A Different Light (bookstore)
Canadian attorney and business man George Leigh traveled to Los Angeles occasionally on business, and in the late 1970s felt that the Los Angeles gay and lesbian community both needed and was able to support a specialty gay and lesbian bookstore. Leigh contacted Norman Laurila, an employee of Toronto's Glad Day Bookshop, and offered an arrangement whereby Leigh would provide the funding to open a store in Los Angeles if 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.
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 Hudson Street to 151 19th Street in Chelsea, Manhattan. The original store in Silver Lake closed in 1992.
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 Labonté 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 industrial 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, Mark Thompson, Michael Nava, Joseph Hansen, and many 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. Without his financial support, the stores faltered, and were sold in 1999 to Bill Barker and Stanley Newman, who closed the New York City store in 2001, citing Manhattan's high rents and many other gay bookstores, 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.
Laurila now works as a book and paper products buyer for New York City's Museum of Modern Art, and Labonté continues to work as an editor of LGBT literary anthologies for Cleis Press and Arsenal Pulp Press.
- "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.