by Pat Holt
Tuesday, June 27, 2000
I've just purchased the most extraordinary CD of tape recordings made by Judy Garland - alone, drunk, furious and raging at the world - for a book she planned to write near the end of her life.
This copy was the last one of a limited sale, and what a revelation it's turned out to be (see review Friday), but the reason I'll treasure it is that "Judy Garland Speaks!" is the kind of rare discovery one finds only at an independent bookstore - in this case a gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender bookstore - like A Different Light.
I thought the reason for my interview with Richard Labonte, general manager of A Different Light's three stores (San Francisco, New York and West Hollywood), was to discuss the announcement in PW Daily the other day that Labonte, along with other leaders in the gay book community - publisher Nancy Bereano of Firebrand and editor Carol Seajay of Feminist Bookstore News - have resigned.
That and the closing of Glad Day Bookshop, the gay bookstore in Boston (see #161), has caused an outpouring of concerned letters that the gay literary community may be undergoing some kind of awful upheaval.
Not so, says Labonte, speaking for himself, in any case, as he loads me up with other gems from the San Francisco store (also reviewed Friday). Then, just as I'm checking them out at the front counter, I turn and see the store through Labonte's eyes.
What a shock. What a heart-gripper. One needn't be a gay man or a bookseller to understand the welling-up of emotion that Richard - a person too dignified, perhaps, ever to admit to such a feeling, so leave it to Holt Uncensored to bring her characteristic baseball bat to such unashamedly mawkish sentiment - must feel every time he stands at this spot and looks at his store.
For one thing, just about section and every category that's bursting with books today did not exist only a few years ago. Take Adoption and Parenting. "There might have been a chapter in a book or two that gays and lesbians could consult about raising a family in the mid '90s," says Labonte, "but not until very recently did we have enough books on these subjects even to fill a shelf." Now there are dozens.
And who would have thought 21 years ago, when Labonte helped open the first Different Light in Los Angeles, that one day the gay community would buy books beyond Fiction and History categories, books that would crowd into sections of the store devoted to gay Spirituality, Psychology, Legal affairs, Business and Investment, Relationships, Family, Chinese and Spanish language?
Even Labonte couldn't have known. "In 1979, we carried only about 900 titles - 3000 books total - in our L.A. store," he says. "Gay books were so hard to find that whenever somebody brought out another title in the public domain - say, something by Oscar Wilde - we were thrilled. Here was the another book to put on the shelf."
Gay publications, which now fill up an entire wall of the store, were almost nonexistent. "Early on, we couldnāt find a distributor carrying The Advocate magazine, so we'd go to the street-vending box outside the Glendale YMCA, put in a quarter and take out 5 copies. That would be sufficient 'stock' for the store."
Ach, from such meager beginnings groweth the sturdy oak, and soon A Different Light was one of many independent bookstores contributing as much to the growth of the gay rights movement as benefitting from the voracious literary appetites of newly "out," newly politicized and highly diverse gay audiences.
"Glad Day Bookshop opened in Boston in the late '70s," Labonte recalls, "as did Oscar Wilde Books in New York. Giovanni's Room started in Philadelphia in the mid '80s. Lambda Rising in D.C. and A Different Light arrived in the late '80s. Together we created a critical mass that helped an editor like Michael Denneny of St. Martin's know he could sell the required minimum - say, 1000 copies - of a gay book he wanted to publish."
But then came the great irony: Here was Labonte, enough of an activist to see the art of bookselling as his personal mission for the gay community, suddenly looking down the iron throat of those giant locomotives Barnes & Noble and Borders a'barreling toward him, followed by the big fat engine that could, Amazon.com and its caboose spinoffs on the Internet.
"We were by then accustomed to increases of about 10 to 12% a year," Labonte remembers. The drop was relentless. "It's surprising how quickly you can get used to 2-3%. Then we started thinking it was a victory to break even." By the late '90s, A Different Light was hanging by a thread.
How this niche store performed "all the usual cutbacks" - shrinking inventory, laying off staff, shortening hours - and then figured out how to dig itself out again, is another story that can choke you up with emotion as you gaze across the selling floor.
For one thing, it killed Labonte to run a specialty bookstore that didn't serve its customers' special interests.
