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Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Different Light gay bookstore in Castro closing

Tommi Avicolli Mecca worked at A Different Light
1991 to 2000, holding three events for authors,
the biggest for diver Greg Louganis.
By Sam Whiting -

It's the last few days for the last of its kind.
A Different Light Bookstore, the last of a once-proud family of gay literary spots and a beacon of homosexual life in the Castro, will be out of business by the end of the month.
The window displays have for-lease and half-off signs, but there isn't much to take half off of. The back shelves are bare, and the front shelves are scattered with books and porn.

"As far as we know, there are no LGBT bookstores left in the state, at least ones selling new books," says Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Booksellers Association.
A store manager, who declined to give her name, said the closing date will be determined by sales, but she confirmed that "we're definitely closing by the end of April." Steve Murphy, the landlord's real estate agent, said that any day could be the last.
At least once a week for 23 years, Gerard Koskovich has stopped into the bookstore on Castro Street. As a curator of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender History Museum, he is a field archivist, and this storefront has been the place to find ephemera.
"From the moment it was founded, this store became a cultural center for the emerging queer community in the late 1980s," says Koskovich, while standing out front, just down from the marquee for the Castro Theatre. "Events, exhibitions, panel discussions, basically any important gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender author you can think of who published in English gave a reading at A Different Light at some point."

Sales move online

More than the chain stores, it was online booksellers that wiped out the gay bookstores, along with all other specialty bookstores, says Landon: "Amazon lists everything, they sell it cheaper, and they don't collect sales tax."
According to Koskovich's research, 2011 marks the 45th anniversary of the opening of the first gay bookstore in America, the Adonis in the Tenderloin. Then came the Walt Whitman Bookshop, and it wasn't that long ago that there were two gay bookstores on Castro Street and one around the corner on Market. They are all gone.
Koskovich agrees with Landon on the reasons for the demise of gay bookstores. Younger readers in particular buy their books online, he says.

'Creating community'

"I find it troubling that we no longer have physical places to discover the books that matter to us and the people who share these interests," he says. "I'm not sure that online bookstores create the same opportunities for creating community and bringing about social change."
The Castro store opened in 1985, as a sister to the original A Different Light, which opened in the Silver Lake District of Los Angeles in 1979. Business partners Norman Laurila and George Leigh came down from Toronto to open the store, which was named after a gay science fiction novel by San Francisco author Elizabeth Lynn.
Laurila's life partner, Richard Labonte, took over as manager in Los Angeles when Laurila moved to New York to open the Greenwich Village store in 1983. "We preferred to call it a 'bracelet,' " says Labonte, reached by phone in British Columbia, where he now lives. "The word 'chain' sounds so Barnes and Noble."
The Castro branch opened in the location of the Obelisk, a high-end design store. Labonte became store manager there in 1986.

Center for activism

"It became a social center," Labonte says. "There were other gay-oriented stores in the Castro, but ours was a store that used books to draw people in. We had art shows and reading groups. We organized the first two Outwrite Conferences of gay writers in the country." The first one, in 1990, attracted 1,000 participants and was held at a downtown hotel.
The stores became so well known nationally that when a liberationist and aspiring author named Tommi Avicolli Mecca came out from Philadelphia in 1991, he had a job lined up at A Different Light.
"In those days the Castro was a lot more activist-oriented," says Avicolli Mecca, who worked at the store for 10 years. "ACT UP had its meetings in the backyard, and the store was very much about the community in addition to selling books."
One of the hallmarks of the place was that it would accept just about any form of work on paper, either for sale or giveaway. Another hallmark was the author events. Avicolli Mecca held three here, though the biggest crowd anyone can recall was for Olympic diver Greg Louganis, whose appearance to promote his autobiography drew a line around the block.
"The place was crammed with books, and they had an open policy on taking things on consignment," Koskovich says. "Any local author artist, or author, a person who was making a zine or self-published book or greeting cards could come in and consign a few. So it was a store where you were constantly discovering the cutting edge, the things that were being created."

They're all gone

Now, all three of the Different Lights will have disappeared.
"It's a real loss for our culture in general because GLBT stores, as with most specialty stores, curate their stock and selection," Landon says. "You knew when you went into a Different Light that you really had experts who were culling through all the GLBT stuff out there and choosing it for readers.
"If they're gone, you've lost that expertise that they brought to bookselling."


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