Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A look at A Different Light Bookstore in San Francisco

A Different Light bookstore in the heart of the Castro in San Francisco has been a bookstore, a gathering place, a cornerstone of the gay community in San Francisco for three decades. It is a storehouse of gay literature, and gay history. It is a source of pride for all gay San Franciscans. As a gay published author, I can say that there is no other bookstore in the Bay Area that can compare with ADL’s gracious treatment of local authors. Last week I convinced John Gonzales, manager if A Different Light bookstore, to answer a few interview questions. I think you’ll find his answers as interesting as I did.

Q: John, I’ve lived in and around San Francisco for over forty years, and I can’t remember a time when A Different Light Bookstore wasn’t in the heart of the Castro. How long has A Different Light been open, and how long have you, personally, been managing the store?
JG: A Different light has been around since the late 70’s. The First A Different Light Bookstore opened in 1979 to be exact, in Silver lake California, we actually turned 30 this year!
I have been managing the store in S.F. since October 2007.

Q: With the advent of Amazon, it seems the whole publishing world is changing. From a retail perspective, what are the most significant changes that you have seen in the last 10 to 15 years?
JG: In the past 15 years there has been a significant change in the retail customer base. The younger generation in our GLBT community does not have the same history with our store as the generation of 30 years ago. Although we have a terrifically loyal audience, the assimilation of GLBT’s into the world social order has removed the “Buy GLBT” mantra from the past. As such, because we remain a GLBT product oriented store and other mainstream stores sell GLBT literature; we have seen a drop off in our core audience.

Q: What does a brick & mortar bookstore need to do to attract buys in an age when online giants like Amazon and B&N are so dominant?
JG: We see the real question as what has been the impact of the Internet on socialization in general. I, for one, enjoy being out and embracing the opportunity to be with people and absorbing the energy that an active community provides. The Internet may make shopping easier, but it cannot provide that human contact and energy you get when you are out. We are not sure we know the answer to your question. We are putting more effort into bringing authors into the store for readings and signings and trying to inventory stock that is more consistently in demand.

Q: Other than helping support local, gay owned and operated businesses, what advantages are there for readers to buy from ADL rather the Amazon or B&N?
JG: This is a great discussion point. Since 1979 ADL has been solely focused on GLBT writers and their books. Our effort is about preserving an uncensored avenue for all GLBT writers and publishers. Amazon and B&N carry many of the same products as we do, but you can rest assured that they review and choose carefully what they will actually sell.

Q: Being in the heart of the Castro, you always seem to get lots of foot traffic into the store, but I know you also have a handy website. Can you tell us where the greatest source of book sales comes from, store or web, and what do the percentages look like?
JG: Our website (www.ADLBooks.Com) has been a transitional business since 2002. Our store is the still foundation of our business. A majority of our sales still come through our store, and the website business has been building and constant since it’s inception. We consider our site as a value added feature for our customers. There is a misconception that the Internet business must be cheaper to run and fewer overheads. The hidden expense is the technical expertise required to keep it updated and trouble free. We are fortunate to have a benefactor in that area that has made it possible to keep this part of our business going; when under different circumstances we might have had to reconsider it’s financial viability.

Q: Do you feel that the growing popularity of ebooks are hurting the independent bookstores?
JG: Our customers are bibliophiles. I say this with the sincerest level of respect. For many of our customers, the gift of books is the ability to create their own libraries and actually hold a book and sense it’s value physically. If ebooks are impacting our business, we have not had anyway to really measure that.

Q: Are the customers of today looking for the same sorts of things they did, say, ten years ago?
JG: I would say yes. However, we have expanded our product line to include movies, apparel along with our books and magazines. With the advent of the cellular phone and the Internet, we have seen a reduction in the purchase of cards and calendars.

Q: How has gay literature changed over the years, and who are the most popular gay writers, based on ADL sales?
JG: I am not sure it has changed that much. GLBT fiction, non-fiction and humor has been focused on the trials and tribulations of our GLBT lives. In a sense it has documented our history and represented us in ways that has uplifted our self awareness, self esteem and our normalization during a very tumultuous history.
Many authors have now reached beyond those dynamics and the genre has become more generalized.

Q: When my novel, Island Song, was released, A Different Light was by far the most helpful bookstore in the Bay Area in terms of stocking my book, placing it in highly visible areas, and arranging books signings. Do you always go out of your way for local authors or are you truly that helpful with all gay authors?
JG: We do our best to help out as many of our local authors as we can, though we are equally helpful with all gay/lesbian authors in general. I will have to say though we have encountered some authors local and otherwise who feel they are some what demanding or feel entitled just because they are local or gay/lesbian. Granted they are few and far between but I have to say, yes we go out of our way to help as many authors as we can but , authors also need to approach bookstores in a positive manner as well.

Q: How often do you host events like book readings/signings by authors? And do you ever host events where two or more authors share the spotlight?
JG: Well our goal is to have as many as we can, which of course helps our foot traffic. It also depends on what’s new or up and coming, and who we are able to schedule, as you can imagine it is sometimes difficult for smaller independent bookstores to schedule big name authors because we don’t have the buying power like some of the bigger chains. And of course its not just books we have events for, when also do events such as calendar signings, magazine release events and so on.
We have on occasion have had events with multiple authors, it sometimes is the best way for newer up and coming authors they may not have a big following yet, to get their names out there or if we are doing an event with a certain genre, for instance we have an event coming up in October with a few mystery/suspense authors.

Q: Can you tell us the names of some of the local authors who regularly do events at ADL?
JG: Of course Alan Chin, Armistead Maupin, Kemble Scott, who BTW has a new book coming out in Sept, Michael Thomas Ford, Michel Tea just to name a few.

Q: If an author wants to schedule a book reading/signing at your store, who should they contact to arrange that?
JG: They can call us or come on in and talk to anyone of our booksellers, myself or Oscar our Events Guy or send us an email at

Q: Where can readers go to find out what upcoming events are scheduled?
JG: We have them posted in the store on our community board as well as online at, click on events tab.

Q: Is there any information, John, that you would like to add?
JG: Well, if you have never been into our corner of the Castro take some time to come on by, you’ll never know what you will find. If you are one of out Loyal Customers, we always appreciate your continued business and hope to see you soon.

Thank you, John, for taking the time to answer my questions.

1 comment:

Victor J. Banis said...

an interesting interview, Alan, but my experiences with ADL have been kind of checkered, some good, some bad - most recently, the latter. When my Deadly Mystery series began with Deadly Nightshade, several friends in San Francisco went into the store to ask about ordering copies and basically got the brush-off. I don't know why, since my books have generally done well there. I know that they have limitations so far as what they can stock, but these were people with money in their fists willing to pay upfront just to have a book ordered; easy sales, just needed someone to care. And, by the way, so far as I know, ADL lost all of those individuals as customers. Oh, and the series has done quite well elsewhere, including online (where, last I looked, ADL didn't carry them.)I'm told I was MLR's biggest selling author last quarter.

Don't live now in San Francisco, so don't know what the attitude is there these days. Just offering my two cents worth.

Victor J. Banis