Monday, March 17, 2008

Are Gay Bookstores Going the way of Vinyl Records?

A gay novelist friend of mine, knowing that I have a debut novel coming out in July, emailed me the following article:

Baltimore: End of a Bookstore; Beginning of a Bookstor
===From Shelf Awareness, February 15, 2008===
Lambda Rising Bookstore is closing its Baltimore location in the near future. Lambda has stores in Washington, D.C., and Rehoboth Beach, Del. It closed its Norfolk, Va., store in June 2007.
Lambda owner Deacon Maccubbin blamed the Internet and chain stores for declining sales over the past 10 years at the Baltimore store. According to Maccubbin, support for specialty bookstores like Lambda Raising, which caters to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, has been waning.
"I'm afraid the glbt community in Baltimore just has not been supporting the store as they used to. The downward trend in the past 12 months has been sufficient to convince me that it would be unwise to continue," Maccubbin said, adding that he was very proud of the Baltimore store, which has been in business for over 22 years.
The store originally occupied 300 square feet in a local glbt community center. By 1989, Lambda Raising had expanded to 1,200 square feet and was the hub of many glbt cultural activities in downtown Baltimore.

Unfortunately, for the majority of independent GLTB bookstores, this is becoming an all too common occurrence. In the seventies, eighties, and nineties, these bookstores were not only the one place gay and lesbian readers could buy gay books, but these stores also served as community hubs where gay and lesbians gathered to socialize and organize. They helped to give the whole community a sense of identity. But over the past ten years, a fairly larger percentage of these bookstores have either closed or are hanging on by a thread.

For years, gay people have been quick to blame the big chain bookstores for the death of GLTB-owned bookstores, and that sounds like the most viable answer. But is it? If you check the shelves of Borders or B&N, you’ll find at best, an anemic selection of GLBT titles to choose from, whereas the GLTB bookstores have several thousand titles. They are clearly not serving the same market.

I would like to suggest that there are a few other issues that are twisting the knife in the independent GLTB-book retailers’ bellies.

The first has to do with a fundamental shift in reading habits that affect all book retailers, including the big chains. According to an article in the December 24, 2007 New Yorker, in 1982 56.9% of Americans said they had read a work of creative literature in the past 12 months. That number fell 20% by 2002. Between 2001 and 2006, books sold per person in the U.S. fell from 8.27 to 7.93. Finally, in 1995 an average of $163 was spent per household on reading materials. That average dropped to $126 in 2005. My point, obviously, is that people in general are reading less. Book sales continue to decline in the U.S and elsewhere.

A more important issue is that books don’t play the same role in our social conditioning that they did a few decades ago. In the seventies and eighties, books played a major role in shaping the gay experience. Books were the only media that exposed gay life and gay people, and were, in a sense, the place we all learned what being gay was all about. Many of us old-timers remember that the first place we went after coming out were GLTB bookstores, places like Outwrite in Atlanta, Obelisk in San Diego, and A different Light in L.A. and San Francisco.
Teens and twenty-somethings today are exposed to different media that contributes to the contemporary social fabric. They explore the gay experience via the internet, movies, television, plays, and gay celebrities. It is these elements of the tech culture that show young people a world they can inhabit as a GLBT person. We had The Persian Boy and The Front Runner, young people today have Brokeback Mountain, Big Eden, gay-positive blogs, gay artists downloaded to their IPod, and YouTube. Not to minimize the importance of books in today’s culture, there are just so many other media outlets where gays and lesbians can see themselves.

Another reason for the declining number of GLBT-owned bookstores, and bars for that matter, is that, decades ago, they were our only “third place” for GLBT communities. Third places are the institutions outside the home (first place) and work (second place) where gays and lesbians could feel a sense of community, where people, activists, and community leaders congregated. A friend from Texas recently emailed me that the Dallas gay-community paper lists more than 50 spiritual groups and churches, 36 social organizations, 4 political groups, and 24 sports associations made up of hundreds of teams. I won’t even try to list all the online communities on Myspace, blogspot and others. The choices for socialization that are available to gay people today are staggering. Gay people have come out of the closet and are integrating into the larger community. And in doing so, they no longer use those bookstores for socializing.

Finally, I would like to mention the cost savings and convenience of shopping online. To buy books at the closest GLTB-owned independent bookstore, I have to drive sixty miles round trip and cross over the Golden Gate Bridge. That costs me a $5.00 bridge toll, $12 in gas, and two hours of driving time. With what I save in bridge toll, gas, Amazon’s cheaper prices, and no sales tax, I can buy an additional two to three books. On Amazon, I can buy used books and at a fraction of the normal bookstore cost. And not just books, but also GLTB movies, TV series, CDs by queer artists, and much more.
The internet continues to change the business models for sales of ANY item. Without a storefront, online sellers have vastly reduced expenses and are therefore able to give deep discounts. Customers often want to pay the least amount possible for an item, and who can blame them? Everybody wants a good deal.
Most independent bookstores can’t offer the competitive and attractive financial breaks on the cost of books that the big chains and Amazon can, so unless they change their business model, they are looking at a very grim future.

For the GLTB independent bookstores to survive, two key questions must be answered:
The first question the independent-store owners must ask themselves: What can they offer that the online sellers and superstores don’t have? A few options are: give fantastic customer service, have frequent book readings by queer authors, take an active role in the GLBT community, strive to become a community gathering place once again, sell online as well, and/or sell products and services other than books. The person who successfully answers this question is the one who could very well save the GLBT bookstores from extinction.
The second question needs to be asked by the gay community in which these stores are located: Is it important for the gay community to preserve these stores, as places that add value to the gay community and give a sense of identity to gay people? If the answer is yes, then the gay community -- all gay people -- need to keep these places alive and flourishing by frequenting these stores and buying their merchandise. It is up to the gay community to act, with their dollars. So what if it’s $1.39 cheaper at the mall or easier online? If we allow these stores to go under, we will have lost something valuable to our community, and something we probably will not be able to bring back.
Keep in mind that the big corporations are not interested in promoting gay and lesbian authors like the independents do. For queer authors, it is very difficult to arrange book signings and readings anywhere except the independents. And try getting Borders or B&N to display a gay-authored book anywhere except some dark corner in the back. So by supporting the GLTB bookstores, your dollars also go to support queer writers and queer-friendly publishers. Now, isn’t that worth a few extra dollars?