A Cadence of Coming Out
It is no surprise that like its contents, bookstores have a story or readability of their own. The way a bookstore owner places their genres, the intentional flow of traffic, even the placement of non-book items have a design. Upon entering Giovanni’s Room, Philadelphia’s largest and most reputable LGBTQ and feminist book collection, you are immediately greeted by safety and informational pamphlets, current magazines, newspapers, and free condoms. Not to mention the LGBTQ colors: rainbow flags, ribbons and stars hang from the ceiling as far back as the book shelves go. From top to bottom this space is anything but subtle with a welcoming and helpful atmosphere. Through a closer look at its design Giovanni’s Room clearly invites its sometimes timid visitors with shameless ease.
During the AIDS break out, Giovanni’s Room was one of the only places offering medical and prevention information. Its reputation as a resource center upholds as these pamphlets and brochures are free and easily accessible to any passerby. In fact, one might suggest the placement of these items are a statement of respect to those who sought out this kind of information without wanting to dive deeper into the bookshelves. Whether a customer purchases a book or not, Ed Hermance, the store’s owner for 70 years, provides essential sometimes embarrassing information without judgment. To the discretion of the customer and the success of the bookstore, things like condoms and AIDS information are being proliferated—something Giovanni’s Room prides itself on throughout history. Naturally, one of the bookstores first statements is its selflessness as a member of the LGBT community.
Activism as a base for a bookstore is risky, but done right with special care not to be too loud or to quiet Giovanni’s Room has made room on their shelfs for leisure gay fiction and the politics surrounding homosexuality. After reading the article Rallying Point: Lewis Michaux’s National Memorial African Bookstore and analyzing the photograph taken of the store, I would argue that as loud as Giovanni’s Room is with representing a specific community, it holds no pressure or discrimination against heterosexuals as the African-American Activist bookstore did against whites. Both stores are decorated with their influence and are certainly trying to make a statement, but after looking at the way in which the first floor of Giovanni’s Room is set up, a fun introduction to the LGBT community, it does so in an appropriate friendly way.
Publications like Bitch, Out, Attitude, Diva, Ms., Curve, Bust and many more are some of the first titles a customer sees upon entering the bookstore. These gay, lesbian, feminist and in between magazines are small and easy to digest pieces, which feel like a relaxed way to draw the sometimes hesitant LGBTQ and feminist customers in. Full of pop culture, travel, and fashion information, the publications are easy to porous and leaf through, which to me adds comfort to the storefront. In my opinion Hermance set this up quite on purpose as a sort of metaphor for the sometimes closeted LGBTQ members. Start off small with a few articles, then as interest and confidence grows walk a little further into the store where you can find anything from lesbian fiction, to personal coming out stories.
Continuing straight into the store will put you parallel with the front desk. A large friendly bar like structure decorated with current magazines and books. Behind the bar and a little further into the store at the bottom of the second floor stair case are key chains, dog colors, license plates, and pins for sale. Objects like these are sometimes debated as gimmicky in bookstores. Things like elaborate bookmarks, expensive pens, notebooks, even music can arguably clutter a place in which language should be the main focus. But here in Giovanni’s Room these items speak to the widening of a culture through everyday life. Through a book collector’s eye, Walter Benjamin connects the way in which a book buyer gives a book purpose in his collection Illuminations. He says, “To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves” (64). In other words, a collector’s purchase is like a re-birth of a book giving it purpose and meaning through social and cultural implications. What are words on a page if they are not read and thought about? The same can be said for these objects for sale in Giovanni’s Room. While these items hang on the wall as decorations for the time being, once purchased, a dog leash for instance, gives meaning to the person attached to it. It has a new social purpose to proudly identify the individual sporting its vibrant rainbow colors.
Giovanni’s Room is made up of two circular stories. So upon entering one can travel right, which in my opinion is probably the most traveled route due to the magazines and items offered in that direction, and left, which starts out with a shelf of lube for sale. Taking the more popular route brings customers past the magazines to the lesbian and feminist section of the first floor which offers lesbian sci-fi and fantasy, fiction, mystery and romance along with feminist books in those genres. These options seem like unthreatening ways of entertaining ones sexuality and social opinions.
Fiction and mystery are not normally seen under the heading of “Lesbian” or “Feminist”. Hermance’s collection of books connects subject and object first by Giovanni’s Room’s reputation as a LGBTQ and feminist resource center, then by a subheading of a more specific sexuality (i.e. lesbian). In other words lesbian fiction is already given social and cultural purpose by being shelved the way it is in the store it’s in, but is once more given life when it leaves that order and is placed in a person’s home library next to completely different books as contrast. Books associated with a specific community have a status connected to a wider culture, which gives it meaning the minute it is shelved.
Taking a left after stepping into the store leads to an all-male section of mostly gay fiction by and about gay men. There is also a section that disclaims its browsers must be 18 years or older to look, which contains mostly magazines. Interestingly, there is also a section of birthday, love, and anniversary cards. Hermance really thinks of everything, doesn’t he? Overall the first floor of the bookstore seems like a relaxed and easy space to wander. It offers mostly leisure reading, periodicals, and miscellaneous items that associate with the LGBTQ community.
Walking upstairs moves interested customers to a place where they can learn more about cultural and social issues. There are sections about religion, spirituality, memoirs, non-fiction, health, women in art, non-literary biographies, and politics. Comparatively speaking, the second floor’s stock is a bit more serious in tone: non-fiction first accounts of ones coming out, how to deal with that politically and healthy, with God or with family. The importance of the second floor is evident as many members of the LGBTQ community want to be as informed as possible about their culture, and its placement in the bookstore is rather perfect. For someone newly out or timid about the bookstore, having the more serious content upstairs lets them explore if they want, but doesn’t throw it in their face.
Had the essence of the second floor been the first thing LGBTQ and feminist customers walked into, what would their reaction be? Instead of seeing a book titled How to Make Your Own Sex Toys they see one titled Accepting Ourselves and Others. Which one would you walk further into?
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. Print.
Emblibge , David. “Rallying Point: Lewis Michaux.” Springer Science Buisness Media. (2008): 268-276. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.
Google Maps (Screen shots)