Friday, June 10, 2022

Remembering a Boss

Richard Labonte

We were asked to contribute 100 to 150 words to a memorial for Richard Labonte, the man who hired me to manage A Different Light Bookstore in West Hollywood years ago. I was suggested as a possible contributor by a mutual friend. The job and the bookstore are now long gone and Richard had long since retired back to Canada. Other than irregular communication on social media, I hadn't seen the man for twenty-five years. He had announced his diagnosis in February and then in what seemed a very short time thereafter I read of his death. 

Another death nearer to home intervened and I neglected to write anything about Richard until I was reminded of the deadline. Turns out I don't know what one hundred words looks like. I sent something off in an email as quickly as I could and heard back the following day from the editor, who had very kindly shaped what I'd written into something of a serviceable length. (Not the first time an editor proved helpful. That of itself is something of a tribute to Richard's memory as it was as an editor of countless LGBTQ+ books that he may well be best remembered.)  

Now that's done, I thought I might share what I'd written without the necessary constraints of the published memorial. I would add the caveat that my acquaintance with the great man was professional rather than personal and as noted, brief. Once I was hired to manage the West Hollywood store, Richard returned to his other responsibilities in San Francisco. We spoke regularly on the phone, though it was just as likely that I would speak with his business partner Norman, himself busy at the branch in New York. Truth is that I'd never had a manager's title in a bookstore where I was left so much alone. I saw either man only when business brought them to the door, though this happened more than one might think. They both still had deep roots in the Southern California gay community. In addition to their guidance, and Richard's advice in particular, I was very lucky to have joined a well established and very professional crew at that bookstore. 

I was less lucky in my timing. It was a difficult period for independent bookstores -- but then when is it not? I've been a bookseller for more than thirty-five years and it has always been so. In the nineties we were still most worried about the chain bookstores, but the internet was already starting to undermine the bricks and mortar business model. It was getting particularly hard for smaller, specialty shops. When I started there were enough women's bookstores to have their own review. LBGTQ+ shops were open then on either coast and there were more than a few in-between. The anonymity of ordering online would undo nearly all of this.

I was only in at the end. It wasn't easy. I am grateful though to have been there at all. For that opportunity I have to thank Richard LaBonte. Here then is more than I wrote or would say anywhere but here.

Gallantry isn't a very common adjective in the book trade, or anywhere nowadays come to that. It has the musty smell of a page from Walter Scott. The word is to do with gentle manners and good graces, but it has a martial tune; to be described so one must be not just polite but brave. I can't think of a better for my old boss.

He hired me largely on the recommendation of mutual friends. I think I must have looked pretty good on paper. I had some management experience, knew books and bookstores, but I was still young and Richard had no reason to know me from Adam. I knew something of him of course: writer, bookseller, award-winning editor, already something of an √©minence grise. (Now I think of it, he was younger then than I am now. Sobering thought.) My friend B. had made me aware of the job opening and it was his enthusiasm and his letter of recommendation that carried me there. The rest was up to me. As it turned out, I very much wanted the job on offer, very much wanted to work at A Different Light Bookstore. 

Almost every independent bookstore will talk a good community game at some point, even if the only community being served is, say, Historical Romance fans in the greater Loveland suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. (Those non-Historical Romance readers in Mariemont don't know what they are missing, and frankly they can go suck eggs!) Community is born of  affinity, but sometimes it is necessity that makes us. Richard was one of the people who made A Different Light. There was a growing need for access to our literature, our art, our voices, to each other, and for safe and sober places to find ourselves and one another. A Different Light didn't come from the community, it helped to make that community just as it was intended it would, and the bookstore helped to sustain our community for three decades. Richard and his partners, their employees, their customers did that. How could I not want to be part of that?

It seemed the decision would be Richard's to make. The interview turned out to be mostly lunch, the first of many. I did my best to be charming. I don't know that I was, but I tried. Richard ate his lunch. I wouldn't say he was immune to charm, but he must have been used to it by then. He'd seen much brighter lights than mine, met every LGBTQ+ writer alive and had doubtlessly dealt with many real dazzlers for many years. As I remember it, I was sweaty in the Southern California heat, breathless from nervously chain-smoking all morning, and more than a little intimidated. Richard was quiet, even when he did speak, which wasn't much. In fact he seemed quite shy. He smiled. He squinted. He listened. We ate. I talked too loud, and too much, about too many things. He paid for lunch. We walked back to the bookstore and he shook my damp hand. A day or two later he hired anyway.  

That job was rather a leap for me and right into deeper waters than I knew. The company, like so many other independent and specialty bookstores at the time was not in a great place, or rather it was in three great places: West Hollywood, San Francisco, and New York, and that may have been at least one too many. The rents must have been increasingly prohibitive. Bookstores have seldom made anyone rich, even or particularly the owners. Still, it's been a living. Times were changing. By the late nineties LGBTQ+ books could be had from nearly any mainstream book retailer. The internet was already starting to let people buy books anonymously. Not even your postal carrier had to know you were reading books about, well... us. Of course A Different Light, in all it's incarnations was never just a bookstore. Community center, news vendor, host and town-crier for community events, the welcome calm between bars and dance clubs, the place served more purposes than common commerce.  I was reminded of this every day. (Why were we hosting an event for a ventriloquist? Did we not anticipate complaints from half our patrons when we agreed to the art show featuring paintings of big rainbow-colored penises? Do we want to stay open after hours so a porn company can film a scene involving Billy Dolls coming to life at night and, well, fucking?) I quickly learned that managing a bookstore that was so much more than a bookstore to so many, on and off the payroll was complicated. Richard was one of the people to remind me, more gently than most, of this fact -- and no, he didn't think we should let them film a porno in the store, even for an impressive fee, thanks. 