"Independent bookstores that can differentiate themselves by the old standbys ö author events, customer service, solid inventory, personal handselling - can survive if they can keep selling books that nobody else ever has," he says.
"I knew this. The problem was adjusting to the fact that in any bookstore, 50% of sales come from 10% of stock. As we only have 10,000 titles, I can easily show that half the sales come from way less than half the titles. We could make a profit selling only those titles, but that was the problem. If we did that, we wouldn't be a specialty bookstore.
"So the trick is to find a balance between best-selling books (and of course we had lost many bestseller sales to the chains) and special-interest titles that sell very slowly. It's in that transition - between stocking absolutely everything your customers will want and being a bit more guarded because youāve lost bestseller sales - that a lot of stores get in trouble."
For A Different Light, two giant opportunities came about that gave the store a new future. First, "realizing how much trouble the stores were in," Labonte recalls, "we told our biggest vendors that if they would freeze what we owed, we would pay it off over 18 months with interest. This meant each vendor could then give us a new credit limit so we could start buying new books again."
The idea was to take the store's debt and turn it into a loan. "Most of our vendors went for it, though university presses were by far the most hardnosed. Ingram has been the best. I think the Ingram people learned a lesson when they were flirting with marriage to Barnes & Noble and kicked up an awful lot of restentment from independent and specialty stores."
This is stirring news for observers and maverick columnists who've worried that mainstream publishers are dismissing independent bookstores as too small to make a difference in the increasingly commercial, chain-dependent, brick-and-mortar side of publishing.
Labonte does not mince words: "It is both easy and appropriate to talk about the dehumanization of publishing, but our experience has been that publishers have bent over backwards helping us out by accepting our payment terms and extending credit in a surprising number of occasions."
Of course, why shouldn't they: Authors who sell well in chain bookstores and on the Internet - Edmund White, Dorothy Allison, Jeannette Winterson, Sarah Waters, Armistead Maupin, Emma Donoghue, Rita Mae Brown - got their start in stores like A Different Light. Today, while other bookstores may sell a dozen copies of Christopher Bram's "The Notorious Dr. August," A Different Light will sell about 120 copies, says Labonte.
As to more commercial books, Labonte believes publishers understand that independent booksellers cultivate the reading audience in such a way as to MAKE bestsellers. "Simon & Schuster knows that 'Gay Stars: The Ultimate Gay Guy's Guide to Astrology' will sell lots of copies everywhere, but hundreds here," he says. "The University of Chicago's "Liberace: An American Boy" may be a scholarly book, but when it comes to sales at A Different Light, it's as gay a book as anything by Armistead Maupin."
The other big opportunity was the support of customers and community. When word got out that the store was in trouble, the average sale per customer visit - which had dropped from $18 to $14 - started climbing again.
Perhaps even more dramatic, the San Francisco store's annual Readers & Writers conference, which had to be dropped last year for lack of money, is now co-sponsored by the nearby Metropolitan Community Church and a local school, the Harvey Milk Institute, and will be back this Fall.
It's because he believes A Different Light is on its way back to health that Labonte, clearly exhausted and ready for at least a year off at the ranch he co-owns in Canada, is ready to move on. He does not feel the gay literary scene is in trouble, though he's a bit sad that here as elsewhere, serious literary titles are being supplanted by increasingly commercial books.
In a way, he blames himself. "When I got into bookselling, it was very important to have pop fiction, romances and mysteries right there in front for everybody to buy. I like to think the store helped establish a mystery genre. I kept telling Barbara Grier [founder of Naiad Books, a lesbian publishing house] to publish mysteries, and look at the wonderful monster we helped create." Naiaid mysteries became a staple in many a lesbian reader's library.
"In those days, bookselling to me was still a Gay Lib thing ö you were empowering people by putting a bookstore that represented you in the middle of the community. It still happens that people come in asking for books like 'Beyond Acceptance: Parents of Lesbians and Gays Talk About Their Experiences.' The section on coming out is one I never let get low.
"But today, you can learn about gay people everywhere else - from television and Time and People magazine and movies we never saw before. That doesn't make a gay bookstore less important to community. It's rather that the political imperitive is less. Books like Martin Duberman's histories of homosexuality sold many dozens 10 years ago; now they sell a few dozen."
