Queer as a...
Realtor Laura Wallach was hoping to attract more gay and lesbian homebuyers. In April she purchased ads in Living OUT, a GLBT newspaper, and The Source, an annual business directory aimed at the gay community. The ads cost her $1,424.
Wallach picked up the first two editions of Living OUT newspaper in which her ad (shared with another local realtor) appeared. Even when she didn't see the June 15 edition of the local, biweekly publication, she didn't think that anything was amiss. But when the Re/MAX Results broker attended the annual Twin Cities Pride festival at the end of June and searched fruitlessly for The Source--which was supposed to be published in conjunction with the festival--she grew concerned. "I didn't really do anything right away because I thought maybe I just couldn't find it," Wallach recalls.
Eventually she called the company--known both as Three Dollar Bill and Living OUT Media--and was told that the release date for the directory had been delayed. Then she began hearing from employees of the publishing firm with whom she'd become friendly that paychecks were allegedly bouncing and that disgruntled advertisers were multiplying. When Wallach left additional voice-mail messages seeking information about her ads, they weren't returned. She then tried the cell phone of publisher and owner Donna Gimbut, but received no response. Wallach says she even paid a visit to the Minneapolis offices of the company, but found no one around.
The realtor is now worried that she might be out $1,400--and she's not happy about it. (She paid to have ads in 12 issues of the newspaper, along with one in The Source.) She's filed a complaint with the Minnesota Attorney General's Office and has encouraged other former Three Dollar Bill advertisers to do the same. She's also considered suing the company to get her money back. "Is it fraud?" Wallach asks. "Or is it that they just came across some hard times?"
Wallach is far from the only disgruntled Three Dollar Bill advertiser. Shannon Johnston, president of AmeriDream Mortgage, says that her company spent more than $10,000 to place ads in various GLBT publications produced by the company. The Minneapolis mortgage business was supposed to be featured on the cover of the yet-to-be published Source directory, as well as on a full-page ad inside. Johnston believes that her company is still owed more than $7,000 worth of ads.
"I've decided I have to get a lawyer," she says. "This has never happened to me before. The sad thing is it's my first experience advertising in the gay and lesbian community."
Advertisers say that even if The Source directory is printed at some point later this year, they will not be getting what they paid for. That's because the Pride celebration--which attracts thousands of gay (and gay-friendly) attendees--has long passed. Distributing the directory in the fall or winter would hardly have the same impact. "That's like having a Christmas sale on Martin Luther King day," says Matt Dosser, owner of Matt's Tree Service, which has advertised with Three Dollar Bill in the past. "It just doesn't make sense."
The complaints about the publishing company are not limited to the Twin Cities. Over the years Three Dollar Bill has sold advertising for The Source directories in at least five other cities: Chicago, Denver, Nashville, Phoenix, and San Diego. Last year Nashville businesses that had purchased ads began grumbling when the directory failed to arrive in August as promised.
"It appears the Nashville community has been duped yet again by an out-of-state business making big promises," read an editorial published last November in the Nashville-based Out & About newspaper. "In this case the culprit is 'The Source,' which billed itself as 'the ultimate gay community directory.'" The Nashville directory was eventually published later that month, but members of the gay community continued to question whether 30,000 copies were actually printed, as the company claimed.
Chicago advertisers have fared even worse. Last year Three Dollar Bill began selling ads for an edition of The Source that was supposed to be published around the end of the year. The publication has never surfaced. "I thought it was supposed to come out in January," says Stuart Gitlin, who produces a competing Chicago directory aimed at the gay community. "To date I haven't seen a single copy of the publication."
Marcia Hundt, co-owner of a Chicago-area Case Handyman Services franchise, says that she spent about $500 for an ad. At one point she did receive a copy of a proof for the ad that was supposedly going to run. "There wasn't one word on it that was spelled correctly," Hundt recalls. When she attempted to contact the company and make corrections to the ad, she couldn't reach anyone. "$500 doesn't make or break us, but it's the principle," Hundt says. She's sent complaints to the local chapter of the Better Business Bureau and the Illinois Attorney General's Office. She's also contemplated suing, but is uncertain from whom she should seek compensation. "The problem is we've never been able to locate anyone," she says.
Discerning the publishing company's take on the situation has proven difficult. The phone number for Living OUT Media has been disconnected, while Three Dollar Bill's line connects to a voice-mail box that is full and no longer accepting messages. Calls to Donna Gimbut's cell phone were not returned. A reporter also visited the offices of Three Dollar Bill and Living OUT Media in Stadium Village by the U of M last week, but no one was there.
The company's apparent fiscal problems have also left employees in the lurch. According to one former sales associate--who would only speak on the condition of anonymity--she first suspected problems in late May when she was asked to hold her paycheck for a few days. "I just started to get really worried because I thought, If they don't have money to pay us, how are they going to print the publication that I just sold ads for?" says the employee. Shortly afterward she fielded a call from a disgruntled advertiser in Denver who said that the ad she'd paid for to run in the Denver directory had never run. The next day,. the employee claims, her paycheck bounced. She resigned. The former sales associate says that she is still owed more than $850 in salary and that she's considering suing the company.
Another former employee has already sued the company for unpaid wages. Richard Kranz filed a lawsuit in June against Living OUT Media Group and Donna Gimbut in Hennepin County Conciliation Court seeking $3,342.50. Last week he received a default judgment for the full amount when nobody from the company showed up to contest the claim.
Advertisers may soon seek similar relief from the courts. But it's uncertain if the publishing company has any significant assets to recoup. Shannon Johnston, of AmeriDream Mortgage, has the same thought: "I can't imagine seeing any of this money back."
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