Reminiscing A Different Light Bookstore

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Richard Labonte

My first jobs were no dream. Soliciting contributions door to door for an environmental group turns out not to be my cuppa. Then I worked behind the popcorn counter at a local movie theater. Better, but being a “butter monkey” was still not my goal after finishing Cal as a philosophy major.

My dream job after college turned out to be working at A Different Light Bookstore in the Castro, which was run by the now-legendary Richard LaBonte. A hefty Canadian, he considered the foggy chill of San Francisco to be “shirt-sleeve weather” compared to what he missed in Ontario. At one time or another he managed each of the three ADL stores—West Hollywood, LA, and Chelsea, NYC—“Not a chain,” he’d say, “more like a bracelet.”

Luckily, he plucked 20-year old me out of an amazing cast of characters at the store and began to teach me the ropes, at first inventory and window display, then beginning buying, and eventually assistant managing. Richard also knew everybody in the neighborhood, and due to his editing of various anthologies and then writing the newsletter Books To Watch Out For, everybody in the world of gay and lesbian literature across the country and even the galaxy.

In those years of the 1990s, the Castro was the center of an angry but vibrant community of artists, activists and writers in San Francisco; and ADL was the intellectual hub for much of it. Dorothy Allison taught fiction to a writing group of baby dykes there one day a week, and early leather writer John Preston taught guys on another. ACT UP kept signs and tables in the back of the store, for easy access during demos. And pretty much anyone who passed by Castro St in those days stopped inside to see who was in, or to meet up with friends.

I think I mentioned the amazing cast of characters working there? Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, future cabaret artist extraordinaire, staffed the front counter, chatting up her innumerable acquaintances and occasionally ringing up a book. She also performed in plays (Christian Huygen’s “Waiting for Godette”, “Hidden: A Gender” by Kate Bornstein), as well as writing the cleverest column that a gay paper ever ran, in the Bay Area Reporter. But she was by no means alone.

Employees Betty and Pansy partnered on the 1993 tell-all travel guide, Betty and Pansy’s Severe Queer Review of San Francisco, to be followed by ones about NYC and DC. Young and unknown writers such as Alex Chee and Sara Fran Whisby paid the rent by working shifts at the store, as did political drag persona Joan Jett Black; and Jade Barbee, before he became the logo angel of Gus Van Sant’s indie films, and now lives at an intentional faerie community in New England. Tommi Avicolli Mecca hosted and introduced visiting writers at the store, and is still a never-ending activist for housing rights in the city’s Mission District. Any more?

But most of all, the store centered around my mentor Richard LaBonte, considered by many to be the godfather of gay literature. A Different Light and stores like it fostered a community of writers and readers that had been almost completely ignored by mainstream media. That golden age for LGBT cultural growth, combined with the political urgency of AIDS and queer activism, generated an amazing body of art and literature.

Some of it entered the mainstream. But a lot of it was lost as a large part of a generation died. That is part of the goal of Query Books—to find and bring back to print these important links between the genders and the generations.