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The Last Day at Giovanni's Room, America's Oldest Gay Bookstore

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"There was a golden age when feminist and gay bookstores helped elevate the quality of reading," says Phil Tiemeyer, Lambda Literary Finalist this year for Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants. "Employees might say, 'Oh, you came in for Sci-Fi but did you also see our Philosophy or History section?" 

When Tiemeyer's historical work appeared on the Top Five on the Amazon LGBT nonfiction list, he says it was couched between two sex guides – How to Have Anal Sex and The Ass Book: Staying on Top of Your Bottom. "There's something really problematic about that from an intellectual point of view," he says.

Hermance remembers that not too long ago Amazon's first-entry for "homosexual" was a book called A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality.

"I might be able to figure out people who typed in 'homosexuality' bought that book," reasons Hermance, "but a 13 year old might not realize that and think 'Oh my God, my parents have failed me." 

Ed Hermance owner of Giovanni's room.
Ed Hermance owner of Giovanni's room.
Andrew Swartz

Around 4 p.m., the line snakes toward the back of the store, towards a shelf stocked with porn magazines with titles like Bad Puppy and Euro-Bear. Above them a sign reads, "Be prepared to show ID."

Almost every customer wants to know what's next for Giovanni's Room after the store closes. (The May 17th closing date happens to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the first same-sex marriage license issued in the United States.)

 "There's a slight possibility [the store] will re-open," says Strickler. "They didn't nix the idea at the board meeting."

Hermance says that while the aforementioned potential buying group plans on making a decision sometime in June, he couldn't keep the store open while waiting for an answer, so he went ahead with his plan to close. 

"I might not see most of these people again," laments Hermance. "The store was a big part of my social life."

Though the prospects for salvation, as they currently stand, are bleak, Hermance feels optimistic that the prospective buyers might decide to continue the store in some capacity. Hope and resiliency built Giovanni's Room, so on this last day of nearly 41 continuous years in business a "check back with us soon" sign means a lot to customers.

"I don't think I could've come out without this bookstore," says Joyce Homan, a loyal Giovanni's Room customer for nearly 20 years. "I'd browse the books for hours, and I saw all the people who came out before me."

Nearing the 7 p.m. closing time, a customer asks for a copy of Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, but is told that the book has already sold out. People linger, not wanting to leave. Hermance keeps the store open 30 minutes longer than expected. As the last customer shuffles out, he takes a deep breath and sits on the stairs leading to the second floor, as if he wants to prolong these last few moments.

"When I grew up the community was so hungry for anything," says Hermance. "It was a miracle to be at a job where I could hear about new things and present them to everybody."

Hermance gathers himself and smiles. He closes the door and turns the key.

"We were working on changing the world," he says. "That was our motivation."

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