It sat in a little white building nestled on a small block squeezed by Santa Monica and Sunset. I always had problems finding it exactly, and then there was the parking which was challenging even for a motorcycle. I didn’t drive cars in those days. It was small and crammed, the way all independent, hippy-ish bookstores should be. The staff always smiled.
That’s my recollection of visiting A Different Light Bookstore in its original location in Silver Lake. Someone was about to do a reading that evening, I believe, but I didn’t hang out for it. Don’t know why, really. Freshly minted out of the closet, maybe I was just shy. But I do remember the friendly, welcoming vibe at the store and I remember visiting once or twice more before hanging out regularly at the closer and bigger store in West Hollywood.
Boys Town largely meant attitude for this black queer. But A Different Light was still a safe haven. It could get pretty cruisy on weekend nights — searching eyes slyly drifted off the pages of skin mags to the bodies nearby — but I largely concentrated on the books. Anthologies were the in thing at the time. In them I read about women in the life, Latinos in the life, blue collar workers in the life, South Asians in the life, and black folks in the life. I have two copies of Joseph Beam’s In the Life, one which I bought myself and one which was given to me by a friend as a coming out present.
The store hosted readings frequently and always had a full calendar of coming events posted near the door. Little did I know that I would read there myself. “Get anthologized!” many writer friends recommended when I attended the first OutWrite conference in 1990. And in time I did. To help publicize the anthology, I read at ADL West Hollywood and SF. By that point, I had been living the Bay Area for a few years, so reading in the West Hollywood store was a wonderful homecoming. Friends I hadn’t seen in a while attended. Siblings attended. It was very cool. We were well received, those of us who read.
I’ve only been to New York once in 1998 (yeah, I know, I’m a loser that way), but I did get a chance to see the NY ADL. What a wonderful space it was. Huge. And it had a large community space for readings and other events. How sad it was when it disappeared. It was the first. Then came the West Hollywood store (the Silver Lake store had been closed long ago, having been supplanted by the WeHo store). I was quite shaken when the West Hollywood store closed. All the memories of hanging there in my short-shorts and reading books flooded over me. Cinders stood at the gates of my eyes. It had been such an important part of my coming out.
And now the San Francisco store, the very last one, is closing. Truth be told, it was a long time coming. The readings and cultural events had long since faded. The book stock grew scarcer as did the number of bookshelves. It used to be that navigating SF ADL was a challenge. There were shelves and bins everywhere and bodies filled the all the gaps in between. And the magazine rack was just as cruisy as in the West Hollywood store. But it all faded away. The last time I visited, just a few weeks ago, there was so much free space, you could practically do a tango in the middle of the store and not run into anything or anyone. The staff, still friendly, were tinged with melancholy.
I often wonder why some bookstores make it and others don’t. Take Cody’s Books, for instance. A Berkeley staple that dated back to the McCarthy Era, it shut its doors for good in 2008 in a pathetic store-front location far removed from its original, grand, taylor-designed space on Telegraph and Haste. But then there’s Moe’s Books right next door, still surviving. Why? In the Castro, Books Inc. opened a store on Market Street many years ago. It continues to thrive in a way the ADL used to in its heyday. Why? Bad economy, bad decisions, bad luck, bad landlords, the Internet. Take your pick. But I find the end of this quote, attributed to current ADL owner Bill Barker, puzzling.
“We have been challenging ourselves — what does it take to stay open?” he said, noting that the SF location had six employees who he did not want to put out of work. He 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.
Running out of stories is not one of the reasons for losing queer bookstores. If anything more of us our finding our voices and telling our many, varied stories now than ever before. And we have more options for telling our stories. Though as wonderful as the internet is in this regard, it cannot supplant the face-to-face interaction offered by places like ADL. What spaces we have we must cherish and keep.