A Room of Their Own

Giovanni’s Room was opened in 1973 by three bold men with a mission. Filling a storefront first on South Street, then on Spruce Street, Giovanni’s Room moved to the corner of 12th South Street and Pine 22 years ago. With what would one day become the second

GR_historical_marker_photo_with_flag oldest gay bookstore in the country, Tom Wilson Weinberg, Dan Sherbo and Bernie Boyle installed large glass windows into the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community as a revolution for LGBT publicity, education and comfortability. “From the beginning, everyone who operated Giovanni’s Room had been determined to keep the bookstore out on a busy city street – no back alleys. No embarrassment. No shame. That was part of the purpose of the bookstore, Hermance said” (O’Brien).

The interaction between choosing a storefront or place and making a statement resides in this progressive bookstore, creating and adding to the sense of power within the LGBT culture found in Center City Philadelphia. “Place, at a basic level, is space invested with meaning in the context of power” (Creswell 12). For Giovanni’s Room, I believe the context of power to be their statement as first an independent bookstore, second by supplying only a very specific genre of books, and third by being successful. Giovanni’s room proliferates education and information into the LGBT community. It is fuel for the growing, constantly curious neighborhood.

Ed Hermance and local Philadelphian artist Arleen Olshan, the third and current owners of Giovanni’s Room, are located on South Street, a stretch of about 2.7 miles that has a reputation of eccentric population, bohemian atmosphere, diverse independently owned shops, gay bars, night clubs and an assortment of eateries.

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South Street is one of the first and most visited spots in Philadelphia. This reinforces the powerful node that Giovanni’s Room provides the LGBT neighborhood by supplying and educating visitors with the cities history and activities throughout the area.

As a staple in Philadelphia’s large LGBT neighborhood, Giovanni’s Room is not only a place for the interested, confused, curious and all between, it is fueled by them. Would this unique little room survive in our Selingsrove’s local downtown? Probably not. But that just adds to the beautiful placement of this bookstore. The interaction between community and educational support, constantly turning over and working with each other—for each other.

Gaining a sense of community through Giovanni’s Room is not difficult, in fact one might observe just how well the bookstore fits into the essences of South Street. “Along with personalized relations, independents claim that the right kind of business, nourished by its vital connections to a locality, can rise above profit considerations to provide community service as well as customer service” (Miller 122). As most chain and super stores strive to make connections and generate community, Giovanni’s Room has an edge as it was built into or for a particular community. Their main goal is to reach a specific group, therefore the books they supply are straightforward—no question as to what people will be interested in this week and no question as to what will be offered in the store.

It is no surprise that as a LGBT resource center, Giovanni’s Room is in the midst of Center City’s Gayborhood. The area is approximately bounded by Chestnut, Pine, Juniper and 11th Streets within Washington Square West.

Map of Philadelphia's Gayborhood

Map of Philadelphia’s Gayborhood

Its name derives from the large concentration of gay and lesbian-friendly small businesses, services, restaurants, and gay bars. “Paralleling the growth of Philadelphia’s “out” community and the expansion of publishing in its subject areas, the store has doubled three times from its beginning on South Street to its present two buildings” explains the introduction on Giovanni’s Room website. This specifically stocked bookstore thrives because of their identity of power through education. Their growth can be seen as metaphor for the thriving LGBT community in Philly’s Gayborhood. The bookstore provides a sense of place with no judgment that one can rest in and reflect between the space of the busy city.

With local community being such an important part of Giovanni’s place, success and essence it makes sense to look at a wider view of Philadelphia’s population. As of the 2000 census there were about 1,517,550 people living in Philly, and 4% of that population is apart of the LGBT community.


Rank City Percentage
of City
GLB Population
population rank
1 New York City 4.5% 272,493 1
2 Los Angeles 5.6% 154,270 2
3 Chicago 5.7% 114,449 3
4 San Francisco 15.4% 94,234 4
5 Phoenix 6.4% 63,222 5
6 Houston 4.4% 61,976 6
7 San Diego 6.8% 61,945 7
8 Dallas 7.0% 58,473 8
9 Seattle 12.9% 57,993 9
10 Boston 12.3% 50,540 10
11 Philadelphia 4.2% 43,320 11
12 Atlanta 12.8% 39,085 12
13 San Jose 5.8% 37,260 13

In other words the City of Brotherly Love has a pretty concentrated LGBT area in, you guessed it, Center City.

In the 60’s and 70’s South Street was a popular place for a bar crawl on a Tuesday night. It was filled with live local music, friendly bars and a revolutionary tone. This rebelliously colorful attitude is still present today but is unfortunately falling a little short of class and structure. After reviewing South Street’s current popularity, it is no longer the place it was in the 70’s, in fact the moral of South street has dissipated due to chain restaurants and stores taking over. At the risk of being too nostalgic, Giovanni’s Room has seen the growth of this spunky community and now unfortunately rests in its unstable hands.

Without the hustle and popularity of South Street, Giovanni’s is slowly loosing its reputation as visitors first stop in Philly. And while the Gayborhood is still thriving, most purchases from the bookstore are made online. Their spirit of power in the LGBT community is not any less influential, but the physical location is. This is one of the major drawbacks of providing for a specific community with a particular genre—once the popularity dies down, so does the independent bookstore that supplies of it.

What is a room but a place that is yours? It has your things, your books, your clothes. Or maybe it’s a metaphor for equality? What a women could do with some money and a room of her own. Virginia Woolf’s idea that a room is half the battle parallels Giovanni’s Room and the statement they make as a LGBT community center. There is always a sense of ownership and to me this small bookstore is more than just a place for the LGBT community. It is their room as a safe space, “often seen as the ‘locus of collective memory’ – a site where identity is created through the construction of memories linking a group of people into the past” (Creswell 61). Whether or not Giovanni’s Room will survive the decay of South Street, it will always be a Room of memories and progression in the house of Philadelphia’s Center City.



Cresswell, Tim. Place . Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Print.

Miller, Laura, and . Reluctant Capitalists . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.