Coming Out of the Side Streets
For a member of Philadelphia’s LGBT community in 1973, Giovanni’s Room was a healthy temptation. “Early customers reported trying to work up the nerve to walk in. The inventory was small but the space in which to come out was large” (Windy City Times). Born in August on 232 South Street was a bookstore stocked with an alternative inventory of just a few dozen LGBT books. Its original owners Dan Sherbo, Billy Boyle, and Tom Wilson Weinberg bravely opened the first queer space in Philadelphia during a pivotal time in LGBT history.
During the 1970s and 80s it seemed like members of the LGBT community had little security in society. No place of comfort or rest from ridicule. It wasn’t until 1980, 7 years after the establishment of Giovanni’s Room, that its own state of Pennsylvania decriminalized homosexuality. And they were not among the first states to do so.
Rate of Homosexual Decriminalization in the U.S.
|States, territories, and federal district||Year|
|Delaware, North Dakota||1973|
|New Hampshire, New Mexico, Washington||1975|
|California, Guam, Indiana, Maine, South Dakota, Ohio, West Virginia||1976|
|Alaska, Iowa, Nebraska, New Jersey||1978|
|Pennsylvania, New York||1980|
|Northern Mariana Islands, Wisconsin||1983|
|Michigan (Wayne County only)||1990|
|District of Columbia, Nevada||1993|
|Georgia, Rhode Island||1998|
|Maryland, Missouri (Western District counties only)||1999|
|New York (applied to New York National Guard)||2000|
|Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia||2003|
|United States Armed Forces||2011|
Giovanni’s Room history: its three different locations, efficient education of HIV and AIDS, and close communal relationships, parallel the rapid and challenging movement of LGBT awareness in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
It is not surprising that during the 1970s this LGBT friendly bookstore received hostile reactions from its surrounding neighborhood. In fact, its very first location was faced with a homophobic landlord and resistance from the real estate market to rent them the store space on a major street. Tom Weinberg, one of the original owners, recalls, “At the time, we had trouble finding a Realtor who would rent a gay space” (Timpane). Sherbo, Boyle and Weinburg were concerned that the large glass storefront would harbor vandalizing violence. But current owner Ed Hermance reflects, “during that time, the store was removed enough from the public eye that there were few anti-LGBT incidents” (Thomas). The bookstore’s struggle accurately reflects the discomfort of many members in the LGBT community during the 1970s.
In 1976, only three years after its creation, Giovanni’s room underwent an owner and location change. After meeting at a gay and lesbian community center Ed Hermance, a former college professor, and Artist Arleen Olshan took over the bookstore. The two first relocated the business to the 1400 block of Spruce Street.
Hermance reflects, “Every once in a while, people would throw bricks in the windows in the early morning. Cars would be stopped at the traffic light and people would scream ‘faggot.’ There was a neighborhood kid who threw a cherry bomb in the window and that was the most anti-gay act” (Thomas).
The strong negative attitude related to the gay community reflects the unfair blame they received during the HIV and AIDS epidemic. In 1969 the first case of HIV was documented and its publicity took off in many unfair directions. Doctors in the 1970s and 80s began seeing trends in homosexual men who were dying of a rare cancer. This had a damaging effect on the public’s view of homosexuality, and significantly boosted homophobia since it seemed that unprotected anal sex was the most popular way of spreading HIV. The medical community quickly learned that this disease was not strictly or nearly as related to homosexual men as they thought, yet the unfair blame still remained. It was also discovered that many of these outbreaks were concentrated in city areas, which for some uncomfortably highlighted the close proximity of gay population. Whether warranted or not homosexuals were specifically targeted for harboring and spreading HIV and AIDS. This parallels the public’s negative attitude towards the gay friendly bookstore.
Due to the patronizing atmosphere on the 1400 block of Spruce Street, in 1979 Giovanni’s Room moved for the second time to 345 South 12th St. and Pine with massive help from the store’s customers. Hermance says, “[Customers] lent the store the down payment for our corner property and more than 100 volunteers renovated that building” (Thomas).
So, local homophobes forced the store to expand and acquire its own property, and aided in the growing of Center City’s LGBT friendly neighborhood.
