The following blog post has been edited and updated to include information I received after the March 16 posting. Some sentences have also been rewritten for clarification. This particular post is longer than most on this blog site, so I hope you will be patient. There’s an important bit of LGBT history behind the story, and we should respect that.
The Castro District’s last general bookstore, Books Inc. at 2275 Market Street, has lost its lease and will close in mid-June. Links to three online articles appear at the end of this post.
Sadly, the deck was stacked against this Books Inc. location for a while.
Note: Books Inc.’s CEO has gone on record on The Bay Area Reporter’s site as saying the owner of 2275 Market Street was cooperative when trying to negotiate a lease renewal. Apparently, the issue in this case is overhead costs for everyone involved, not greed. He added that he doesn’t think Amazon has a role in declining sales at the store.
Sometimes larger businesses are to blame for failures of local retailers, though.
One of Borders’ superstores was likely responsible for the failure of a Books Inc. location during the 1990s. When Borders opened a store with three floors on Powell Street near Union Square in San Francisco in 1994, the Books Inc. store a few blocks down the hill got less busy and closed soon after. Another nearby independent, A Clean Well Lighted Place For Books at Opera Plaza on Van Ness Avenue, stuck around longer but closed eventually.
Books Inc. may be the indie which proves the Phoenix is not a mythical beast. Its store on Van Ness is in the Opera Plaza storefront where A Clean Well Lighted Place For Books used to operate. Although the customer area doesn’t look busy most of the time, it’s a central location for author events. Additionally, online orders are filled at the Opera Plaza store.
Circa 1980, I subscribed to Christopher Street magazine, a literary publication named after the Greenwich Village street in Manhattan which used to be at the center of East Coast LGBT culture. The magazine had a bestseller list in every issue, compiled from recent sales records at only a few stores in the country. Charles Gillman, owner of The Walt Whitman Bookshop (originally on Sutter Street near Franklin), was the one San Francisco merchant who shared sales data for the magazine’s list.
LGBT titles are promoted differently now, and on the plus side the market is no longer underground. Many years ago, closeted readers who lived nowhere near the stores on Christopher Street’s list were reluctant to ask for Larry Kramer’s books at stores near their homes. When they could find the books locally they were smart to pay cash because it was risky to leave a credit card trail. It was my understanding that some LGBT bookshops handled mail orders, but I don’t know if they had a way to keep those transactions completely confidential.
An LGBT book club, Insight Out Books, was around for a while. I don’t recall when it was founded, but in the past few years it was phased out when the parent company, Bookspan, downsized. First the paper catalogue was discontinued, and then the division closed altogether. I belonged to that club, and noted the precautions which were taken to keep transactions discreet. Book packages from ISO had only address stickers on the outside, and the packages had to be opened before the invoices could be seen. Bookspan’s other clubs simply glued an invoice envelope to the outside of each package.
When LGBT writing became more mainstream, it made Insight Out Books as vulnerable as other book clubs. The titles are now sold by many businesses, and customers in general have less anxiety letting retailers — both locals and chains — see data which reflect their sexual orientation.
Back to the main topic:
Indie booksellers provide a public service. They stock books they believe will appeal to their customers, and hold events where readers can meet authors and find kindred spirits. People seeking LGBT titles used to rely almost solely on unique booksellers and publications to discover new books. If chains and online services had dominated book retailing during the 1970s and 80s, the books which helped many of us come out of the closet might never have been published because too many people would have been afraid to order them.
Fun Fact: You’ve probably seen the St. Martin’s imprint on mainstream books, especially paperbacks in the True Crime and Romance genres. When I first came out, St. Martin’s was the publisher which issued some of the better LGBT titles I was buying from Paperback Traffic on Castro. It was founded in London in 1952 by the owners of McMillan, but remained fairly low-profile until being sold to another publishing house during the 1990s.
To make a long story short (whoops! Too late), it’s easier to find mediocre crap with the St. Martin’s imprint now. When I was about twenty years old, I thought of the St. Martin’s name as a quality seal. Maybe I was overestimating it, but back then it would have been a shock to find some of the current garbage associated with the imprint.
About fifteen years ago, I learned a little-known fact about book retailing. Chain stores receive promotional fees from publishers to display certain titles. Very few, if any, indie booksellers have that source of income, and they’re more likely to promote books that they find worthy.
I could go on a lot longer about why this upcoming store closure is painful, but that wouldn’t get anywhere. Oh, hell. I’ll do it anyway.
I “came out” as bisexual in 1979, while I was still living in Oakland, CA with my parents. We never did have an honest discussion about my sexual orientation, and the code talk was made up of sad absurdities. They knew, and all three of us were uncomfortable with that.
In case any of you recall the biggest political issues of that time, rest assured both of my parents voted against California’s Proposition 6 — the Briggs Initiative — in November 1978 (It was my second election, so I voted against it, too). They had some issues with homosexuality, but knew that firing gay teachers would be a dangerous policy and wouldn’t protect kids.
Eventually, my mother discovered co-workers who were “out” gay men, and fortunately she bonded with them well enough to feel more relaxed when we had our conversations in code. Both of my parents also became acquainted with a distant relative who was gay.
During the last few years of my father’s life, he began asking me questions about LGBT culture. The questions didn’t directly acknowledge my sexual orientation, though. It was more of an I-know-you-have-friends-who-know-about-this-stuff thing. Still, it was progress.
People outside the immediate family didn’t see the evolution of my father’s attitude, and I don’t think I can accurately describe it. Let’s just say it took decades, and I think the real catalyst for him was that distant relative. Right. Having a bisexual daughter didn’t soften his attitude, but a relative he didn’t know nearly as well was able to get through to him.
Enough of this personal pain. Just make an effort to shop indie, okay?
Update: In June, Dog Eared Books will be opening at 489 Castro.