Giovanni’s Room: Present: Place and People
Philadelphia is a city known for its historical landmarks and art museum. Most visitors come to stand in long lines to catch a glimpse of the Liberty Bell or snap a photo where the Declaration of Independence was signed. But for many other visitors, Philadelphia embodies its claim as “the city of brotherly love.” Walk over to 11th and Spruce Streets, then wander around until you get to Broad or Chestnut Streets. Within that grid you may be surprised to find 36 rainbow flags displayed proudly displayed. Welcome to Philadelphia’s Gayborhood.
Businesses in this neighborhood range from the historical -Woody’s Bar – and the proud newcomers – 12th Street Gym.
Walk down Pine Street until you get to the corner of 12th Street, and you will find a venerable institution of the Gayborhood: Giovanni’s Room, the self-proclaimed “oldest and very best lesbian and gay bookstore in the country,” which was founded in 1973 and awarded a plaque by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 2011. As the marker states, the store was not only a place for resources in fighting for LGBT rights, but a center for refuge and community. The store claims to carry 7,000 titles on its shelves and maintain a database of more than 48,000.
In all likelihood Giovanni’s Room would not be as successful if not for its place. The Gayborhood is not just a grid of streets or the official designation of a tourism bureau. The people of the LGBT community made this neighborhood a home and a place of refuge long before any government decided to recognize them. John Agnew outlines three crucial aspects of “meaningful location,” all of which the Gayborhood exemplifies (qtd. in Cresswell 7). Firstly, it must have a fixed location – in this case, a clearly defined perimeter can be outlined in central Philadelphia, not far from City Hall. Secondly, it must have a locale, which Cresswell defines as “a material setting for social relations.” The Gayborhood is more than just streets, it is bars and a gym and a hotel and a bookstore, places where people can gather. Finally, and most importantly, it has a “sense of place,” meaning that people have an emotional attachment to the Gayborhood and to Giovanni’s Room. It is more than just a collection of businesses, it is a setting for community. People who are “different” and outside of the mainstream can come to the Gayborhood and find acceptance, or even just the chance to explore their sexuality. Giovanni’s Room is a product of its place.
The bookstore prides itself on serving the needs of the community it finds itself in. Yet it has also run into the politics of bookselling, fighting against the world of online consumers. The website itself emphasizes the specialized service only Giovanni’s Room staff can provide: “Our principal strength is our experience. Our store was founded in 1973, and our staff have a combined experience of over one hundred years working in our specialties. No other online bookseller comes even a little bit close.” In this they try to critique the standardized book chain. Large chains and book superstores are associated with bigness, impersonality, uniformity, and the obliteration of unique communities. Independent bookstores strive to offer a shopping experience that is interesting and stimulating, providing a sense of place that is not the same experience as shopping any other place (Miller 110).
Giovanni’s Room counters the tides of Amazon and Barnes and Noble by touting their expertise and commitment to customers. They list ten reasons why Giovanni’s Room is better than Amazon, for example, “For no reason other than the author’s first name, the gay list includes Gay Talese’s Unto the Sons, about the history of his family since World War II” and “The lesbian history list includes John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe and Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men, each of which has zero lesbian content.” But is their online presence a boon or their downfall? Owner Ed Hermance announced recently in Publisher’s Weekly that the store is up for sale and may close as soon as January 1, 2014, because “People don’t need us as much as they used to,” he said. “It’s true we give unique services, but not to as many people.” He said that more than half of his revenue came from people who don’t even come to the store twice a year. In the age of digital globalization, the sense of place Giovanni’s Room brings may not be enough.
Giovanni’s Room Plaque <http://press.visitphilly.com/media/3433>
Visit Philly, Gayborhood map. <http://www.visitphilly.com/gay-downloads/>
Google Maps: Woody’s Bar, 12th Street Gym
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.