Being a Good Neighbor
Nowadays, you can go to Philadelphia’s center city and find a thriving “Gayborhood.” It has become a tourist hub, serving those who are just passing through as much as those who live nearby. The city’s tourism bureau even hosts “Miss Richfield 1981’s Selfie Tour of the Town,” where a flamboyant drag queen leads visitors through Philadelphia’s many distinguished sights. Many places such as U Bar have a window, meaning that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people feel free to see and be seen.
But this was far from true for the majority of the area’s history. According to Thom Nickels, Philadelphia’s gay and lesbian nightlife has centered on the area around Spruce Street since the 1950s and ‘60s. Nickels reminisces that he came to the city as a journalism student aware of his homosexuality but afraid of reaching out. Even though there were “more gay clubs in [1960s] Philadelphia than there [were] in 2003,” it was a wild and dangerous times for gays and lesbians all over the country. On one battle front, homosexuals across the nation were protesting for recognition and rights. They sometimes clashed with police, most famously in the Stonewall riots of 1969. But even in quiet, historical Philadelphia, tensions flamed. On March 8, 1968, lesbian bar Rusty’s was one of many Philadelphia clubs to experience a police raid. A response involving a local chapter of the “Daughters of Bilitis” resulted in the police issuing a statement of equal treatment between homosexuals and heterosexuals (Skiba). Nevertheless, this could not be trusted. Rusty’s operated like a speakeasy, requiring patrons to peer through a peephole in order to be admitted (Nickels). The Spruce Street neighborhood was one where gays and lesbians could come to express themselves, but even there they could not be guaranteed safety.
Additional battles came in the form of danger from the homosexual community itself. Nickels describes 13th Street in the 1970s as “a tawdry after-hours promenade, an X-rated avenue for the pent-up and randy.” Porn shows were prevalent, and hustlers were a particular problem. They “cruised” the neighborhood, propositioning the overtly gay and those who were of undetermined sexual orientation. Even homosexuality itself was not a safeguard; the area around Spruce Street was often a source of conflict between gay men and lesbian women, since it was considered “lesbian turf.”
Notable streets and buildings in gay Philadelphia history
It was into this atmosphere of secrecy, judgment, and intermittent violence that Giovanni’s Room entered in 1973. Tom Wilson Weinberg, Dan Sherbo, and Bernie Boyle took advantage of the political awareness resulting from the Stonewall riots to do something that was almost unheard of. They opened what was only the second gay and lesbian bookshop in the country – the first being Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York. According to current owner Ed Hermance, the men did it for themselves and their friends, to bring their needs into the light. Unlike Rusty’s, Giovanni’s Room had no shame, no secrecy, no embarrassment. Hermance says, “they wanted to be on a major street, and they wanted a storefront window” (qtd. in Flynn). This bookstore was the first step toward accomplishing what the Gayborhood is today: a place to see and be seen. It was also a labor of love, not money. When it opened, Giovanni’s Room carried less than 100 books in stock. Each month the owners drove to New York to meet up with the owner of the Oscar Wilde Bookstore, then drive the books back to Philadelphia.
When Hermance bought the store in 1976, along with local artist Arleen Olsham, they moved to a new location on Spruce Street. Unfortunately, the landlord wanted nothing to do with a store for gays and lesbians, and would “just stand in the hallway and yell at us” says Hermance. So it was time to test the dedication of the community. And they met the challenge, proving that Giovanni’s Room was something they wanted in the neighborhood. Hermance and Olsham borrowed enough money from customers to buy their own building at 345 South 12th Street, where they remain today. More than 100 volunteers came to help renovate the run-down structure. They would aid the bookstore again through fundraisers and donations in 2009 when repairs costing around $50,000 were needed for a brick wall.
Giovanni’s Room returned the favor in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic spread across America. Hermance says that he felt numb for years going to funeral after funeral. And making the situation even worse was disorganization and infighting among both the government and LGBT groups. No one was getting out crucial information about the transmission and treatment of AIDS. So Giovanni’s Room stepped in. It published a bibliography of books, studies, and news articles about the disease, becoming a necessary source of information in a scary time. A nearby public clinic sent many patients to the store for information (O’Brien). Like a good neighbor helping out during an emergency, the bookstore recognized a dire need in the community and fulfilled it.
In 2011 the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission awarded a plaque to Giovanni’s Room that proclaims it a “refuge and cultural center.” And that it has been for nearly 40 years. As a node in a network of communities, the store provides a place where people who might never meet anywhere else can meet and share ideas. For many years, being gay was something to hide. It meant going to a rough neighborhood and facing sexual predators, police, and the possibility of infectious diseases. But Giovanni’s Room wanted to stand for something different. By putting itself in plain view, Giovanni’s Room declared that homosexuality was something worthy of attention and discussion. “To own books has ever been the ambition of all cultivated gentlemen,” states Lee M. Friedman (180), and it is true that books carry a sort of moral benevolence. In giving not only this neighborhood but the world at large a place to find literature that catered to gay and lesbian interests, the bookstore affirmed that homosexuals could also be intellectuals, good members of society. The first Jewish bookseller, Benjamin Gomez, did something similar when he opened his shop in 1791. He did not restrict himself to selling stereotypically “Jewish books” but also sold literature from nearly every genre available at the time (Friedman 188). Gomez’s shop created a space that connected far-flung networks of people – such as Christians and Jews, Russian and Sephardic Jews – in an environment where they felt comfortable. Giovanni’s Room led the movement that would eventually see the Gayborhood becoming a tourist destination for both homosexuals and heterosexuals. Their website claims that “crossing the threshold has had an extraordinary symbolic significance for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people coming out” so staff make sure to be knowledgeable and friendly. That friendliness and connection shows in the tradition of a kiss that flows in direct succession from Walt Whitman to founder Bernie Boyle to the current staff members. Visitors are encouraged to continue the line, whether they are locals or only in town for a short while. Going even further, Hermance began buying and selling international literature in 1990, increasing the number of communities connected through one bookstore in a way that no one else had before.
