gay_flag_lede.jpgThis past weekend, a post by Scott James in the Bay Citizen tipped me off to the rumor that San Francisco’s venerable LGBT bookstore, A Different Light, will likely be closing down this spring. It’s one of the only LGBT bookstores left in the U.S., so its closing, in addition to being significant for many in the San Francisco community, is a hallmark of the collapse of independent and specialty bookstores nationwide.

Modern Times, a great independent and progressive but general-interest bookstore not far away in the Mission, has lost their lease and is closing, albeit, they say, only temporarily. In a widely repeated story that never fails to bring LOLZ among my friends, a Modern Times staffer supposedly once told a customer they didn’t stock Ayn Rand books “on political grounds.”

I won’t claim the Modern Times story about not stocking the right-wing Cato Institute’s spiritual godmommy Ayn Rand isn’t apocryphal, because at this point I can’t remember who said it. But if it is apocryphal, it’s by accident, not by design. Modern Times is an explicitly progressive and aggressively opinionated bookstore with a robust selection of left-wing political treatises, race and class deconstructions and prison literature — in addition to plenty of radical queer texts.

While I imagine some of Rand’s more clueless followers might howl and sob against liberal “censorship” at a store like MT or claim that it’s a “slippery slope” from not stocking Rand to burning Korans, they’d be full of it. Bookstores with agendas choose what to stock. They reflect not just their clientele, but the world they wish to build. In selecting what texts to stock, they create a worldview that attracts the like-minded and helps educate the not-yet-like-minded. All bookstores are political; most of them just don’t know it.

What do we make, then, of A Different Light, a gay bookstore unable to survive on the Gayest Block in the Universe? The answer might, or might not, be in Bill Barker’s comments in a 2010 Bay Citizen interview, a year after he closed ADL’s West Hollywood store. After noting that, as James summarizes, “digital innovations like Kindle had been hurting in-store sales. Says James:

[Barker] also cited cultural shifts in identity as a reason for flagging business: not as many queer authors (or their publicists) booked tours in gay and lesbian bookstores and he thought literature had moved away from overtly gay themes. “I think that you can only tell the gay and lesbian story so many times,” he said.

A very good friend of mine and a brilliant gay-identified writer of works both on “gay topics” and others, Michael Thomas Ford, took umbrage at this, and wrote in the comments:

I don’t know Mr. Barker, and this statement might be part of a larger comment unreported here, but if this is indeed what he said, it’s regrettable. The “gay and lesbian story” is the human story, and as long as there are gay and lesbian people we will have stories to tell and people who want to read them.

…But when I posted similar sentiments on my own Facebook page, I got two observations from other friends of mine — both with pretty impeccable queer-positive and sex-positive credentials. One said that “telling stories solely about being gay has gotten rather boring.” The other asked:  “…is it conceivable gay and lesbian assimilation has reached the point where gay and lesbian self-identification is no longer as primary?”

I have a hard time believing either of those things could possibly be true, though certainly some stories about being gay are boring to me. And it’s not because I’m not their target audience — I’m not, but I’ve read umpteen gay memoirs because I was interested in the author, usually for some reason other than his being “solely” gay. No one is ever solely their sexuality, and no book could ever be solely about being gay even if it was about nothing but gay sex from page 1 to page 10,000. Books contain multitudes — even bad ones. Even boring ones.

And to the idea that because mainstream bookstores stock Oscar Wilde, Paul Bowles, and Patricia Highsmith, while Lady Gaga jaws about having same-sex relationships? Well, duh. David Bowie did it once…does that mean he checked off one of the finite “times” someone gets to tell the bisexual story and find an audience? Isn’t it more likely that ADL, like most of what used to be a thriving independent bookstore culture in this nation, has been done in by an oppressive economic climate, insurmountable competition for eyeballs from non-book entertainment that gets cheaper and more varied every year while the books stocked in bookstores everywhere get, because of the crushing financial pressures, less varied?

Michael Thomas Ford, as a widely-published gay author, might show irritation at Barker’s implication that LGBT authors have run out of stories, or that any new LGBT book tells, in any meaningful way, “the gay and lesbian story,” as if there were one of them, and today’s LGBT authors are just telling it (yawn!) yet again. But why should I, as a straight male writer, care whether the gays have any more stories to tell?

As a straight writer who frequently utilizes LGBT characters and has some understanding of LGBT history, I get the chills when I think about queers being “over it.” Over what!?

Barker’s words sound way too familiar to me. It sounds like he’s voicing the sentiment I heard from some older gay men I knew in the early 1990s who were (justifiably) tired after years of watching disease ravage the community while uppity young queers with names like “Saucer” and “Bling” came stomping in on thrift-store combat boots waving bullwhips and talking about unlearning our privilege.

