There we were, my partner and I, walking purposefully to one of our favorite neighborhood movie theaters a few weeks ago. Being creatures of habit, we took our usual route, which takes us right past what to me has always been a gay landmark in New York City, A Different Light bookstore.
We remarked on the store as we passed it, getting into a lengthy discussion about how, although we think it is very important to have a large gay bookstore in the neighborhood, we rarely stop in the store to buy a book or magazine. Besides, we said — in full rationalization mode — the selection wasn't always that great, and we couldn't do all our book and magazine shopping with one stop there. Little did we know a few weeks later our landmark would be no more.
It is sad but true. After 18 years as one of the largest gay and lesbian bookstores in the country, the New York City branch of A Different Light closed up shop last month. The owners, Bill Barker and Stanley Newman, are left to focus their attention on the two remaining A Different Light stores in San Francisco and West Hollywood and the company's Web site, www.adlbooks.com.
Barker said he and Newman "knew that the New York store was the weak link in the chain — too big and too costly to run."
Ever since I first heard the news, I have been struggling with my own guilt for not making more of an effort to patronize A Different Light and other gay and lesbian businesses.
But more than guilt, I think I have been feeling genuine sadness. The shuttering of A Different Light signifies not only the end of a business, but also the end of an era that started for me with my first visit to New York City in the late '80s and for the gay community at large in 1983 when Norman Laurila opened A Different Light in the Village.
In a recent interview, Laurila said he learned "the power of the printed word" as a student at the University of Toronto. He opened his first store on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1979 and his second store in San Francisco's Castro district. After opening in Greenwich Village, Laurila moved the New York store north to Chelsea in 1994 as that neighborhood grew into an extension of Greenwich Village's gay community.
During its first two years in Chelsea, the store's gross annual sales jumped 75 percent to $5 million, according to The New York Times. By 1997 Web businesses such as Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com began offering readers the chance to buy general and specialty titles in one stop. By 1999 the Chelsea store's sales had dropped 40 percent from their height.
Enter Mr. Barker and Mr. Newman, who is known for stepping in to rescue the struggling gay magazine The Advocate from financial problems in the late 1980s. The two bought the three A Different Light stores in 1999. But the men said that Manhattan's skyrocketing rents and the fact that the store was not in the center of Greenwich Village made saving it difficult.
Laurila summed up my feelings of loss well in a New York Times interview: "Initially, gay bookstores were part of a political movement of sorts. Then we had to become booksellers and business people, and younger gays don't remember those days. They're perfectly comfortable picking up books where they can get them at best value. A gay bookstore is not as wondrous to them as it was to us in the '70s, when our customers were overwhelmed because they never saw that stuff before."
In a way, what this really comes down to is the bookstore is a victim of the very tolerance it and the gay rights activists have been trying so valiantly to win since Stonewall. In a very timely story in New York Magazine's recent issue entitled "Gay Life Now," author and famous gay parent Jesse Green writes about "the new gay movement." To an angry, outspoken activist from the early years of the gay rights movements, Green writes, "The gay movement is over, or that one is, anyway. We have fallen short of realizing the angry woman's dreams, but we did something at least as important: We moved forthrightly into a larger world. Not just as comic or aesthetic relief, but as power brokers, opinion-makers, pillars and parents."
As gays and lesbians continue to move into positions of power and influence, I know I will have more and more opportunities to reflect on the passing of major gay and lesbian institutions. What I think I am really mourning, though, is the slow death of our unusualness. What I started to realize after finishing Green's story was that holding on to this myopic focus will only hold us back.
This is a tough lesson to learn, considering the closing of a business has such consequences as putting people out of work. It is even tougher when that business is such an integral part of the cultural fabric of a community; people fear by losing it they will lose track of just how far we have come in 30 years.
Can you imagine losing Crazy Ladies or Pink Pyramid? While it is hard to imagine, it is a very real possibility.
But in the end, gays and lesbians must harness our power — economic, intellectual, aesthetic and otherwise — and use it to move our cause and other likeminded causes forward. By doing this, we will create new opportunities to effect positive change and work toward equality.
contact eric hunter: [email protected]