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Whenever she comes to San Francisco from Ohio, Marge Nabzdyk makes time to visit the Castro, and poke around in A Different Light bookstore. Cincinnati has gay bookstores, but not like this. The sheer volume of titles -- more than 14,000 -- is "overwhelming," she says. "I've seen stuff here I've never seen in any other bookstore."
But as Nabzdyk speaks, standing among the tall stacks of gay-authored and -themed literature, one title jumps out at her: Staying Power: Long-Term Lesbian Couples.
"Oh, I was able to find this book in Cincinnati," she says, almost surprised to note that she really doesn't have to leave her conservative Midwestern hometown to find books about lesbians. They are now available at any Ohio Barnes & Noble, where Nabzdyk can buy them at a 20 percent discount off hardcover prices.
Nabzdyk's discovery helps explain why, after years as San Francisco's most notable gay bookstore, A Different Light may soon be out of business.
"People are surprised to hear we are in financial trouble," says the store's assistant manager, Tommi Avicolli Mecca. "They assume because the store always looks crowded, we're raking in the dough -- but a lot of people are here just browsing, cruising, or killing time before dinner. People need to realize that buying their books here will keep us in business."
But as gay goes mainstream, publishers and national bookstore chains are more than willing to tap into a lucrative market by offering convenience and cheaper prices. Gay-themed books are now prominently displayed in suburban mall chain stores, and online ordering services like Amazon.com offer discounts on the obscure titles one would expect to find and pay full price for at an all-gay bookstore.
The trend makes some question the viability of independent gay bookstores like A Different Light, or ask whether these longtime havens have become irrelevant.
"Things are pretty stark," says Richard Labonte, an owner and manager of A Different Light's San Francisco store. Declining sales here and at two other stores in New York and Los Angeles may force all three A Different Light shops to close at the end of the summer.
The trio of stores, which have become fixtures in each city's predominantly gay neighborhoods over the past 20 years, are a quarter of a million dollars in debt, and losing money every month, Labonte says.
Though situated in the heart of the Castro, Labonte says, San Francisco's store is lucky to eke out a tiny monthly profit. The West Hollywood store barely breaks even, and New York's Chelsea location is losing money fast and furiously. So much money, in fact, that Labonte has spent the better part of this month in New York working with his partners to cut staff and costs, trying to keep the New York store from dragging down the others.
If sales keep falling and a business plan to handle the debt cannot be hammered out by fall, A Different Light could suffer the fate of many general-interest independent bookstores that have found they can't compete with giant chain store prices.
Gay authors and stories are big business today, like Michael Cunningham's The Hours, which won the Pulitzer Prize this year and is currently on the New York Times best seller list. There is too much money at stake for major bookstores not to offer gay literature, and gay is no longer an alternative niche protected from market forces.
"Gay bookstores aren't quite as necessary as they once were, when they were the only places to go," says Ken Irish, manager of San Francisco's Barnes & Noble. "There is no gay ghetto anymore. The old taboos are coming down and things are far more accessible. Now you can go to a Barnes & Noble in Cincinnati, Ohio, and find just about anything you want. There's almost nothing that's off limits."
The San Francisco Barnes & Noble, which is in the Marina District not far from Fisherman's Wharf -- hardly a gay enclave, Irish points out -- carries titles like The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians and That's Mr. Faggot to You. The gay-themed books sit prominently on a table near the main entrance. During Gay Pride Month in June, Barnes & Noble asks all its stores nationwide to display gay literature on front tables. Upstairs, in the sociology section, three large shelving units labeled "Gay/Lesbian Studies" are filled with the regular collection of books.
While gay bookstores like A Different Light can argue that they stock a more comprehensive selection of gay works, the thousands of gay titles not physically sitting on a Barnes & Noble shelf are available by order through the chain's discount online service.
And scanning a list of the top 100 gay/lesbian novels of all time compiled by the Publishing Triangle -- a consortium of gay and lesbian publishers -- Irish says all but a handful are currently in stock at his Barnes & Noble store.
Avin Mark Domnitz, head of the American Booksellers Association, says the financial trouble facing A Different Light -- and other gay and general-interest independent bookstores -- is not about bad bookkeeping, but new, daunting competition.
"A Different Light is run by very good businesspeople and it's a very high-quality bookstore," says Domnitz, whose group represents nearly 5,000 -- and dwindling -- independent bookstores nationwide. "But gay issues have become mainstreamed to such an extent that people find their needs are being met without having to go to a specialty store."