The gay book boom of a few years ago opened the way to more nonfiction "lifestyle" books than literary novels or serious nonfiction, says Labonte. But he believes a "steady stream of gay titles" is still coming from many different publishers today. "I used to do a year-end roundup for The Advocate and monitored the total number of gay books annually - for example, there were 600 in 1984, 900 in 1988, 1200 in 1991, and ever since then, the figures have never gone back down."
If 1200 titles is holding steady, what happened when the gay book boom turned into a bust in the mid '90s? "Perhaps it turned into a bust because some publishers were paying too much for advances, getting carried away by their own enthusiasms and appearances. Today the mix of mainstream and small press has see-sawed, with university presses publishing a surprisingly wide range of gay titles."
And that brings us back to another reason a person could get teary looking out at the store from the front counter. A Different Light has survived all the hardships an independent store could withstand. It opened when nearby stores were boarded up during the AIDS epidemic, has encouraged young gay writers and launched unknowns and has seen the gay community through periods of unimaginable tumult, ranging from gay bashings to demonstrations about "don't ask, don't tell" and same-sex marriage just outside its door.
On the eve of watching the store rebound from its toughest fiscal challenge, Labonte recalls a truth that surprised him as a gay man and helped him immeasurably as an independent bookseller.
"A long time ago, I understood there was nothing all that special about gay people. Weāre just average folks. Most of us arenāt activists, or marchers, or even readers ö though a higher proportion of us probably are than in general. So I shouldnāt be disappointed that every gay person doesnāt want to read Dubermanās books on gay history (though everyone should, to find the roots of their sexuality ).
"But when I think back on the very best moments I experienced as a bookseller, I remember when people would come up to this counter and ask if we had any books on legal advice or parenting or spirituality or psychology for gay people. 'No, we don't,' I'd say, 'but why don't you write one?' And they did."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
(Note: this was sent as a response from Bowker to last week's column about BIP+, but it looks like the formula answer everybody gets who has written to complain or query Bowker about the missing 800,000 titles.)
We'd like to address the concerns raised recently that titles have been missing from the Books in Print CD-ROM. As you are probably aware, CD-ROM technology is limited in its ability to allow growth from a large database such as Books in Print. While the number of titles have been growing at an ever increasing rate, particularly through the availability of e-books and titles available on demand, we are constantly forced to make difficult decisions in order to provide you with a single disc product which, our market research has shown, you prefer.
In light of your concerns we have modified the product to ensure that all titles carried by Ingram are included. However, the only way to include all active titles will be to provide you with a second disc. Books in Print with Books Reviews On Disc is a 2-disc product which provides active book titles, audio titles, video titles as well as out of print books and videos, inactive audio titles in addition to full text reviews from 15 varied sources. We are in the process of modifying the Books in Print On Disc single disc product by removing the audio and video titles to increase the space on the disc as well as removing the DOS version of the search engine to provide more book data and provide additional room for growth by implementing new compression technology. If you use the Books in Print On Disc product, you will see this change in the upcoming months.
In our marketing of Books in Print on CD-ROM, we have been forthright in providing you with the approximate number of records included on the disc. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may have caused and we welcome all suggestions which can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the most comprehensive version of Books in Print, please check out http://www.booksinprint.com. For those of you who have internet access in your stores, this will be the best way to have the most comprehensive and current information available to you at all times.
We would like to receive your feedback on this as well as any other ideas you may have that will allow us to provide you with the most comprehensive database possible within the confines of the space restrictions we must face with CD-ROM technology.
Gary A. Aiello
Dear Holt Uncensored:
This monopoly of information enjoyed by Bowker exists as much by common consent as by their enterprise. The common consent has been that there was no point to building a competing product.
It is now possible for a competitor (an association, a consortium of distributors, a private investor) to launch a competitive venture and claim that it intends to be more complete and more reliable and more truthful ....etc.
