The Last Day at Giovanni’s Room, America’s Oldest Gay Bookstore
Across the street from Philadelphia bookstore Giovanni’s Room two men kiss. Double-decker tour buses pass by the shop’s location on the corner of 12th and Pine Street. A poster to re-elect Brian Sims, Pennsylvania’s first openly gay state legislator, looks out from the store window. Giovanni’s Room takes up two floors of a house built in 1820, just a few blocks down from Pennsylvania Hospital, and, as of May 17th, it closed, probably for good.
Holding hands, a straight couple stops near the store’s outside wall to read a Blue Historical Marker citing Giovanni’s Room as a “refuge” for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Founded in 1973, the shop is known as the oldest gay bookstore in America. On its final day, just weeks before a federal court struck down Pennsylvania’s gay marriage ban, the front door was adorned with a different kind of marker, this one announcing, “50% off everything – this is our last day. Thanks for all the years of love and support, XOXO Giovanni’s Room.”
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On the store’s front counter, next to a “Daddy’s Little Bull Dyke” pin, Giovanni’s Room owner Ed Hermance places a vase of purple orchids given to him by a customer who first stepped foot into the bookstore in 1980.
“The store has played a critical role in so many people’s lives,” says Hermance, 73, with neatly parted gray hair. “Coming in the store can be like coming out to yourself.”
In the past five years, many gay bookstores in major cities have shut down. Due to poor sales, 2009 saw the shuttering of New York’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop. In 2010 Lambda Rising in Washington D.C. closed, as did San Francisco’s A Different Light the following year. In 2012, Atlanta’s Outwrite Bookstore and Coffeehouse met the same fate.
At Giovanni’s Room, which takes its name from James Baldwin’s classic of gay literature, laughter from the second floor punctuates customers’ goodbyes. A long line forms in front of the sole cash register. While the store has consistently lost money of late, people in the community thought Giovanni’s Room – with its place in history and tradition – still believed it could survive.
“With all the money in this community,” says Rita Adessa, former executive director of the Pennsylvania Lesbian and Gay Task Force, “there’s no reason for Giovanni’s Room to go down.”
In 1976, three years after Tom Wilson Weinberg, Dan Sherbo and Bern Boylethe opened Giovanni’s Room on the 200 Block of Philadelphia’s South Street, Hermance and his then business-partner Arleen Oshan bought the store. They paid $500 for the business. The store then moved to 1426 Spruce Street, where it stayed until a family bought the property and told Hermance that the business would “attract too many homosexuals to the building.”
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“They would rent to us in the little back streets,” recalls Hermance. “Basically, we would have been in the closet no matter how much noise we made.”
To purchase the first of the store’s two buildings at the current location, Hermance borrowed $10,000 from store customers and $3,000 from his mother in 1979. He says the space looked like a wreck and more than one hundred people volunteered to help renovate the building.
“If there was ever a community bookstore, this is it,” says Hermance. “The gay community created this bookstore for itself.”
In 1986, the store expanded to the adjacent building and that year Olshan also left the store, making Hermance the sole-proprietor. Around the same time of expansion, Giovanni’s Room played a vital role in the city’s response to the AIDS outbreak.
“The gay community – we were absolutely on our own,” he explains. “We produced a little cartoon folder about safe sex.”
At the time certain health care workers were forbidden to talk about safe sex upon a positive AIDS diagnosis. Employees from a nearby clinic, located about three blocks from the bookstore, risked their jobs to give patients the medical material stocked at Giovanni’s Room.
“This is the center of gay Philly,” says Larry Butler, 57, who drove three hours from Annapolis, Maryland to visit the store in its final week. “Ed has nurtured lots and lots of people, not just in Philly but nationally.”
As much as the shop acted as a safe-place for the LGBT community, it also helped straight people in the city. Family members of newly out sons or sisters often came into the store for advice.
“We weren’t therapists,” says Skip Strickler, a Giovanni’s Room employee since 1979, “but we could hold a shaken up dad’s hand and recommend a book that could help.”
Up until recently, Hermance had engaged in preliminary talks with parties interested in buying the store, all of which came to nothing. Having given up hope on selling the business, he announced his closure plans.
“Part of the reason Giovanni’s Room is dying is because there wasn’t a younger generational surge,” says Betsy Katz, one of the bookstore’s employees. “There is an incredible need for people to engage more and be a part of queer culture.”
A few days before the store’s planned final day of business, says Hermance, he was contacted by a new potential ownership group. They’d seen, he says, the outpouring of past customers’ memories – from Philadelphia and beyond – and inquired about taking over the business.
A decision on the future of Giovanni’s Room could happen in June. But whether or not it will amount to a stay of execution is unclear. Hermance says sales have been declining since 1992. He adds that the biggest problem for struggling bookstores around the country has been sites like Amazon, which are easily able to beat brick-and-mortar stores on price.
“I think there are so many interesting books out there,” Hermance says, speaking from an office on the second floor of the store, “but we have to have the customers to buy them. That’s been the problem.”
In many ways, blogs, social media and online forums allow younger people more, and easier, access to LGBT writings. But, along with the lopsided competitive advantage, online retailers, Hermance notes, aren’t as attuned to the quality, rather than quantity, of the sales they make. Search on Amazon for “gay fiction” and the first result to come back is Sebastian, a book with a shirtless man in cut-off denim shorts on its cover. A few of the other top-10 book titles showing nearly-naked men included: Feeling No Pain and Naked Hero – The Journey Away. There is no contextual guiding hand nor emotional intelligence to these recommendations.
“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.”
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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