Saturday, April 2, 2011

Put out the light, and then put out the light

One night in the Spring of 1995, a few friends and I went to a book-signing at A Different Light Bookstore in the Castro. It was the author's first novel. One of my friends, as I recall, knew the writer slightly. He was cute, this kid who wrote the novel. (Still is, cute I mean.) I don't remember now if I'd read the book yet. People did that sort of thing, then. The place was packed, right back to the door, but the friend of a friend had managed somehow to keep seats for us. This kid got up to read, and read well. Turns out, it was a good book. During the signing, my friend flirted rather outrageously with this new novelist, and eventually gave him a ride on the back of his scooter, back to the hotel, or wherever. I took the streetcar home. I still have my signed copy of the first hardcover edition of Mysterious Skin.

Nothing remarkable in that story, I know. I tell it because it happened, and won't ever again. Only a handful of the men I knew in San Francisco still live there. I probably never will again. The night we all went to that particular reading, I was still managing a little bookstore, a different bookstore, that isn't there anymore. Neither is the first bookstore I worked in in San Francisco, which was also the last. A few years after that night, I would be living in Southern California, managing another bookstore, in fact, the West Hollywood branch of A Different Light Bookstore, which isn't there anymore either.

Scott Heim's last two books were both published only in paperback, though I would note that a couple of his books are now available in a "Kindle Edition." At least one of his novels, a good one too, is out of print. The friend who gave Scott Heim a ride on his scooter that night is also a novelist, among other things, and he also saw his last book published as "a paperback original." I haven't checked to see if it is also available as an "ebook."

Some time this Spring, and it looks to be sooner rather than later, the last A Different Light Bookstore, the last GLBTQ bookstore in San Francisco, won't be there anymore either.

I was manager of the store in West Hollywood during what turned out to be the final years under the company's original owners and management. The original bookstore, opened in Silver Lake in Los Angeles, had only recently closed. The newest store, in New York, had recently relocated to a larger location, which was closed some time after the new owners bought the company. The WeHo store closed in 2009. I was long gone by then.

The story announcing the closing of the San Francisco bookstore was sent to me by a friend. Bad news, but he knew I'd want to know. He was right. I've been reading some of the reaction to this unhappy development. Seems to be, as these things tend to be online at least, about equally divided between those who are saddened by the news, and those who seem glad of one last opportunity to piss in the punch. Can't imagine what earthly good that sort of thing is meant to do, but it seems it's irresistible for a certain segment of the community.

I left the company, or rather I was let go, when one of the new owners, who lived just around the corner from the bookstore, decided that my position wasn't really necessary, under the circumstances. He was very nice about firing me. I'd already had the worst year of my life, during which my dearest friend had finally died of complications from AIDS in San Francisco. I'd been driving back and forth regularly, from one end of the state to the other, though not so regularly as I should have or now wish I had. After flying home to Pennsylvania to give his eulogy, I came home and shortly thereafter, nearly died myself from a burst appendix. Took me a month or more to recover. By the time I was able to return to work, my job was gone. The new guys were very good about waiting for me to get back on my feet before letting me go. I was grateful for that. After I left on my last day, I never went back. Just couldn't. I loved that job, even with all the financial and personnel issues, the constant worry, the personal debt I had accumulated, staying in the city, buying a car and learning to drive for the first time, commuting back and forth to work from our new condo in Orange County, 44 miles every day, each way. None of that had mattered. I believed in the bookstore. I wanted the bookstore to succeed, to survive. It did, for quite awhile, after I left. Worth remembering. I probably know better than anyone other than the men and women who continued to work there after I left, just how difficult that must have been.

When I went to one of my first national conventions of booksellers, I remember walking down the aisle of Gay & Lesbian publishers, meeting booksellers from GLBTQ and women's bookstores across the country, talking to the publishers of The Feminist Bookstore News, getting to meet an author whose gay novel from the nineteen thirties had just been republished for the first time, under his real name, by a gay publishing house.

Again, I just mention this now because it happened, all of it, and it probably never will again.

I'm not much interested, tonight, in analysing why the last remaining A Different Light Bookstore is going out of business, or why GLBTQ bookstores, or independent bookstores in general seem to be failing. I have no interest just now in reengaging the debate about the shift from print to digital media, or making any argument either for or against the assimilation of gay culture or the failure of our community to sustain its economic institutions. I'm not interested in considering any of that, just now.

I am concerned about the six remaining employees of A Different Light Bookstore in San Francisco, and what they will have to do now, though I doubt I actually know any of them personally. I certainly wish them all well, as I do the present owners, who clearly have made a valiant effort to keep the business going in the past decade.

I would suggest that the time for anything else, for any explanations and or arguments may well be past, though I know plenty of other people, many of whom may feel just as unhappy about this as I do, will feel otherwise. They may have at it. May it do them ease.

For myself, I prefer to look around my library tonight, at all the books that came from A Different Light Bookstore, to remember David Sedaris' first reading there, and meeting Edmund White for the first time there, and Alan Hollinghurst, and hearing for the first time Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory read aloud there, of meeting Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and Thom Gunn, and "Tom of Findland." I remember meeting Quentin Crisp, not long before he died, and being able to make him laugh, and kissing Harry Hay, by way of saying thank you for my life.

To the good gay men who founded the bookstore, and to all the men and women who worked there over the decades, those with whom I was privileged to work, and those I never knew, I likewise extend my thanks, as a reader, as a bookseller, and as a proud gay man. To all of them, and all like them who devoted their working lives to our literature and history, as well as to those who made both, we owe our gratitude, the advancement of our people, the preservation of our culture, and the still imperfect enlightenment of our country.

I prefer tonight to concentrate on this, because it happened. I was there for some of it. Granted, I didn't do much, but I knew many people who did. I met many of them in a bookstore called A Different Light. It mattered to me, and it mattered. It matters still. What happened there mattered. How many bookshops can claim anything like? How many ever will hereafter?

How many of us can say as much?


  1. It does matter.. Our family loves to go to the bookstore and our kids with the look of wonder as they look. Priceless. Thanks!

  2. best eulogy for a bookstore, ever. and there have been too many...

  3. Thank you both, and thank you, Richard, for the opportunity.