A Different Fight – struggle of gay bookstore A Different Light to remain competitive in bookshop marketplace

Robrt L. Pela

Like gay and lesbian bookstores everywhere, A Different Light struggles to continue its activist mission in a world of cyber sites and superstores

“It might well be the beginning of the end of gay and lesbian bookstores as we know them,” says Deacon Maccubbin, co-owner of the Washington D.C.-based Lambda Rising chain of bookstores. He’s talking about recent none-too-pretty developments in the bookselling niche he helped to create.

“Most shops are operating on the edge of poverty to begin with, so when the big guys come barreling in, it can mean instant death to a small store.”

Faced with greater competition from those “big guys”–large chain stores and Internet retailers–small gay and lesbian bookstores across the country are in a heap of trouble. In cities such as Chicago, Houston, Austin, St. Louis, and Pasadena, Calif., a growing number of gay and lesbian bookstores have already closed.

A Different Light, the 20-year-old leading chain of small gay bookshops, with stores in Manhattan, San Francisco, and West Hollywood, Calif., went public with its financial woes in May. Owner Norman Laurila told The New York Times that he’d been having trouble malting the payroll at his New York City location.

Looking back, Laurila feels the story “backfired a little bit,” winning sympathy but also creating false rumors that he’s about to go under. Still, Laurila explains, “We wanted to say something about [our situation] before we had to say, `We’re closing, and it’s too late to do anything.”

Adele Wallace knows too well what Laurila is talking about. The co-owner of Los Angeles’s soon-to-be-defunct Sisterhood Bookstore, Wallace reflects: “It all started when the superstore chains began expanding their gay and lesbian sections a few years ago. The big stores are conveniently located, there are more of them every day, and they appear to be catering to gays, lesbians, and women’s studies.” Not even high-profile fund-misers could keep Sisterhood Bookstore afloat; the much-loved women’s bookseller is scheduled to close at the end of July after 27 years in business.

Transitions like these are simply survival of the fittest, comments one publishing insider who prefers to remain anonymous. “Some bookshops deserve to go under,” he says. “Stores that aren’t doing well are those that insist on staying in 1974, where bookselling takes a back seat to activism. This is a different era, and these businesses need to operate like bookstores and not community centers.”

For starters, chain stores offer deep discounts. “We can’t buy in enough volume to get those discounts,” says Richard Labonte, general manager of A Different Light’s three stores. “The perception is that gay shops are no longer the best place to go for book bargains. Customers are leaving in droves.”

Often they’re heading for their own living rooms. “We attribute a lot of our lost sales to the Internet,” Labonte says. “Customers like to shop from home.”

For gays and lesbians, the anonymity of the Net can present obvious advantages. “I know there are people in the sticks who won’t walk up to the cash register with a book called That’s Mr. Faggot to You,” says writer Michael Thomas Ford, referring to his new collection of essays. “So I’m grateful for online booksellers. But I also remember that when I was 20 years old and went looking for a gay community I could relate to, I found it at A Different Light. There’s more to be found in a gay bookstore than just something nice to read.”

Lizzie Allen, a spokeswoman for Amazon.com, isn’t arguing. While Allen defends “the unsurpassed depth of catalog” that her company provides, she agrees that Amazon can’t compete with some services offered by brick-and-mortar shops. “Real stores provide an opportunity to talk to clerks who are also book enthusiasts,” she says, “as well as the tactile experience of handling a book. There’s a place for both real and virtual bookshops, and a lot of reasons why bookshops will continue to thrive.”

For a few booksellers, Allen’s Net-plus-neighborhood vision seems to be coming true. Ron Grantz, co-owner of the Sacramento-based The Open Book, reports that customers come to him to buy books they have read about online.

Bruce Kerschner, who owns the Obelisk bookstores, says sales are also up at his Phoenix and San Diego stores, partly because Internet sites–Obelisk will launch its own by summer’s end–are turning readers on to new gay titles. “Humans are social animals,” Kerschner says. “We want to come into a shop and talk to someone who knows our taste.”

More often, though, booksellers hear the buzz of the cyberwodd luring gay shoppers away from their own community. Ed Hermance, owner of Philadelphia’s Giovanni’s Room, is angry about it. “Every day, I’m recommending gay organizations like [Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays] to my customers,” he says, “and my payback is that PFLAG is supporting Barnes and Noble.com with a link to their site.”

Janice Hughes, PFLAG communications director, responds: “We decided to discontinue our relationship with Barnes and Noble as soon as it was brought to our attention that independent booksellers needed our help. Beginning in the spring we will direct inquiries about gay-parenting literature to independent sellers.”

To welcome cybersavvy customers home, some gay and lesbian store owners are joining other indie booksellers in an online coalition that might just crack Amazon.com’s choke hold on the cyber market. Hosted by the American Booksellers Association, the indies’ new Web store–BookSense.com–debuts in September. The site will provide big-league convenience with 1.6 million rifles, says marketing officer Michael Hoynes. But it’s designed around one crucial difference: A visitor who buys on BookSense can actually credit the purchase to his participating independent bookstore–even if the book is some mass-market best-seller his bookstore wouldn’t ordinarily stock. So for the first time, readers will be able to find the books they want and renew their activism, all without leaving their armchairs.

In the meantime, back out in the nonvirtual world, many gay bookshops struggle to keep their doors open. A Different Light has survived, Laurila says, because his stores have taken turns subsidizing one another over the past few years–“although we’re less able to share the wealth, such as it is, than we once were.”

Larry Lingle, who owns the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York’s Greenwich Village, says that funds from his 8,000-square-foot Houston-based Lobo Bookshop have kept Oscar Wilde open. Both stores set themselves apart by carrying high-priced novelty items such as autographs, rare photos, and letters from the likes of Walt Whitman, Judy Garland, and Wilde. In addition, Lobo sells and rents adult videos; the store has stayed in business for 26 years.

Whether or not they’re in a position to juggle funds between branches, individual stores are moving to diversify. Many book retailers, like Philadelphia’s Hermance, have kept their stores afloat by expanding their stock of videos and CDs and by shrinking sections that don’t do well for them.

At A Different Light in New York, Laurila continues to strategize. He’s easing his cash-flow problem by subletting space in his basement. He’s adding price discounts for return customers. And for now, he’ll keep operating the bookstore’s cafe. “It’s never made any money,” he shrugs. “But the customers really like it.”

Such personal services reflect gay and lesbian bookstores’ traditional mission–as community centers. Open Book’s Grantz, for one, is confident that these queer spaces are still wanted and needed. “As long as there are gay people in the world,” he says, “gay bookshops will never be entirely obsolete.”

Pela is the Arizona arts correspondent for National Public Radio.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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