Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It's Taxing. A Eulogy for Two: The Loss of Los Angeles' Gay Bookstore "A Different Light," and a dream... And how to SAVE Independent Bookstores!

Los Angeles' "A Different Light" Bookstore, 2 weeks ago.

The sign in the window...

Los Angeles' Gay bookstore, "A Different Light," is dying. It is, in fact, already dead as an institution, and were the cliched machines of soap opera hospitals hooked up to monitor the store's heartbeat and breathing, we'd all hear a loud steady beeeeeeeeeep. No signal.


This makes me so sad.

As with any death, there are stages of grief to go through. There are questions to be asked. And a future to look forward to, armed with lessons hopefully learned and hope restored.

I'm sad. Angry. Disappointed.

Why couldn't the second largest city in the USA keep a single bookstore serving the Gay (GLBTQ) community vibrant and financially viable? Was there anything that could have been done to save it? Is there any hope for the remaining independent bookstores?

I feel the loss.

I think the biggest loss is for our community. A Different Light was one of the few places to go in West Hollywood and congregate that wasn't about drinking or dancing. It was a destination, and its loss further polarizes our community in this gigantic sprawling metropolis. How many places really cater to the whole GLBTQ community, and not just a specific letter of our alphabet soup?

For me personally, it's the loss of a dream. I've been to readings at the store (Like this amazing one I saw Alex Sanchez do), and I had always envisioned having my turn to do an author signing and reading from my book there. I'm sure, when my time comes, there will be SOME bookstores and places out there who would be enthusiastic about my doing an author signing and reading, but I'm sad that my local gay bookstore won't be around anymore for that milestone in my career.

What could have been done?

I wish, as opposed to the store leaning more and more heavily on the adult sexually oriented material, that it had taken a different tack into the prevailing winds. (Interestingly, I could never link to their website to send you, my readers, their way to buy the books I'm talking about because their site is so completely adult and sexually-oriented.) What if they had offered internet access and charged a small fee for it? Make it a cafe/bookstore? Hosted writing groups, and book clubs and events (like open mike nights) beyond the ones they had - truly make themselves a social and community gathering spot? Might they have been able to have classes there (they had a greeting card moment, they could have taught how to make your own cards, or hosted a class on blogging) - it was a great, safe environment to meet other GLBTQ people and our Allies and I wish they had been able to capitalize on that more. They could have stayed open past the clubs, become a 24 hour a day HUB of community and ideas. Poetry slams, Beatnik revivals, a calendar of events that would approach community building not like the non-profit Gay and Lesbian Community Center, but in a leaner, swifter, more dynamic and responsive style. A vision for a new kind of bookstore.

"A Different Light" did do some things right - they had funny t-shirts, fun music playing, and the store DID function for a time as an alternative gathering space - at one point even staying open until 11pm. But the overall vision didn't materialize.

And here's the bottom line, and why I'm blogging about this today, TAX day:
They couldn't make enough money to stay in business.

What A Different Light and many of the remaining, struggling independent bookstores are doing wrong is that they are trying to ignore the changing landscape of bookselling. They're trying to pretend that Amazon and other online ways for people to get most of the same books for less money and more conveniently delivered to their homes doesn't exist, or will go away...

Independent bookstores need to think about how they can make coming to their stores SO VALUABLE that the experience CAN'T be replaced by clicking a mouse.

It's all about the experience - now that purchasing the book has become a commodity, available at the lowest cost, the EXPERIENCE of the book - of hearing about it, listening to it read by the author, seeing the other books on the shelf next to it, buying it, reading it, discussing it in a group with others who have read it, talking about the issues it brings up, getting to know about the story behind the story, getting other recommendations for amazing books from people that are experts in what they carry... all of that becomes King.

But with no experience, A Different Light became just a few bare shelves, a handful of books on each one.

And I found myself walking in. Silently walking the large circle of the store. And walking out again. I hadn't purchased anything. Even though I saw one or two titles I've been meaning to read. It was just too sad. Too overwhelming.

In it's final clearance sale, A Different Light betrayed the very thing that might have saved it earlier. It commodified everything it was selling. And there was no sense of community.

I'm so sad at it's passing.

But I'm also hopeful that some kind of new renaissance of community spirit, of gathering around literature and books, can rise again. Maybe in coffeeshops like LA's Literati, or maybe here on the internet in some kind of virtual GSA meeting space, or somewhere real or virtual or both that I've yet to discover.

But I think there's a power in gathering around ideas, around stories. An undeniable power of experience, internalized and shared.

We had it around stone-age fires, long ago.

We used to have it in local and independent bookstores.

I wonder where it will go next. For as fantastic as the blogosphere and the internet are, there's no replacing BEING somewhere in person - meeting others who share your passions and affiliations, and witnessing these stories as a community.

So today, as we send in taxes, I offer this Eulogy for what's past. A store. A dream.

And I acknowledge a sense of Hope for what's to come. Stories will always be with us. And we, as humans, will always want to share those stories.

And someday, I'll have my reading and author signing at some great location - maybe a library. And I'll think about "A Different Light" in West Hollywood. And the reading that never happened there. And I know that moment, as much as I've dreamed of it, will hold a piece of this lost dream. A bittersweetness that will travel through time. The dream that can't come true anymore in exactly the way I'd envisioned.

But it will come true.

Thanks for letting me share.




Kimberly @ lectitans said...

I'm sorry for your loss. Losing a local business we support hurts more than we ever expect it to.

Reading your suggestions about how A Different Light could have become a community hub reminds me how very successful my local library system seems to have been in offering something new and different that can't be gotten online. I subscribe to an RSS feed of Library Events and there must be 30 new ones listed each day. I wonder if independent bookstores couldn't take a cue from the libraries in this way - offer events and activities like you suggest, and be very much like a library where you just happen to pay and get to keep the book forever.

The only local new-books bookstore I know of in my town has launched its own online store with prices up to 30% off list price and no shipping if you will come to the store to pick up your order. I think this is a move in the right direction. The store also hosts book groups and readings. I rarely go there because for all that it's local, it's rather far from my neighborhood and certainly not on my way to or from any place I go regularly. Still, I think they're getting it right.

VioletReads said...

Thanks for this. I've lived in WeHo for 5 years, and I only bothered going to ADL a couple of times. I saw some good readings there, but in general, I never found any books I really needed. Their lesbian selection, YA books, and queer theory never presented me with anything new that I got excited about. Every time I go to San Francisco, I go to ADL and Books Inc in the Castro and walk away with a ton of books I didn't know I wanted - that's what an independent bookstore is for me. Skylight offers that for me, even with queer books and events, more than ADL ever did.