Labels that uppity drag queens took SFPD billy clubs in the crotch to make safe and butch dykes stood firm to defend, were suddenly said to somehow be “not good enough” and now we’re supposed to be “queer,” whatever that is. What’s this? The Castro is “too white”? The gay community is not inclusive enough? Save it…I’ve got another funeral to go to, fucko.

In the face of the collapse of all that was holy under the weight of the plague, the New Queer was treated by some Castro denizens as less interesting or important than a shrug-flavored Appletini on been there, done him night at Twin Peaks.

That sentiment is burnout. That sentiment is mourning — not for one friend or many, but for the passing of time and the death of all things. That sentiment is middle-aged melancholy, and it can strike at any age. It’s the plague of getting jaded, and it’s not the fault of the people telling new stories that don’t grab you. When it comes to books, they may not “make ’em like they used to,” but they make ’em. The problem is that most people don’t care.

Believe me, straights are not immune from this burnout. Closing in on twenty years teaching sex-positive classes in San Francisco, I’m often tempted to feel that way myself. If you hopped-up whippersnappers are about to tell me about how you learned about your sexuality and found yourselves and blah blah blah and yada yada yada whatever whatever whatever, well…you can just save it, sister, because I know it by heart.

Over the last twenty years I’ve heard two parallel sentiments expressed about A Different Light in San Francisco. The first one, in public, is always pretty much the same story. It’s that A Different Light has for years been a landmark and a centerpiece of SF’s gay community.

The competing sentiment I’ve heard toward A Different Light, in private, is that it’s annoying and tiresome. It’s unfriendly to radicalism and caters to bourgeois gay white men. Or it caters too much to radical man-hating lesbians who don’t ever shop there. Or it caters too much to gays who read straight books. It has too much to Madonna. It doesn’t have enough gay romance. The gay porn is boring. The porn is gross. There’s not enough lesbian porn. It excludes books by minorities. It’s too P.C.

Those negative sentiments get pretty old pretty fast, especially when they often precede a guilty, nervous outflow of praise. Everyone’s always liked the fact that ADL exists, but everyone has a thousand complaints about it. Talk about only needing to hear  “the gay and lesbian story” so many times! You can save it, sister, ’cause I know it by heart.

As someone who reads a lot, I can tell you: It’s not just gay books that suck nowadays. Books mostly suck — except the ones that don’t. They always did. You find the stories that don’t suck by coming to the ones that do with fresh eyes — and maybe they’re hiding where you least expect them. You find those stories that matter by listening to the people telling them, and what do you know? Suddenly you’re hearing “the gay and lesbian story” all over again, the exact same thing you’ve heard a thousand times…but has it ever mattered as much as the day you hear it again and hear something new hiding there behind the nose ring and the top surgery and the novel-told-in-tweets and the gay Latino prison narrative and the same-old-twink-from-Kansas-City, who came up with something new to say?

Every story that’s told makes it that much more likely that some day, despite all our divisions, we as a race will build a world where not only will no queer kid get beaten up for being gay, the straight ones won’t get called fags or dykes for failing to gender-conform in second grade. If it’s a hagged-out, boring-as-shit cliche that homophobia hurts straights and queer liberation is about all liberation…well, then, save it, sister, ’cause I know it by heart.

As a straight writer maybe I can’t tell the gay story, or the lesbian story, or the queer story, the bi story, the trans story, or the straight white guy unlearning his privilege story or even the straight white queer-friendly ally story about how I’ll hang on to my privilege thank you very much, now let’s get you yours.

But it makes me sad that no one will ever hear the same old gay stories told again on the Gayest Block in the Universe. San Francisco’s lost something inexpressible, and everyone’s stories just got that much harder to hear.

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  • 5klp471

    How much of this is to blame on the astronomical rents for storefronts in the Castro, and also, how much of this is coming from the economy? Borders is also in the process of closing it’s doors.

    In the end, it’s dog eat dog out there.

  • Hulka

    Surprised this article doesn’t mention the nearby Books Inc. on Market st., which seems to occupy a lot of the same commercial territory (LGBT-specific sections and in-store events, etc.) without being explicitly LGBT-themed, and with a local minichain infrastructure behind it that A Different Light doesn’t have.

  • cv

    My guess is that it is a combination of factors, perhaps many mentioned in the original post, but also other factors like rent (as noted by 5kip471). I doubt there’s just *one* reason why this business is failing.

    They probably haven’t lost any fervor in the message they are trying to help convey. However, it is likely that they have decided that this particular bricks-and-mortar bookstore is no longer a financially viable delivery mechanism.

    In the end, the owners are simply looking at all the various obstacles and thinking, “this is too much effort to keep this particular business afloat.”

  • Keith

    I am a proprietor of Common Language, an LGBT bookshop in Ann Arbor, MI. I could not possibly comment on whatever may have been the cause or causes of the closing of ADL. I know we are challenged, but surviving.

    I mainly want to reiterate what Michael Thomas Ford says on the subject of the gay story.

