Saturday, April 30, 2011

Looking at a Neighborhood Bookstore's Closing in a Different Light

A Different Light, the Castro's LGBT bookstore and an important cultural institution (and purportedly the last LGBT bookstore in California) is closing.

And I don't think that's entirely a bad thing.

I've been thinking a lot about this closing, because I am a book lover (of actual books—with paper inside), a longtime Castro denizen, and someone who believes in supporting local businesses. I have a history with A Different Light (ADL): The store hosted me for an author reading when my book was published in 2004. (I also participated in a group reading there when a short story of mine was published in Modern Words, a literary journal, in 1999.) And, of course, I've been shopping there since I arrived in the Bay Area, more than 20 years ago.

But recently I've also been thinking a lot about change, and about how difficult it can be to accept change as one gets (ahem!) older. That's why, at first, I found myself agreeing with the lamentations of some people in the Castro (and the wider LGBT community): ADL's closing is a sign of the "Decline of Reading," the "Decline of Community Involvement" and the "Decline of the Castro."

And I hate change! I hate it when the businesses I frequent close. When I found out that the Eagle was closing, I mourned. I wished I could go back in time and spend more Sunday afternoons there—an eternity of warm Sunday afternoons on the Eagle patio, drinking my second beer. ... Maybe that's what Paradise will be like.

But back to the Castro. I know that ADL's closing negatively affects the livelihoods of many people, and for that I am very sorry. But looking past that, I think that this closing is probably happening at the right time, and that, although I love nostalgia (I wallow in nostalgia), lamentations are out of order.

The Decline of Reading
When we moan about the "Decline of Reading," what we're saying is, basically, "We are the last intelligent generation. Society is getting dumber. Learning is over. Civilization is doomed!" And people (mostly old people like me) have been saying that since history began. Yes, sure, sometimes a generation does stupider things than its predecessors, but when you take a broad view of history, education trends in a decidedly positive way. Studies that "prove" reading's decline are usually skewed, heavily favoring the printed page. People aren't reading less. They're reading differently. People aren't getting stupider. They're smart in different ways. That's how civilization progresses. We old folks have to deal with it.

Computers and the Internet are changing how we read and how we interact with books and the written word. My last visit to ADL was a few months ago. I was looking for a copy of Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories, to give as a gift. The store didn't have it. It didn't have anything by Isherwood, even a copy of the story on which a very popular film had just been based, A Single Man. So I had given ADL a chance to sell me something, and the store didn't have it. (The store did have lots of homoerotic calendars, but every store in the Castro has homoerotic calendars, even Walgreen's.)

Twenty years ago, a youth looking to educate himself about this important writer could have ordered the book, gone to a library, or maybe taken a class somewhere. Now, he can go home and get online. And he'll find Isherwood galore: histories, quotations, essays, and so on—a curious young mind with limited resources is in much better shape today than 20 years ago, even without ADL. There's a lot to read on the Web.

People aren't reading less; they're reading (and buying books) differently.

And I read a lot on the Web: articles and essays in far-off or minuscule publications that ADL could never have exposed me to. And then I am able, with a few clicks, to share what I've read with other people. This is what ADL was all about: sharing ideas. The Web is, I think, doing that better.

The Decline of Community Involvement
The Internet may have doomed the neighborhood bookstore, but I think it has been a boon for our community—whether you define community as LGBT people in general, those in the Castro area, or a smaller subset. From my point of view, it seems that a bookstore (as lovely as a bookstore is) is available to too few people: that is its problem. A desperate, lonely gay youth in a small Minnesota town in the 1980s had no way to get to ADL. Now, he doesn't have to. He can find like minds on the Web, in online communities large and small—so the Web is where he stays involved.

I have no way to prove this, but it seems to me that there is always a certain percentage of people who "get involved" in their communities (the rest just live there). Whether they do it by putting up a poster or by sending an email, I'd say the number is about the same.

Twitter has proved to be a far better way to mobilize a community than a flyer in a bookstore. Through my online community, I'm exposed to new ideas and new causes (and new books) in a way I never was before. The Internet has made me a better, more active member of my community.

The Decline of the Castro
The Castro was here before us, and it will be here after us. From Irish neighborhood to gay enclave to ... maybe something else. And that's how neighborhoods tend to work. As a center for gay culture and social life in San Francisco, the Castro replaced Polk Street when Polk Street's "seediness" no longer aligned with our mainstream aspirations. And now those mainstream aspirations are poised to take us out of the Castro—out of all our gay neighborhoods—and into mainstream society, into a world where we can live in any neighborhood and feel that the men and women (gay, straight, or whatever) who live on our street can be our neighbors and friends, and even our brothers and sisters.

I think that's what we wanted.

I'm being a bit facetious when I say that, because I'm not not at all sure it's what I want. I often opine that I liked some parts of being gay 20 years ago: the feeling that my affectional desires gave me instant counterculture credibility, for instance. Then again, there was also a lot more open discrimination and violence against gay men and women 20 years ago. It's hardly worth the thrill of feeling "a little bit naughty."

I'm talking myself through this (sort of thinking aloud here) because, as I said earlier, I hate change at a gut level. I miss the Castro of my younger days. I miss the Detour. I miss Pozolé and its gorgeous tank-topped staff. I miss that used bookstore on Castro between 18th and 19th, where I bought my first vintage etiquette book.

And I'll miss ADL. And the Eagle! Fond farewell to thee. I heard that they are going to put condos where you once stood, and I groaned ... before looking around and realizing that I live in a condo, and that something was here before I was, and that someone probably misses it.

1 comment:

tioFredo said...

Thank you for sharing this, I appreciate the community involvement factor.