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Arts & Culture

Books Take a Hit at Gay Bookstore

The Obelisk bookstore in Hillcrest has added gifts and graphic novels while reducing the stock of general book titles. The gay and lesbian bookstore has been in operation for 17 years.
The Obelisk bookstore in Hillcrest has added gifts and graphic novels while reducing the stock of general book titles. The gay and lesbian bookstore has been in operation for 17 years.

Like many independent bookstores, Obelisk found itself circling the remainder bin not too long ago.

Never mind that the 17-year-old Hillcrest store serves gay people, who are supposed to be loaded with disposable cash because they don't tend to have kids to spend it on. No matter that San Diego is reported to be the ninth gayest city in the country. Obelisk still struggled.

But now, it's got a new owner and a new focus. Within the last few months, Obelisk has transformed into a gift store that happens to sell books.

I asked Obelisk owner Brett Serwalt to explain how he's changed the store and why.

Q: What has changed since you took over?

A: Obelisk has been in business for over 17 years, primarily as a GLBT bookstore that also features magazines, music CDs, and DVD rentals and sales. With the advent of the Internet, there's been fundamental changes in consumer buying habits as it relates to these categories of products and Obelisk has been feeling the pinch ever since. Add to that this horrible never-ending recession and it makes for a truly difficult environment for the independent bookseller.

I took ownership on January 1 of this year with the unenviable task of making Obelisk relevant to its community again. My first goal has been to freshen up the place -- new logo, new paint, new shelving and merchandising units.

At the same time I've been bringing in new lines of merchandise such as jewelry and watches, comic and graphic novels, gift items and more T-shirts, etc. The goal is to create a more exciting and interesting shopping experience.

Q: Why are you de-emphasizing books?

One word: We need to be realistic. The writing is on the wall: people LOVE the Internet, and apparently no brick & mortar store can ever compete on price. Not Borders, not Obelisk.

At the same time, I still see a market for boutique book selling. We will continue to bring our customers the best of gay & lesbian books and related media, but only as long as they keep buying them. We will no longer stock every single title of every single category. But we will do our best to seek out the most relevant and interesting titles.

Q: What kinds of books are still selling?

A: Despite what I just said above, our book sales are actually up from last year - albeit just a tiny bit! What we are experiencing is people buying more "beach" reading, more pleasure books, so this has been our focus for the past year.

People who want very specific books -- a resource book on coming out as a transgendered person, for example -- are rightly turning to the Internet. This is where the Internet excels -- providing very specific titles for a very small customer base.

We used to stock every single title that applied to the GLBT community, but the community no longer supports that business model and I certainly don't blame them.

Q: Can bookstores that serve the gay community survive?

A: Every business situation will be unique. Some booksellers have gone under because they moved into a larger space and then couldn't afford the increased rent. Some have gone under due to not paying attention to the changing habits of their customers. Some have been affected by competition.

But the simple answer is that I don't really see much of a future for ANY bookstore that relies exclusively on new book sales to pay their overhead. At the same time I see a strong future for stores that want to sell a niche of books as part of a larger inventory mix.

Some customers have been upset with us for dropping so many categories of books, but they don't seem to understand we would be out of business by now if we had stayed on the same path we were on just a few years ago. People really love the romantic notion of a little independent bookstore, but if they aren't actually buying the books, then it's silly to think we could survive by staying the same.

Q: I've heard over the years that lesbians don't buy many books. Have you seen that?

A: We've done great business selling books to the ladies! But they absolutely shop differently than men.

While a male reader may buy a book here and there, a woman will buy ten books all at once and then not come back for a couple months.

There's definitely more of everything when it comes to the gay male consumer -- more greeting cards, more books, more music, more t-shirts, etc. But there's definitely a solid lesbian market of book buyers, and the amount of award-winning lesbian titles gets bigger each year.

Q: Could GLBT books become less popular as gays become even more mainstream/integrated into society?

A: In a word... no. As our society grows, we see more diversity, not less. More specialization, not less. Look at the number of music genres that exist today compared to a generation ago. There's no such thing as "rock" any more. You need to use more specialized words such as "alt-rock" or "emo-rock."

The same thing is happening with books regardless of how mainstream gays become. While some individuals may not think of themselves as part of a gay community per se, they are still going to seek out books and media that they personally relate to. And they will have an ever-increasing selection to choose from.