Giovanni’s Room – A Bold and Public Space for the Gay Rights Movement of Philadelphia
For the past forty years, Giovanni’s Room has lived through numerous events in the Gay Rights Movement and has been a source of support and community for those participating in this struggle for equality. Giovanni’s Room has continued to be a bold assertion of gay pride in Center City’s Gayborhood since its opening in 1973, a time when the LGBTQ community was considerably less acceptable in society’s eyes compared to today. Although the struggle for equal rights is still a central issue facing the LGBTQ population, the fact that the State of Pennsylvania officially recognized Giovanni’s Room as a historical landmark in 2011 testifies to the progress society has made in respecting homosexuality and the Gay Rights Movement. This small, independent bookstore has undoubtedly been through difficult years of civil rights struggles, but it has continued to remain a pillar of strength for the LGBTQ community as the movement continues to take a stand against discrimination in marriage rights in the present day.
Although the Gayborhood that surrounds Giovanni’s Room is currently an affluent, quiet, and quaint part of Philadelphia’s Center City, the area was not always so comfortable and respectable. The main center of Philly’s queer community used to be located around 15th Street, Broad Street and Spruce Street until the early 1980’s when it gradually expanded and shifted to the streets on the east side of Broad.
View Shift in Philly’s LGBTQ Community Location in a larger map
As Thom Nickels states, the history of the queer community around Broad street is essentially, “a metamorphosis from quaint thoroughfare to hooligan alleyway – where police had to send in ‘troops’ to quell riots and drunken brawls – and finally to a Greenwich Village-style street with literary, sketch, and yachts-man clubs.” Nickels describes that between the mid-1600’s and the the 1870’s, this area was a quaint, picturesque neighborhood of early-American homes and small gardens. During the 1870’s however, the “respectability” of the area declined in the public eye. The Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration wrote in 1937 about how the area “degenerated into one of the meanest and most disreputable streets in the city. Until 1900 it was the scene of brawls by day and crimes by night, requiring at times an entire squad of the city’s police to maintain order” ( Nickels 25).
This trend of violence and crime continued into the 1960’s and 1970’s as the violence became almost exclusively related to conflicts between gay men and lesbian women. At this point in this area’s history, much of the conflict grew out of turf-wars between the men and women of the LGBTQ community. Many acts of violence were committed by “strong looking diesel dykes” against gay men who ended up in the lesbian’s part of the neighborhood (Nickels 25). Not only were men and women of Philly’s LGBTQ community at war with each other, but the local police often attacked lesbian and gay businesses during the 60’s and 70’s in the form of raids. Throughout these years, gays and lesbians were actively persecuted by the police force of Philadelphia, which often resulted in verbal abuse and overnight imprisonment (Skiba).
It is out of this tense time in Philly’s history that Giovanni’s Room was born. In 1973, three gay men – Tom Wilson Weinberg, Dan Sherbo, and Bernie Boyle – opened the second gay bookstore in the country. Largely due to police persecution of gay and lesbians as well as society’s general condemnation of homosexuality, gay and lesbian people were forced to live closeted lives. At this point in history, the Gay Rights Movement in Philly was taking flight, starting with small political demonstrations of a few dozen people in front of Independence Hall. With the work of these few brave people, the city gradually began to change so that gay men could safely gather in public for the New Year’s Day Mummers’ Parade on Broad Street, for example (Nickels 26). Although tensions still ran considerably high around LGBTQ issues during the 50’s and 60’s, enough change was occurring in Philly for the Gayborhood to expand and become less fearfully hidden away from the public eye.
In her article, “Pillar of gay pride Giovanni’s Room…”, Ellen O’Brien states, “And the little bookstore he bought 22 years ago has been a touchstone for gay-rights activists, and a litmus test, of sorts, for the rest of the city.” By establishing an openly gay-lesbian bookstore on South Street, a historically major thoroughfare, founders Weinberg, Sherbo and Boyle certainly made a statement at a time when gay rights activism could use all the help it could get, especially considering how much opposition the activists were facing. Giovanni’s Room’s current owner, Ed Hermance explained that the three founders “wanted to be on a major street, and they wanted a storefront with a plate glass window” (Flynn 36) and O’Brien notes that “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.” In this sense, the founders of Giovanni’s Room were certainly bold and fearless leaders in the Gay Rights Movement in Philadelphia; not only did they make their sexuality public, but they also were not afraid to let their business be in the spotlight despite its controversial specialty subjects.
Weinberg, Sherbo, and Boyle clearly made the push for their bookstore to be noticeable, which was successful in helping propel the Gay Rights Movement in their city. Jen Colletta quotes Weinberg saying, “In 1973, it was hard to buy gay books anywhere. There just weren’t many. And the ones that did exist weren’t available in general bookstores… And there really weren’t many alternatives for LGBT people to meet and hang out other than at bars. So we wanted to create a space where we could invite people of all ages together. It had a real coffeehouse atmosphere.” This communal aspect to Giovanni’s Room exemplifies Miller’s statement on the meaning of community in relation to bookstore. She writes, “Community implies social bonds based on affective ties and mutual support in contrast to instrumental social relations directed primarily by the market” (119). It would appear that the founders of Giovanni’s Room were keyed into this idea of community when establishing their bookstore instead of simply a desire to create a new market opportunity. This understanding of their motives further underscores their authentic connection to the LGBTQ community they were serving and supporting.
