Mary A. Castillo
Inside Different Drummer Books the shelves are no longer crammed
with books. After co-owner Rob Merrell announced that the 15-year-old
bookstore will be closing its doors at the end of this month, loyal
customers have walked in to say goodbye and then left with discounted
"What I really loved about this store was meeting the most
wonderful people in the world," said Merrell, 47. "Many of my
customers became friends and that will be one of the best things I'll
walk away with."
The book store began losing ground shortly following Sept. 11,
Merrell said, and the situation grew worse as the economy slumped
under the weight of corporate scandals and massive lay offs. The
bookstore will close on July 31.
"We just couldn't recover from the loss to even take advantage of
the summer season," Merrell said.
Even though Different Drummer was the only gay and lesbian
bookstore between West Hollywood and San Diego, ironically Merrell
felt its location hindered its success.
"The gay dynamic in Laguna is changing," he said. "Average-income
people can't afford to live here and the gay community is settling on
the periphery of Laguna."
Relying on out-of-town business, Merrell described the city as an
island with one main artery (Coast Highway) linking it to the rest of
Orange County. But the obstacles -- heavy traffic, sparse parking and
a wounded economy -- were too much to allow for a steady influx of
"Ask any of the business owners downtown and they'll tell you that
we see a lot of people in town but they're not buying anything," he
Although Merrell wanted the bookstore to continue serving the
community, his efforts to sell the business to experienced
independent booksellers fell short.
"They showed a fear of coming into the Laguna market," he said.
"They already lived on a narrow margin of income and couldn't afford
Ten years ago, independent bookstores began falling prey to a
market that favored big chain stores, such as Barnes and Noble and
Borders, that were located in shopping districts. Powered with
advertising dollars and clout with publishers, the mega giants took a
blow when the American Booksellers Assn. settled a seven-year lawsuit
over illegal business practices that gave kick backs from the book
chains to publishers. But by that the time the damage had been done,
said Tom Ahern, owner of Latitude 33 books.
"Laguna once had seven bookstores," he explained in the back
office crammed with over-stock and supplies. With each store,
including Fahrenheit 451, Mariners and Upchurch Brown, two themes to
their downfalls emerged: poor business practices and a city that does
not support businesses.
"Businesses in Laguna are not treated well," he said. "Here you're
treated like you're trespassing, but in Newport Beach the attitude is
how can we can help you."
Ahern faults the city for not having a business-friendly
development plan as well as inefficient conditional-use permit
processes, unfavorable building codes and inadequate parking.
"Why does it take six weeks to get a conditional-use permit and
sign approval?" he asked. "In other cities it might take two or three
He proves his point by citing a startling statistic.
"Total retail sales in all of Laguna are less than the total sales
of Fletcher Jones," he said. Last year the Mercedes Benz dealer
posted $424 million in gross sales.
Ahern maintains that parking is the foundation to build a vibrant
resident and tourist serving business community. The lack of spaces
not only keeps residents -- who account for 85% of his business --
homebound from July to September but also make it difficult for
retailers and their employees to get to work.
"The city won't move on the Village Entrance and they ignored the
Village Entrance study that called for 900 spaces by only allowing
300 spaces," he said.
Mayor Wayne Baglin said that the number of spaces contained in the
Village Entrance conceptual plan approved by the council on Wednesday
evening is closer to 400.
"There are fewer parking spaces because of the geological and
flooding constraints at the site," he said, adding that a structure
that could accommodate more than 400 spaces would have been an
excessively tall building.
Until the city provides adequate parking or proceeds with the
Village Entrance project, Ahern maintained that downtown and all
other Laguna businesses will hear their customers say, "See ya in
Although Ahern has no plans to close Latitude 33 -- this was the
first year the store posted a profit -- he is discouraged that the
city listens to preservationists and not progressives.
"There are certain elements who encourage a policy to keep Laguna
freeze-dried and return it to the days of 1909," he said. "They're
killing business and I will really miss those guys at Different
Although Merrell regrets the closure of Different Drummer, he will
walk into a new venture with the owners of the Open Book in
Sacramento with a love of books and a love of serving the gay and
"This business connected me to people, ideas and politics," he
said looking out at the traffic streaming down South Coast Highway.
"I think that has a lot of value."
* MARY A. CASTILLO is a news assistant for the Coastline Pilot.
She covers education, public safety and City Hall.