A few months ago I began hearing rumors that A Different Light Bookstore, the oldest gay/lesbian bookstore in the country, would close its doors for good. This bookstore has been a landmark of the San Francisco gay scene since long before I arrived in this great city in 1979. Therefore, I remained confident that someone would buy the store and put it on its feet once again. I was wrong.
On my last trip into San Francisco’s Castro district, I saw for myself that the bookstore had indeed closed. Locked tight. Down for the count. I was saddened for a number of reasons. The most important was simply that I loved to browse that store. Every time I went to the Castro I would stop in to see what was new. To me—as a person who loves literature—it was my church, a place of worship, a safe haven from the world. It was also the place I’ve done most of my book signings and readings. The folks at ADL were always willing to let me put on an event. Lastly, it was a place that owed me a considerable amount of money for the books I had there on consignment….
Over the last month I’ve read lots of online chatter about why the store closed. Almost everyone seems to have the opinion that the closing was inevitable given the impact online retailers have had on all brick-and-mortar booksellers. I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. Yes, online retailers are making it tough for bookstores. But there is more to this story. This, in my opinion, is a story about customer service.
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, ADL was a hub for activism, book readings, art shows, and they attempted to stock every print book by, for and about queers. They stocked all the latest queer themed books, and also many recently published books on the NY Times Best Seller List. The staff was friendly and helpful. But sometime around 2003, ADL came under new management.
Over the past several years, the new ADL management chose to not stock the latest books. They seemed to concentrate on selling their stock of older books at discount prices. My feeling was that every time I walked in there, the same old books were front and center. There were seldom any new books to browse through. The decline in book selection was matched by a decline in service. The staff manning the counter were no longer friendly or helpful. The place stopped feeling like a safe haven.
As the service and selection nosedived at ADL, the other Castro bookstore, Books Inc., continued to offer a great selection and give excellent customer service. Books Inc. seems to be thriving despite pressure from online retailers. Which tells me that people do want to support brick-and-mortar bookstores. But they demand service, selection, and a friendly smile.
It is a shame that San Francisco has lost its landmark bookstore. But let’s be clear. The sky is not falling to the point where Amazon and Barnes & Noble will monopolize all book sales in this country. What bookstore owners need to realize is that they can survive by giving the customer something they can’t get online, and that is exceptional customer service. It’s a pity the management at ADL didn’t learn that lesson.
I write novels, short stories and screenplays.
I am the author of eight published novels and three unpublished screenplays. You can read about all my pubished works at http://alanchinauthor.com
I live and write half of each year at my home in Southern California, and spend the other half of each year traveling the globe with my husband, Herman Chin.