Bowker has taken advantage of its position by being at best careless and at worse deceptive without fear of penalty.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I will also write to Avin Domnitz. I have been having problems for years with BIP PLUS. It is embarrassing to say the least. Now I know what the problem was, and Bowker continually blamed the problem on the publishers. What a racket
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re Amazon [jumping the gun on] the new Harry Potter book, surely we can assume Amazon.com is using only blind and non-English reading employees to unpack and Fed Ex those books on the 7th.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Does anyone else see the absurdity of this whole hoo-hah over the Harry Potter books? I can't believe that grown-up professional book people are even considering going along with all this nonsense. Are we a nation of idiots? (Don't answer that.) In any case, there was a short news segment on TV the other night about the 4th Harry Potter book, and the title of it was prominently displayed on the screen. I don't remember what it was, as it, and the story surrounding it, did not hold my attention. C'mon guys, it's just marketing hype -- or is everybody busy synchronizing their watches?
Holt responds: Indeed, absurdity is part of the fun of it, or should have been - sales at midnight, the secret title, cases sealed until the last second - all of it creating a chance for every bookseller to bring this blockbuster to customers at the exact same time. What seems absurd to me now is Amazon.com's unnecessary display of wealth (it's going to cost Amazon $2.4 million, says PW Daily) that spoils the fun for everyone. By the way the book cover you saw on TV is a temporary one - it says, "Harry Potter IV - Coming July 8, 2000," and nothing more.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Wow, in your column we have run the gamut from unsigned, irate letters all the way to books with authors but no titles! And this in cyber space. So, the Net is the place where publishers overlook lack of signatures/responsibility but freak out about a time warp that gives the cyber capitalist the advantage. Is that EST, or what? Do East Coast booksellers have the advantage because they'll be opening their cartons three hours earlier than Californians? It's all a bit of a game, anyway, so why not play by the "rules"?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am pleased to report that the the U. S. Senate now has a bill that will level the playing field on the Internet sales tax issue and, if passed, will put this rancorous national debate to rest. The bill is S2775. It is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. Dorgan and Senator Voinovich. It proposes a grand compromise. It will extend the Internet Tax Freedom Act for 5 more years. This is a ban on discriminatory and duplicative taxes (but not sales taxes) on the Internet. At the same time, it authorizes states to enter into collective negotiations to simplify their sales tax collection systems. If they do so, they will be allowed to collect on remote (out of state) sales. An extra added attraction for small businesses is that small businesses will not be subject to the requirement to collect for out of state sales.
This bill is a grand compromise. As such it will not satisfy everyone. However it does lay the basis for sales tax collection based on the principle of the level playing field. It is supported by the e-fairness Coalition. I will try to report on more details after studying the bill more carefully. In the meantime I urge everyone who cares about this issue to write their federal legislators and urge support for S2775.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Collecting sales tax "based on Zip code" as suggested by letter writer Glenn Fleishman has a few problems . . . Zip codes are not always limited to local jurisdictional boundaries. As an example, with Alexandria, VA for instance there are a number of zip codes that cover that city plus part of the surrounding county.
And my recollection of California is that in addition to the state sales tax, counties, districts & cities may impose additional and different taxes, all these jurisdictions undoubtedly have border straddling zip codes.
Which means that any national clearinghouse is going to have to be on top of all changes in zip codes and sales taxes.
So yes, technology can help, but only if all of the permutations can be taken into account - certainly no one would want their customers paying the incorrect taxes . . . .
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Last November I paid iUniverse.com $99 to publish the memoir I wrote for old, dear friends in Washington. It turned out very well, except that several irritating errors were not caught, such as tenses, repetitions, etc. So I decided to do the whole thing over, and for another $150 I am having it reprinted with the same cover and adding three b&w photos inside.
Personally, I find this amazing, that I can get a professionally edited and designed book available for $99 or even $249 after the revision, just as I find it amazing that I can go back and revise it so easily. No wonder Jason Epstein and others on publishers' row are trashing POD.
Holt responds: How is the quality of production, the cover, the paper stock? And did you end up paying more than expected aside from the reprint?
The writer responds: I'm satisfied with everything except iUniverse's customer service, which can't get my address Over Here [France] right. But the cover, typeface, everything, looks good to me. A catch is that the author gets only one copy and a 40 per cent discount on buying others. For the Authors Guild backinprint.com program the authors get no books at all, but on the other hand they get their books back in print at no cost to them either.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.