    Many years ago, before acquiring Common Language I remember walking by the window the store and admiring the rather alluring cover of Lev Raphael’s first collection of stories, Dancing on Tisha B’av. Though a prodigious reader, AND attracted to the cover, I avoided the book. “What does the gay Jewish experience have to do with me?”, I pondered.

    Once I finally read it, I realized that Lev Raphael was a brilliant writer, and his stories transcended the specific experience and addressed universal conditions. His stories had something to say to me as a gay person, as well as to straight people.

    The specific condition of a child of a holocaust survivor spoke to any reader who questioned their identity. That is what great writing does.

    (And Michael Thomas Ford is likewise a brilliant writer…thanks MTF!)

  • Espresso70

    I can’t speak to LGBT lit. issue- an audience is an audience and they will usually be very loyal.

    I find the mistake that most bookstores make, and this may be the case with both bookstores mentioned in the article or it may not, is that they decide who their clientele is and they make it a club. As we all know clubs only exist for two reasons: to include and to exclude and any business that excludes has to accept that it may not be in business forever.

    I worked in bookstores for a long time. All sorts of books stores- small neighbor shops that specialized in Mysteries, a porn bookshop in Times Square in the late ’80’s and huge chain bookstore and a bookstore run by a publisher that sold only it’s own catalog.

    Anyway, invariably a customer would approach me holding up a title sometimes the author was Ann Coulter, sometimes it was Howard Zinn, sometimes it would be “Mein Kampf”, sometimes it would be “Bleach Party Orgy” and they would ask- “How can you carry this trash in your store” and I would always give them the same answer- “As a bookseller it is not my job to tell people what they should or shouldn’t read. My job is to make books available so that people can make their own choice. If you are not interested in Ann Coulter I would suggest “The People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn or maybe something by Michael Parenti.”

    There is nothing wrong with an LGBT bookstore but even on the gayest block in the country the appeal will be limited to just those that read those books.

  • Michael Petrelis

    well, one good thing that’s come out of the closing is hearing fresh words from lots of good gay writers about the store, it’s past, the state of gay publishing and gay bookstores, and the telling of our stories, and what it all means for the community.

    after reading thomas roche’s piece, all i could think about were the recent changes in the castro – from the ADL shuttering, HRC moving into milk’s old camera shop, the castro theater going dark for eight-nights in april, castro country club struggling to stay open and buy its building, etc – and something bevan dufty said back in 2004:

    It was a red-letter day for San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society when 8th District Supervisor Bevan Dufty locked onto the idea of rebuilding the Eureka Valley Branch Library at 16th and Noe at Market Street with plans to include a section of the new structure to house the GLBT Museum and Archives.

    Peter Lundberg, Co-chair of the Historical Society Board sees this move as a perfect repositioning of the organization, which has long deserved a more prominent role in the cultural life of San Francisco. “Just being able to be a part of Dufty’s pet project, the Castro Renaissance, gives us much needed press and visibility to raise awareness for our organization. The location would be phenomenal, right on the beaten path of the LGBT tourists as they traverse between The Center and the Castro.” (source: )

    what ever happened to that castro renaissance? did it come and go, and i missed it? was it fun while it lasted? probably just another broken promise from a politician, of the gay democratic party kind.

  • thomvernon

    Very thoughtful article. Last year I published a novel (gay author, queer themes) but not a lot of gay sex, per se. Some, but that s/s sex wasn’t the book. Gender was the major theme. Major character a trans-dad.

    I could not get ADL interested in having me in. Eric over at Bird & Beckett was gracious enough to have me in. I’m a California queer, exiled to Canada so that I can live with my s/s, Zimbabwean partner. ADL wouldn’t return my calls or emails; nor my publisher’s publicist.

    I had always dreamed of reading at ADL, then, to have a (very well-reviewed) book out with a majorly queer p.o.v. to have been shunted off in S.F.—and at ADL, no less—was, to say the least, disappointing. So, while the owner may contend that those of us out there offering free programming content for his store (& others) and promotion don’t contact him, that certainly wasn’t true in my case. On the whole, BTW, I found ‘straight’ stores much more welcoming to my very queer book than LGBTQ ones—throughout North America. That was an eye-opener.

  • DavidGroff

    The Different Light stores were pathetically bereft of books, with no depth of stock, no vision, no inventive commitment to community. They and shops like Lambda Rising (also defunct) missed a huge opportunity to grow into a real national resource online and via bricks & mortar, and then they fell victim to the mainstreaming of gay identity; queer people don’t reflexively turn to books anymore to figure out who they are, no matter what writers and certain activists like to think.

    Stores like ADL will persist in somewhat smaller cities where you need a queer community space, if not a book space. With the diminishment of the spirit that supported these stores (and also things like Bear events, which in SF and other places are dying out too thanks to online competition), we all must contend with the privatizing of gay community and culture. These days our default connection with each other is via a screen, sitting alone in our bedrooms, or singular in a Starbucks.