was headquartered in Canton, Mass., declared bankruptcy in 1998 and then closed its remaining stores in 1999. Bookland of Maine, which is based in Portland, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May of last year.

Unlike those two chains, however, Buck-A-Book blames its troubles largely on overexpansion,
not on the twin threats that have hurt most other booksellers--the Internet and chain superstores. "It wasn't a question of being forced into bankruptcy," said Buck-A-Book attorney Norman Novinsky of Novinsky & Associates in Brockton, Mass. "They expanded too quickly. They went from 14 to 28 stores in a matter of three months in the fall of 1999. They'll do fine from here on out."
At the time of the filing, Buck-A-Book had 29 stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island and $3.3 million in assets. It owed $500,000 in secured debt to Sovereign Bank; its unsecured liabilities totaled nearly $3.6 million.

The 10-year-old chain has already taken steps to return to profitability, according to Novinsky. A day after the filing, Buck-A-Book closed seven Massachusetts stores, in Cambridge, Framingham, Hyannis, Springfield, Sudbury, Wakefield and Weymouth, and one in Warwick, R.I. It may close its Avon, Conn., store, but is waiting to see if the opening of a nearby Wal-Mart will increase traffic.

Among the closed stores, ironically, are three that Buck-A-Book bought from Lauriat's. Buck-A-Book plans to hold on to several other former Lauriat's locations, including what was once its flagship downtown Boston store.

"We're still very upbeat and optimistic about the future of Buck-A-Book," president and founder Bruce Moyer told PW. "This is just a bump in the road. In the year 2001, there has to be room for the independent bookseller and entrepreneur to survive in retail. We still think we're uniquely positioned with our mix of books and nonbook items."

In fact, Moyer plans to leave the company's product mix of remainders, children's books, toys, videos, software, gift items and discounted greeting cards relatively unchanged. "We can't be all things to all people," said Moyer. "We're definitely going to more popular types of titles and expanding our children's departments. We're also being very selective in how we're buying." Even so, he added, "It's very difficult bringing low-ticket items to sale." For Moyer, one of the biggest problems has been the company's labor-intensive distribution system.

Rusty Drugan, executive director of the New England Booksellers Association, regards Buck-A-Book's financial problems as an anomaly within the region. "There are too many stores that are doing fine," said Drugan. "My own view is I don't see them as typical booksellers. As I talk to more and more booksellers, I get a sense of a good Christmas."

If optimism and a can-do spirit--traits that led Moyer to start Buck-A-Book back in 1991--still count for anything, then the chain may emerge from bankruptcy later this year. "I feel very comfortable that we'll be out of this in a very short time," said Moyer. "We have a very clear path of how to get there."
--Judith Rosen