Not only did Giovanni’s Room serve as an example of boldly asserting one’s sexuality, it also functioned as a resource center and gathering place for people who wanted to contribute to the Movement and help raise awareness of LGBTQ issues. In this sense, Giovanni’s Room was a crucial player in Philly’s Gay Rights Movement because it was one of the few bold voices in the business sphere that asserted its gay pride in such a public manner. Also, during the time, the rise of the chain bookstores had begun, which could have posed a threat to this small, independently owned bookstore. In a culture that was calling for more standardization and rationalization in the book selling business, Giovanni’s Room did not succumb to any of these pressures. It showed no signs of giving up any part of its unique identity as a gay and lesbian bookstore and therefore further affirmed its position as an advocate for a specific movement, as opposed to just another pawn in the capitalist world of book selling (Miller 87-8).
Fast forwarding a few years to the 1980’s, Giovanni’s Room also provided a much-needed gathering place and resource center when the AIDS epidemic flared up in the gay community. Fear gripped the country as people began to hear about the rapid spread of this sexually transmitted disease as well as its prevalence among gay men. This affiliation of HIV/AIDS with homosexuality significantly harmed the Gay Rights Movement by creating new stereotypes and stigmas about gay people and therefore increasing the homophobia of American society. During this challenging time for the gay community, which was made even worse by the large numbers of deaths from AIDS, Giovanni’s Room became as “unofficial clearinghouse” for information and publications on HIV/AIDS (O’Brien). Again, this small bookstore served a crucial role in the gay community of Philadelphia during a traumatic period of history for they gay community. In a country that would barely speak about the reality of AIDS, it would be an understatement to say that the gay people of Philly were thankful for Giovanni’s Room’s continued presence in their neighborhood.
Throughout Giovanni’s Room’s forty years of operation, this bookstore has witnessed gradual, yet significant changes in the fight for gay rights and societal tolerance of homosexuality. There is certainly still a long ways to go until equality is reach, and so visibility continues to remain a central part of Giovanni’s Room’s mission in its current location at the corner of 12th and Pine Streets. Not only does it provide a cultural center for the LGBTQ community, but it invites other people to come in and learn about sexual orientation and gender identity as well as tolerance and equality. Perhaps the function of Giovanni’s Room in years to come will be less as a gathering place for LBTTQ people, and more of a place for straight people to ask questions and bridge the gaps in their understandings of sexuality and gender. However, due to the continued opposition that members of the LGBTQ community faces from society, Giovanni’s Room will most likely still be looked to as a steadfast advocate for gay rights and tolerance of differences. As long as Giovanni’s Room remains opened, the bookstore will continue to project a bold and unashamed voice concerning civil rights for the LGBTQ community as well as tolerance of markers of difference in our diverse American society.
For a visual look at the history of the LGBTQ community and Gay Rights Movement of Philadelphia, please see the timeline below (to view some of the events, you will need to scroll in around the year 1950).
Colletta, Jenn. “Giovanni’s Room honored with historical marker.” Philadelphia Gay News. 2011. Web. http://www.epgn.com/view/full_story/12478810/article-Giovanni%27s-Room-honored-with-historical-marker
Flynn, Elisabeth. “Philadelphia Story.” Lambda Book Report 12.1 (Aug 2003): 36. Academic Search Complete. Web. http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?sid=4e5ad3e1-41fc-4180-82e2-b4339b1056b4%40sessionmgr110&vid=3&hid=126&bdata=#db=a9h&AN=11897297
Miller, Laura. Reluctant Capitalists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Print.
Nickels, Thom. “Philadelphia Stories.” Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide 10.5 (Sept/Oct 2003): 25-28. OmniFile Full Text Mega. Web. http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?sid=18ac05fc-6391-4efd-94c4-4457e2571a68%40sessionmgr115&vid=1&hid=126&bdata=#db=ofm&AN=509386422
O’Brien, Ellen. “Pillar of gay pride Giovanni’s Room…” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Philly.com. 7 Oct 1998. Web. http://www.lexisnexis.com/lnacui2api/auth/checkbrowser.do?ipcounter=1&cookieState=0&rand=0.31876798269801565&bhcp=1
Skiba, Bob. “Rusty’s: Where Were You in ’62?” The Philadelphia Gayborhood Guru. 29 Apr 2013. Web. http://thegayborhoodguru.wordpress.com/tag/rusty-parisi/
Kaczmarek, J. “Historic Marker. GPTMC. JPEG file. Web. http://press.visitphilly.com/media/3433
“Giovanni’s Room.” Post College Philly. Web. http://postcollegephilly.tumblr.com/
“Protesting in front of Independence Hall.” Web. http://www.businessinsider.com/gay-rights-marriage-timeline-supreme-court-doma-2013-3?op=1
“Barbette.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Barbette03.jpg
“Bartram House.” The Colonial Architecture of Philadelphia. The Project Gutenberg. Web. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29334/29334-h/29334-h.htm#Page_38
“Giovanni’s Room.” Queerty.com. http://www.queerty.com/worlds-oldest-gay-bookstore-might-be-facing-its-final-chapter-20120102/
Mullins, Sean, “Saturday Gay Rights Protest in Denver.” 17 Nov 2008. Web. http://gonzochasing.blogspot.com/2008/11/saturday-gay-rights-protest-in-denver.html
Paynter, Kimberly. “Ed Hermance.” newsworks.org. 2013. http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/arts-and-culture-everything/item/59384-giovannis-room-owner-puts-groundbreaking-lgbt-bookstore-up-for-sale-in-philly
“Rusty-Police-Raid.” The Gayborhood Guru. http://thegayborhoodguru.wordpress.com/
“Stonewall Rioters.” newqueerontheblockmagazine.com. http://newqueerontheblockmagazine.com/2013/06/02/images-of-stonewall-1969/
Techfun. “Giovanni’s Room Bookstore.” 2 June 2010. flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/techfun/4664249433/