Remembering Richard Labonté (1949-2022) Part One

My contract with Richard Labonté was limited to being in a couple of his anthologies (one of the Best Gay Erotica series, and I Like It Like That), but in all our interactions, he was never less than professional and personable; an editor who truly wanted you to be the best writer you could. So, we start this Pride month out by giving many among his circle of friends a chance to say a few words. And you know how much he would have hated that…

JW

Marshall Moore (author and lecturer):

San Francisco, summer 1999. I’d just moved to California from the DC suburbs. I was in A Different Light buying books. The man behind the counter struck up a conversation. When he found out I was a writer and had (gasp!) had a short story published, he asked if I had more work still looking for a home. I did, and that publication led to others, which then led to my first book sales: an amazing cascade of good luck, not something that happens to writers often. Richard’s early support for my work is one of the reasons I now get to call it a career. His graciousness toward so many of us in the queer literary world allowed communities to form and books to be published that otherwise might never have existed. As central a figure as he was, he could have been arrogant; instead, he defaulted always to kindness. It’s hard to think of someone who created so much as being gone. Even if his legacy offsets the loss, he is missed. RIP, Richard.

Jim Provenzano (author and writer at Bay Area Reporter):

Even before I had published my first novel, Richard Labonté was a helpful point of inspiration for me and many other Bay Area writers. When I finally self-published my first novel, PINS, Richard read an early draft of my manuscript and offered kind notes. I still have that copy with a ring of coffee stains on the front page. Richard offered advice on getting my book on shelves, named friendly distributors, and hand-sold my book at A Different Light in San Francisco, displaying it in the window for months. Subsequent reading events at the two stores in Los Angeles and New York City were always well attended, and I appreciated that the trio of enclaves for LGBTQ literary events existed, for a time.

Jim Van Buskirk (writer and editor):

 I treasure a tall black mug with white text commemorating “A Different Light’s Readers & Writers Conference, April 19-21, 1996: A San Francisco Bay Area Queer Literary Event.” On the mug’s verso is a l-o-n-g list of the many queer writers who participated in the three-day conference at the Women’s Building. I’m honored that my name appears, a souvenir of a presentation with Susan Stryker celebrating Gay By the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, published that month. For the first time I felt included in the scene. Given his disdain for the limelight, I’m not surprised that the name Richard Labonté, the mastermind behind the event, doesn’t appear. Richard was a calm and quiet mover and shaker, making important, invisible contributions to queer literature. Although I didn’t know Richard well, I always enjoyed being in his presence, his big bear energy exuded a palpable love of and commitment to authors and their audiences. Richard leaves a long and lasting, and largely unacknowledged, legacy.

Larry Duplechan (author, essayist, ukelele player:      

Richard Labonte reviewed my first novel (favorably), for “In Touch For Men” magazine, in 1985. In 2014, he passed the editorship of the Best Gay Erotica book series to me – though I only lasted for one issue. For my entire career as a writer (such as it is), Richard Labonte was there, a sort of literary faerie godfather. There’s a snapshot I’ve treasured for well over thirty years: taken on December 14, 1986, at A Different Light Book Store in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles, which store Richard then managed; at the reading-signing-launch party for my second novel, Blackbird. The late writer-historian Stuart Timmons has his back to the camera, his arms encircling me, and Richard. I’m finding it hard to handle the thought of Richard Labonte no longer being there.

Rachel Pepper (author and therapist):            

Richard Labonte changed my life. In the fall of 1989, whilst in my early 20s, I wrote him a letter, emphasizing my dream to work alongside gay men in the Castro. Turns out we shared a vision of creating an inclusive, welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ people of all different ages and outlooks, and I was hired! Richard and I were very different in temperament, he a rather saintly and benevolent father figure to the young gay men on staff, and myself a bit of a rebellious dyke firecracker. He mentored me in a different fashion than my colleagues, by tacitly approving my efforts to feature edgier aspects of LGBTQ+ culture at the store, including queer zines and 45s issued by upcoming queer punk and riot grrrl bands. Richard let me shine for who I was, and helped me grow into who I was meant to become. No doubt Richard likely felt my contribution to his own life was of much less significance, except for one amazing fact: I am pleased to say that I introduced him to his husband Asa. And for that, I will always take some pride.

Felice Picano (author and editor):

I’d known Richard for years at A Different Light bookstore in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He was so knowledgeable about books I wondered how a busy bookstore manager found time to do all that reading. I got my answer the year I was asked to join the Wilde-About-Sappho Literary Book Tour through Ontario and Quebec raising money for grad students. After the final, official event in Ottawa, I stayed at friends’ sprawling apartment where Richard was also a guest. Now we’ll get to talk books, I thought, although Richard’s rooms were at one end, mine at the other.My hosts were eager to share the capitol’s attractions with me. Richard remained on a comfy sofa and read, always so rapt I never dared interrupt. Felice-museums; Richard read. Felice-gardens; Richard read. Felice-motor tours; Richard read. Felice-interviews; Richard read. After four days, he’d read a three-foot stack of books next to that sofa. When we parted, Richard said he’d retired. Come visit him on Bowen Island. We’d talk.

Michael Nava (author and editor):

I first met Richard in 1984 at the original location of A Different Light in Silverlake in Los Angeles. The store consisted of two narrow, rectangular rooms in a shabby building at the corner of Sunset and Santa Monica. Richard ran from the store from behind the counter, a benign if inscrutable presence who didn’t miss a thing. I’d stop on my way home from work, still in my suit. Too shy to introduce myself, I learned later Richard had figured out my profession and referred to me as “the lawyer.” When my first book was published in 1986, I had my first ever signing at that store. That began an association with the store and a friendship with Richard that lasted for decades in LA, San Francisco, and New York. As a bookseller, editor, and connector Richard was at the very center of the gay literary scene for more than twenty years. What Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company were to Paris in the 20s, Richard was to us. A monumental figure, a connector, a bibliophile of the highest order and the kindest of men.

Brad Craft (author and bookseller):

Gallantry isn’t a very common adjective in the book trade, but I can’t think of a better for my old boss. I was still young, but I knew him as a writer, bookseller, award-winning editor, already something of an éminence grise. I very much wanted to work at A Different Light Bookstore, and it seemed the decision would be his. The interview was mostly lunch with Richard. He seemed shy. I talked too loud, but I was hired. Our working relationship wasn’t that long, but it would take more space than I have to detail everything he taught me in that time. He was a gallant man. I suspect the word would amuse more than please him. He had no pretentions, at least none that I ever saw. He said more with a glance and a shrug than anyone I ever met. He would look away, brush up his beard with his fingers, and listen always before he spoke. What he said mattered, but you had to get close to hear it. Always worth it. He was an entirely reliable wit, in his quiet way. All these years later and I still hear him, still try to be more like him. Lesson learned? I’m still at it, Richard. I like to think he would applaud the effort, even if he would probably demur at taking any credit. I will miss him.

Tomorrow, we’ll hear from Emanuel Xavier, Charlie Vazquez, Katherine V. Forrest, Michele Karlsberg, and others. Please join us then.

JW

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