View Movement of Place: Giovanni’s Room in a larger map
Through out all three of its locations, Giovanni’s Room collected a close community. It seems like the relationship between bookstore and community went one further then just a place to purchase some of the first LGBT material ever published. They saw the bookstore as a tool and important icon in the movement of LGBT rights in the 1970s, as much of community volunteered as staff during its struggle. It’s almost as if they helped build the store for themselves.
The help given by the community during the bookstore’s hard times was repaid through its efficiency in being the only exporter of American LGBT and feminist books throughout the 80s and 90s. Beyond its immediate location, Giovanni’s Room Wholesale was effectively the only exporter of American LGBT and feminist books, with more than 100 bookstore customers in Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (Windy City Times).
The bookstore was also a vital component in the national AIDS crisis in the 1980s. During the early years of the AIDS crisis, Giovanni’s Room was one of the only sources of vital information for the local LGBT community. At a time when local, state, and federal agencies were forbidden by law to provide public health information, staff from the city’s health clinic used the bookstore as their main source of educating their patients. They collected brochures that the LGBT community had produced and took them back to their clients at the risk of their jobs.
The bookstore worked even faster then Congress when it came to the education of HIV and AIDS. The first bill that included specific funding and research of the disease was passed in May of 1983. That same year a congressional subcommittee released The Federal Response to AIDS, which was a report criticizing the U.S. Government for failure to invest sufficient funding and attention in AIDS awareness and research. President Ronald Regan also got scolded for leisurely stepping into the epidemic in 1986 with a vow to make AIDS a priority. Not enough credit can be awarded to Giovanni’s Room for providing and facilitating the movement of AIDS education throughout the LGBT community.
Giovanni’s Room’s many relocations reflects the political changes that were being made to sodomy laws throughout the United States. In 2003 the last 13 states were forced to decriminalize homosexuality thanks to the Lawrence v. Texas case. It was a landmark case for the U.S. Supreme Court because it knocked down Texas’s sodomy law and in turn overrode sodomy laws in 13 other states, making same-sex sexual activity legal in every U.S. state and territory.
The independent bookstore’s history traces the tension between its location and political activity from the early 1970s to the 1990s and even today. Its birth in 1973 mirrors the rising of LGBT rights in U.S. Congress and the discomforts of the gay community both in Philly and around the world were met with Ed Hermance’s growing stock of relevant books.
The bookstores success as a resource center is as simple as great care and good timing. “… the autonomy and privileges of the individual consumer-citizen are best realized in the marketplace of ideas where expression is unregulated by church, government, or other institutions, and where people are free to buy or ignore whichever ideas they choose” (Miller 84). Today, Giovanni’s Room rests in the accepting nest of Center City. It continues to grow its stock of LGBT material, as the surrounding community either enters the store or ignores it. Hermance says, “We haven’t had a broken window for any hostile reason in 15 years. People from other neighborhoods, they kind of respect that the rules they play by in their neighborhoods don’t necessarily go with those in Center City” (Thomas). The violence created by the 1970 Gay Rights Movement has settled, but until total equality is achieved in society, Giovanni’s Room will be one of the most useful resources that the LGBT and feminist community has.
Thomas, Angela. “Philadelphia’s Giovanni’s Room, nation’s oldest LGBT bookstore, to be sold.” Philly.com. (2013): n. page. Web. 29 Sep. 2013. <http://www.philly.com/philly/news/breaking/Giovannis_Room_nations_oldest_LGBT_bookstore_to_be_sold.html>.
Timpane, John. “LGBT Bookstore Giovanni’s Room Being Sold.” Philly.com. (2013): n. page. Print. <http://articles.philly.com/2013-09-07/news/41836458_1_giovanni-ed-hermance-lgbt>.
“Philadelphia’s Giovanni’s Room celebrates 40th anniversary From Giovanni’s Room press releases.” Windy City Media Group. (2023): n. page. Print. <http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Philadelphias-Giovannis-Room-celebrates-40th-anniversary-/44306.html>.
Miller, Laura, and . Reluctant Capitalists . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.
A timeline of Aids http://aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/aids-timeline/
Reconstruction of Building
Gay American Flag
Flag of Illinois
HIV on the Rise
232 South Street
Giovanni’s Room Current location
Giovanni’s Room Inside
Lawrence V.S. Texas
Giovanni’s Room Painting