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A Fading Light 

Gay literature goes mainstream, and gay bookstores fight to survive

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
Whenever she comes to San Francisco from Ohio, Marge Nabzdyk makes time to visit the Castro, and poke around in A Different Light bookstore. Cincinnati has gay bookstores, but not like this. The sheer volume of titles -- more than 14,000 -- is "overwhelming," she says. "I've seen stuff here I've never seen in any other bookstore."

But as Nabzdyk speaks, standing among the tall stacks of gay-authored and -themed literature, one title jumps out at her: Staying Power: Long-Term Lesbian Couples.

"Oh, I was able to find this book in Cincinnati," she says, almost surprised to note that she really doesn't have to leave her conservative Midwestern hometown to find books about lesbians. They are now available at any Ohio Barnes & Noble, where Nabzdyk can buy them at a 20 percent discount off hardcover prices.

Nabzdyk's discovery helps explain why, after years as San Francisco's most notable gay bookstore, A Different Light may soon be out of business.

"People are surprised to hear we are in financial trouble," says the store's assistant manager, Tommi Avicolli Mecca. "They assume because the store always looks crowded, we're raking in the dough -- but a lot of people are here just browsing, cruising, or killing time before dinner. People need to realize that buying their books here will keep us in business."

But as gay goes mainstream, publishers and national bookstore chains are more than willing to tap into a lucrative market by offering convenience and cheaper prices. Gay-themed books are now prominently displayed in suburban mall chain stores, and online ordering services like offer discounts on the obscure titles one would expect to find and pay full price for at an all-gay bookstore.

The trend makes some question the viability of independent gay bookstores like A Different Light, or ask whether these longtime havens have become irrelevant.

"Things are pretty stark," says Richard Labonte, an owner and manager of A Different Light's San Francisco store. Declining sales here and at two other stores in New York and Los Angeles may force all three A Different Light shops to close at the end of the summer.

The trio of stores, which have become fixtures in each city's predominantly gay neighborhoods over the past 20 years, are a quarter of a million dollars in debt, and losing money every month, Labonte says.

Though situated in the heart of the Castro, Labonte says, San Francisco's store is lucky to eke out a tiny monthly profit. The West Hollywood store barely breaks even, and New York's Chelsea location is losing money fast and furiously. So much money, in fact, that Labonte has spent the better part of this month in New York working with his partners to cut staff and costs, trying to keep the New York store from dragging down the others.

If sales keep falling and a business plan to handle the debt cannot be hammered out by fall, A Different Light could suffer the fate of many general-interest independent bookstores that have found they can't compete with giant chain store prices.

Gay authors and stories are big business today, like Michael Cunningham's The Hours, which won the Pulitzer Prize this year and is currently on the New York Times best seller list. There is too much money at stake for major bookstores not to offer gay literature, and gay is no longer an alternative niche protected from market forces.

"Gay bookstores aren't quite as necessary as they once were, when they were the only places to go," says Ken Irish, manager of San Francisco's Barnes & Noble. "There is no gay ghetto anymore. The old taboos are coming down and things are far more accessible. Now you can go to a Barnes & Noble in Cincinnati, Ohio, and find just about anything you want. There's almost nothing that's off limits."

The San Francisco Barnes & Noble, which is in the Marina District not far from Fisherman's Wharf -- hardly a gay enclave, Irish points out -- carries titles like The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians and That's Mr. Faggot to You. The gay-themed books sit prominently on a table near the main entrance. During Gay Pride Month in June, Barnes & Noble asks all its stores nationwide to display gay literature on front tables. Upstairs, in the sociology section, three large shelving units labeled "Gay/Lesbian Studies" are filled with the regular collection of books.

While gay bookstores like A Different Light can argue that they stock a more comprehensive selection of gay works, the thousands of gay titles not physically sitting on a Barnes & Noble shelf are available by order through the chain's discount online service.

And scanning a list of the top 100 gay/lesbian novels of all time compiled by the Publishing Triangle -- a consortium of gay and lesbian publishers -- Irish says all but a handful are currently in stock at his Barnes & Noble store.

Avin Mark Domnitz, head of the American Booksellers Association, says the financial trouble facing A Different Light -- and other gay and general-interest independent bookstores -- is not about bad bookkeeping, but new, daunting competition.

"A Different Light is run by very good businesspeople and it's a very high-quality bookstore," says Domnitz, whose group represents nearly 5,000 -- and dwindling -- independent bookstores nationwide. "But gay issues have become mainstreamed to such an extent that people find their needs are being met without having to go to a specialty store."

Domnitz's job is to help independent bookstores in general find ways to survive and build customer loyalty in the face of discount chain store competition. But he says gay bookstores have a unique challenge: "I tell them, 'You were there for a community when no one else was,' " Domnitz says. " 'You need to remind your patrons what it was like when the big chains ignored them, and hope they have a conscience in their buying habits today.' "

Though she had already bought her book on lesbian relationships at Barnes & Noble, Nabzdyk continued to peruse the selections at A Different Light on a recent afternoon. She finds it nice to mill around in the store's comfortable, gay-friendly surroundings along with about 20 others. "This seems more like a community hub than just a bookstore," she says.

That's exactly what A Different Light manager Labonte wants his store to be, and why he devotes so much of the shop's resources to being a gathering place and staging events that don't necessarily have anything to do with selling books. Like Sunday night open-mike sessions where anyone can sing, read poetry, or spout off on political topics. Clerks are encouraged to spend as much time as it takes on the phone to answer a caller's question, whether it's about a title in stock or where to find a good restaurant in Key West.

"Being the heart of the community isn't exactly cost-effective," Labonte says. "We could cut the services, clear out the backlist of 2,000 books that only sell one or two copies a month, and only offer the top titles. But we wouldn't be doing what a strong community bookstore should do. We want to uphold our mission, yet it's becoming harder and harder to be what we want to be and stay open."

It was a different story in the 1980s and early 1990s, when a surge of gay activism and pride helped propel A Different Light's growth in three big-city locations. The minichain enjoyed the market swell before mainstream chain stores got on the bandwagon. But those heyday periods of high sales did not always translate into giant profit margins.

In line with the store's community philosophy, employees were given yearly bonuses, and A Different Light offered major discounts to libraries in hopes of bolstering public collections of gay works. The bonuses and discounts are no more. "While having been greedier early on might've been a good thing for us now, it would've changed the character of the store," Labonte says.

A Different Light's stores stopped making money around 1996, Labonte says, as discount online ordering through the Internet became big, adding to the growing competition from chain stores stocking gay titles. "We're a victim of our own success. We created a customer base publishers became comfortable making books for."

Barnes & Noble's Irish agrees.
"A Different Light paved the way for us," he says. "I'd hate to see stores like them close, because they are important gathering places. But it's not necessarily a bad thing gay-themed books are now available elsewhere. I think Barnes & Noble is doing the right thing in carrying them, because we represent acceptance and accessibility. The alternative is we don't carry them, and that would say far worse about us than anything else.

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio


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