A Different Light (bookstore)
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George Leigh, a Toronto attorney met Norman Laurila, an employee of Toronto's Glad Day Bookshop in 1976. Leigh was impressed enough with Laurila's knowledge of LGBT literature and business acumen that in 1978 he suggested they look at opening a specialty bookstore in the USA. Several cities were considered - Atlanta, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles but Laurila quickly narrowed it down to Los Angeles as the best bet for a new startup. It was felt that the Los Angeles gay and lesbian community both needed and was able to support a specialty gay and lesbian bookstore. Leigh and Laurila formed an equal partnership were Leigh provided 75% of the startup costs and Laurila providing the rest with the understanding that Laurila would move to Los Angeles and manage the store. Laurila and his then-partner Richard Labonté relocated to Los Angeles to open the book store. At the time, Labonté was a journalist for the Ottawa Citizen. Leigh remained in Ontario, where he was a corporate lawyer for Texaco's Canadian division. The name of the bookstore came from the title of the novel A Different Light by science fiction author Elizabeth Lynn, suggested by Labonté. Laurila's close friend from Toronto, Gordon Montador, decided to take a year off work to write his first novel in Los Angeles and was instrumental in helping set up A Different Light. His ideas and enthusiasm were infectious and help make the first year very successful.
The first A Different Light Bookstore opened at 4014 Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood in October 1979, followed by a branch in New York City's Greenwich Village in 1983 and a branch in San Francisco's Castro (489 Castro St.) district in 1985. In May 1990, a second Los Angeles store opened at 8853 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood, and the New York City store moved from its original location on 548 Hudson Street to 151 19th Street in Chelsea, Manhattan. Supplanted by the West Hollywood store, the original store in Silver Lake closed in 1992.
For 22 years the store were immensely successful and influential. By the time ADL moved to Chelsea in New York City, it was hosting over 300 author events a year in its 3 stores. Each store became a serious part of the local LGBT community and fostered the careers of many LGBT authors. At its zenith, it employed over 80 people.
At its height, the chain was one of the most influential LGBT booksellers in the United States, serving as a cultural hub and social center for LGBT people. It hosted events including author readings, art shows, reading groups, writing conferences, art exhibitions and panel discussions. In the mid 1970s, mass market publisher Avon was the largest publisher of gay and lesbian books including Patricia Nell Warren's best selling novel The Front Runner. A significant part of A Different Light bookstore's first inventory was from Avon Book's backlist.
The Silverlake bookstore was located in the Sunset Junction area of Los Angeles where the Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevard met at Sanborn Avenue. Laurila and Leigh had to choose between either West Hollywood or Silverlake, both areas home to a large populations of gays and lesbians. At that time West Hollywood was not incorporated as a separate city. The decision was made to open the store in Silverlake where many gay men had purchased homes, and in anticipation of the gentrification of the Silverlake area as had happened in The Castro district of San Francisco.
The building rented for the bookstore was originally intended to house and repair Red Car system trolleys. The space had been minimally upgraded to allow for renting to retail businesses. With an unusual slanting front facade, high ceilings and mock-Tudor appearance, the store appeared to have occupied its space for decades. At the end of the first year, A Different Light expanded it to the next storefront by opening up wall in between the two locations, more than doubling the floor space. The store fixtures were built by a master carpenter who was a friend of Laurila's. With high ceilings and ample display space above the shelving, the bookstore worked with local artists and photographers to display artwork on a rotating basis.
Gay and lesbian authors made A Different Light bookstore part of their book signing tours, including Quentin Crisp, Ned Rorem, Judy Grahn, Katherine Forrest, Armistead Maupin, Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bacardi, David Hockney Mark Thompson, Michael Nava, Joseph Hansen, Paul Monette, William Burroughs, Edmund White and hundreds of others. The first author to have a signing was local author John Rechy, best known for his classic gay novel City of Night. Rechy appeared several times at the store, and he was coincidentally the last author to do a book signing at the original store before it closed.
On February 18, 1984, bookstore employee Ann Bradley initiated the first reading of “The Lesbian Writers Series”. Later playwright and store employee James Carroll Pickett would launch “The Gay Writers Series” and hosted the monthly readings from 1987 to 1990. In New York, bookstore employee Emanuel Xavier introduced spoken word poetry to the community with his "Realness & Rhythms" monthly readings.
Decline and closure
Leigh unexpectedly died in 1998 in West Hollywood while on vacation. The original Mission Statement from 1979 had a primary goal of getting LGBT literature as widely available as possible. ADL was instrumental in making that happen. By the mid-90s most serious independent bookstores had LGBT sections with Barnes & Noble stores throughout the country entering the market and offering substantial discounts. Amazon was next. They too heavily discounted LGBT books. The 3 ADL stores were in high rent cities and could not afford to match their prices. Laurila sold the 3 stores in 2000 to Bill Barker and Stanley Newman, who closed the New York City store in 2001, citing Manhattan's high rent and retained the two stores in California.
Following several years of increased financial difficulty amid extreme competition with online book sellers, Barker and Newman closed the West Hollywood store in 2009, and the Castro branch in 2011. The chain's closure was part of a spate of LGBT bookstore closings in the United States early in the 21st century, including New York's Oscar Wilde Bookshop and Washington, D.C.'s Lambda Rising.
- "A Different Light gay bookstore in Castro closing". SFGate, April 22, 2011.
- "George Leigh; Co-Founder of Gay Bookstore Chain". Los Angeles Times, January 16, 1998.
- "COPING; A Small Bookstore Under Big Pressure". The New York Times, May 23, 1999.
- "Gathering Celebrates Literary Series for Lesbian Writers". Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2004.
- "Bookstore On Gay Life Is a Victim Of Tolerance". The New York Times, March 19, 2001.
- "A Different Light going dark". Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2009.
- "A Different Light Goes Out". Publishers Weekly, April 18, 2011.