I don't think I've ever worked for anyone less likely to fire people, return an unsold book, or concern themselves about the dusting. Every manager has his or her or their darlings, staff and stock. Richard seemed to find very little unforgivable in either. Perhaps he was a different person in Silver Lake, where the first store had been, or in San Francisco where he spent more time when I worked for him. Don't know. It is important to say here that even in the atmosphere of mutual respect and support which he had done so much to cultivate, and even with the aging back-stock of self-published zines and more marginal titles from increasingly obscure sources, he was not a sentimentalist. His belief in the potential contributions of everyone to the greater good, his insistence on supporting and serving the community was completely sincere. He could also read numbers. When the time came, as it came more and more often during my tenure to let someone or something go, he never shirked. When there was anything particularly unpleasant that needed doing, he invariably offered to do it himself. I will admit that sometimes I let him.

First of many lessons from Richard? Trust that you can do what's asked of you. Having his trust and advice made a great difference, but he allowed people to do their work. Also? Everything worth doing is collaborative, one way or another. Maybe that's the same lesson. Our working relationship wasn't that long -- I've worked in the bookstore where I am now for nearly twenty years, and worked in my first for more than a dozen -- but it would take more space than I have to detail everything he taught me in that time. More than anything he was an example to anyone and everyone who came within his influence on how to be decent. He was a perfect example of why kindness wasn't a weakness, that one needn't be loud to be heard, that honesty should never preclude compassion. More than once it only occurred to me after we'd hung up the phone that I'd just had a sound thumping -- and deserved it. We never had anything between us that could be called an argument, let alone a fight.

He was a gallant man. I suspect the word would amuse more than please him. He had no pretentions, at least none that I ever saw. He said more with a glance and a shrug than anyone I ever met. He would look away, brush up his beard with his fingers, and listen always before he spoke. I learned that what he said mattered, but you had to get close to hear it. Always worth it. He was an entirely reliable wit, in his quiet way. About a famously difficult local author he once told me I should remember how hard it must be for this person to wake up every day "and not be an enfant terrible anymore -- at sixty five." 

My last year at A Different Light Bookstore was a bad one. Staff reductions, an actual flood, endless road construction in front of the bookstore, there was a lot with which to contend. With Richard's approval I gave an interview to a gay magazine describing the company's financial problems and the need for greater community support and the pull-quote of mine that they used? "Thank God for porn!"  To be fair, at that point videos and magazines were paying a lot of the bills we could still pay, but I was not terribly popular with some of my employers after that. Beyond what was happening in the company, my best friend died from what we used to call "AIDS complications," hours after I left his bedside in San Francisco and drove back to Southern California. I'd gone into debt, living in a motel during the week and learning to drive on the weekends, at thirty five, in order to commute the forty-four miles each way each day. Bought my first car. Had to do "debt consolidation," and attend what I couldn't help but call "failure school" wherein we learned that capitalism was good, we just weren't good at it, yet. I nearly died myself from a burst appendix. Took weeks to recover from the emergency surgery that put twenty two staples in my gut. And I came back to work just in time to find the store that I managed was being sold to someone I did not know, someone who lived "just around the corner," someone who would not require a manager, thank you very much, at least not me.

My time with Richard ended pretty much that same day. Not his fault. He was exceptionally supportive throughout and was always quick thereafter to offer support and a letter of recommendation and the like. For a long time I could not face any of the people I'd worked with at a Different Light. I let myself feel humiliated at what I could not help but see as my failure to make a go of it there. Stupid of me, all things considered, but it was what it was. I like to think I would know better now, but I don't know that that's true.

I do know that I remain genuinely grateful for the opportunity to work in that bookstore and for that man. 

One last lunch, well before I stumbled away. We were sitting in one of those open-air-dinning arrangements every other restaurant on smoggy Santa Monica Boulevard seemed to fancy lent their over-priced lunch menus an air of Parisian sophistication. We ordered immoderately for the first and only time. We had time. Richard and I had just had an unsurprisingly blunt conversation about the money and such. I was moaning about trying to staff a booth or restrict access to our tiny bathroom during Pride, etc. Richard asked me what I was reading. We talked about books. He told me stories I will not repeat, not because he was unkind in talking about anyone but because I like to remember that conversation as rather special. He talked about himself, about his favorite authors, about why he continued to read new work all the time and not just for the anthologies he edited. He talked more that day than any other I can remember in his company. I remember thinking even as it was happening that here was a man who knew more, who had read more than I ever might and yet it could all be so easy because his curiosity was genuine, his enthusiasm unchecked. He asked my opinion because he valued it. I wish I'd made notes. We laughed. I was dazzled, frankly.

I remember now what an impossible time that must have been for him professionally and personally. I cannot imagine how many demands must have been made on his time, how many people he had to worry about, what he must have been thinking about both before and after our lunch. That lunch was a gift. It was something I needed. What did the man have to set aside to give me that? And yet it was not forced or rehearsed or timed. Perhaps another lesson learned? Maybe the same one, again.

So, what have I learned? Well, I'm still at it, Richard. I am still trying to be the bookseller he was, something like as kind, nearly as honest. I like to think he would applaud the effort, even if he would probably demur at taking any credit. I think I've got this right when I tell you, he was a gallant gentleman. I will miss him being in the world. I will remember his example. Would that we all might.

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