’A Different Light’ Gutters in San Francisco

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday April 6, 2011

The lights are going out at A Different Light Bookstore in San Francisco. The store--long a lynchpin of GLBT life in the Castro--has lost business to electronic readers and to online shopping, and joins a long list of other bookstores--gay and mainstream alike--that have been shuttered.

"A Different Light has been the gathering place for the Bay Area's gay literati for decades--the company was first established in 1979," correspondent Scott James wrote in an April 2 Bay Citizen article. "Local authors like Armistead Maupin would often pack the store full of eager readers when launching their latest titles."

James noted that store owner Bill Barker had told the Bay Citizen last summer that the store had lost sales of physical books to e-readers such as the Kindle. Barker had also mentioned the changing face of the publishing industry, noting a trend among GLBT authors not to make appearances for readings and book signings at gay bookstores. Moreover, gay themes were less prevalent in recently published work: "I think that you can only tell the gay and lesbian story so many times," Barker opined.

Bookstores of all sorts have faced additional pressure with the rise of online shopping, which allows buyers to click and purchase without having to make a special trip. Online shopping can also be less expensive than shopping in bookstores. Bookstore chain Borders Books has closed one-third of its stores across America; independently owned booksellers have faced even tougher times.

For gay bookstores, the dissolution of the culture has also contributed to store closures. Whereas once gays tended to live in urban "gayborhoods," now there is less of a trend toward such residential clustering. Some theorize that as the culture at large has become more accepting, gays have felt less of a need to live and shop in urban enclaves of their own.

Moreover, readers looking for literature with gay themes can increasingly find such books in mainstream outlets.

The co-owner of the now-shuttered Lambda Rising bookstore in Washington, D.C., Deacon Maccubbin, a longtime GLBT equality activist, told All Things Considered host Guy Raz in a December, 2009, interview that he opened the store in 1974, after being told by a bookstore clerk that "those kind of books" were not on offer at the establishment--"Like I was looking for porn," said Maccubbin. "That's what the image was of gay literature at the time. There were porn books that were gay literature, and that was it."

Such is no longer the case. GLBT letters has always has its literary side, of course, but only in recent decades has it emerged as a mainstream genre. "It's really rare to find a general bookstore these days that doesn't carry gay and lesbian literature," Maccubbin said. "It doesn't mean there's not still a need for a gay and lesbian bookstore--I think there is. But the crushing need that was there in the '70s and '80s is less so today."

Maccubbin had taken a hand in 2003 in helping temporarily stave off the closure of another gay book store--New York's Oscar Wilde Bookshop, dubbed America's First Gay Bookstore--but when it came to his own store's closure, he spoke about a personal desire to move on, saying, "I think 35 years is long enough for any one person to do one thing."

Said Maccubbin, "We could've continued to operate for a number of years. However, we also are realists. We see what's happening to bookstores generally, to independent bookstores in particular, and to the book industry, the way it's shifting in what people buy and how they buy."

When the store first opened for business, Maccubbin told Raz, his customers approached the establishment furtively, "The same way they would've been if they were going into a gay bar or any other gay business," he said. "They screwed up their courage enough to come on into the store, and I think that helped them take those first steps out of the closet."

The loss of Lambda Rising was a blow to the local community, since Lambda Rising had long served as a focal point for the city's GLBT culture--a role served in many cities by local gay bookstores.

The San Francisco location of A Different Light is the store's last remaining outlet. The New York location closed a decade ago, and the West Hollywood branch ceased operating in 2009, the same year The Oscar Wilde Bookshop went under.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.