The addition of books and magazines from other countries only augmented a boom in lesbian and gay publishing during the last 25 years. Hermance claims that these days, “we have to resist the temptation to become a library” (qtd. in Flynn) despite the fact that the store carries around 7,000 titles on its shelves. Diversity is not everything, as Jack Perry notes in his essay “Bookstores, Communist and Capitalist.” Perry mourns the loss of “the individual, the eccentric, the out-of-the-way” from our world of books despite the rise of massive superstores (111). Giovanni’s Room cannot help but have an individual taste that suits its customers. Whether it offers AIDS information in the 1980s or today’s tourist pamphlets and advice on coming out, this bookstore runs on the need of its customers. It is more than a commercial center, as shown by three men who were willing to drive more than three hours each way to bring gay and lesbian literature to their community, and the response of neighbors in 1976 and 2009 who supported Giovanni’s Room with money and labor. It has more than diversity for diversity’s sake: a desire to bring something for everyone to “a big window” no matter how much some people might want it to remain hidden.
Map and street view embedded from Google.
Center for Disease Control, “HIV and AIDS -United States, 1981-2000.” <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5021a2.htm>
Gallo, Marsha M. Gerber/Hart Library, “Winds of Change: The Daughters of Bilitus and Lesbian Organizing.” <http://www.gerberhart.org/dob.html>
Giovanni’s Room, “Giovanni’s Room: An Introduction.” <http://www.giovannisroom.com/newsletter>
Jenkins, Kristina. Visit Philly, “Check Out Miss Richfield 1981’s Selfie Tour of the Town on Visit Philly and Enter to Win a Fabulous Weekend Stay in Philadelphia.” http://www.uwishunu.com/2013/08/check-out-miss-richfield-1981s-selfie-tour-of-the-town-on-visit-philly-and-enter-to-win-a-fabulous-weekend-stay-in-philadelphia
The Leadership Conference, “Stonewall Riots: The Beginning of the LGBT Movement.” <http://www.civilrights.org/archives/2009/06/449-stonewall.html>
Photos and Illustrations
Network diagram, <http://brettworks.com/2011/12/13/on-the-nature-of-blogs/>
Rusty’s lesbian bar, <http://thegayborhoodguru.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/walnut-1116-star-lite-1958.jpg>
Shaking Hands, <http://finefrugality.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/happy-handshake-day/>
Time Magazine Cover, <http://swisely.wordpress.com/2008/10/13/a-modern-tragedy-how-aids-became-a-pandemic/>
Images in the timeline
Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, “Closed Sign.” <http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs162/1102486612779/archive/1111328797571.html>
CBS local, “Guide to Philadelphia’s Gayborhood.” <http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/guide/guide-to-philadelphias-gayborhood/>
Drake, Scott A. Philadelphia Gay News, “Giovanni’s Room kicks up fundraising efforts.” <http://epgn.com/view/full_story/3899905/article-Giovanni-s-Room-kicks-up-fundraising-efforts>
Falafel, Al. Dick Mac (alive!), “Business Owner of the Year -Ed Hermance/Giovanni’s Room.”<http://dickmacalive.blogspot.com/2010/07/business-owner-of-year-ed-hermance.html>
Kaczmarek, J. GPTMC, “Historic Marker.”<http://press.visitphilly.com/media/3433>
Paynter, Kimberly. WHYY, “Giovanni’s Room owner puts groundbreaking LGBT bookstore up for sale in Philly.” <http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/arts-and-culture-everything/item/59384-giovannis-room-owner-puts-groundbreaking-lgbt-bookstore-up-for-sale-in-philly>
Skiba, Bob. The Gayborhood Guru, “Enter Rusty’s.” <http://thegayborhoodguru.wordpress.com/tag/rusty-parisi/>
Tatu.ru, “T.A.T.U. on the cover of Dorogoye Udovolstviye.” <http://www.allmylove.org/news/archives/archive-042008.html>
Waterstones.com. The Urban Outlook, “James Baldwin, world-renowned author, Black and Gay.” <http://theurbanoutlook.com/james-baldwin-gay-black-pride/>
Flynn, Elizabeth. “Philadelphia Story.” Lambda Book Report 12.1/2 (Aug/Sept 2003): 36. Print.
Friedman, Lee M. “America’s First Jewish Bookseller,” in Jewish Pioneers and Patriots. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1945. Print.
Nickels, Thom. “Philadelphia Stories.” Gay and Lesbian Review 10.5 (Sept/Oct 2003): 25-28. Print.
O’Brien, Ellen. “Pillar of Gay Pride Giovanni’s Room, One of the Country’s First Gay Bookstores, Is Marking Its 25th Anniversary.” Philadelphia Inquirer 7 Oct. 1998: E01. Print.
Perry, Jack. “Bookstores, Communist and Capitalist.” Bibliophilia 2001: 107-111. Print.
Skiba, Bob. “Rusty’s: Where Were You in ’62?” Gayborhood Guru. N.p., 29 Apr. 2013. Web. 26 Sept. 2013. <http://thegayborhoodguru.wordpress.com/tag/rusty-parisi/>