Giovanni’s Room: Present: Place and People
At first glance, it’s tough to pick out Giovanni’s Room from the other old brick buildings surrounding it. If the store did not proudly display a rainbow flag in front, or if the historical marker nearby did not alert a passerby to the store’s presence, it may escape his or her notice. As Elisabeth Flynn describes it, Giovanni’s Room manages to “simultaneously blend with the neighborhood’s elegant, historic character and stand out as a gem of a bookstore” (Flynn).
Its easy, seamless fit into the surrounding neighborhood emphasizes one of the most important thing about this bookstore: the sense of community. Giovanni’s Room is known far and wide as one of the world’s most popular LGBT bookstores, but you would not know it from looking at it. Ed Hermance, the current owner of the store, says that emphasizing a welcoming, comfortable environment for its patrons is important to him and his staff. They try to greet each one individually as they come in to make their experience there a happy and personalized one (Flynn). By making the building blend in with the community around it, the welcoming environment is easily achieved. Looking at the storefront of Giovanni’s Room feels like looking at a “cozy, well-kept row house you wish you lived in” (Flynn). In short, inside and out, Giovanni’s Room looks and feels like home.
Aside from the building itself feeling comfortable and homey, the rest of the neighborhood does as well. Giovanni’s Room is located on the lower part of what is affectionately called the “Gayborhood” of Philadelphia. The Gayborhood rests in the rectangular shape of Washington Square West, seen in the map below.
Philly’s Gayborhood is a classy, sophisticated area near Center City Philly. In the upper portion of the neighborhood is a cluster of restaurants, wine bars, gelato places, and lounges. The food tends to be ethnic, with a lot of Asian influences, like sushi. Approaching closer to Giovanni’s Room, however, the bars and nightlife spots get somewhat more sparse.
The immediate area around Giovanni’s Room includes a small, casual pizzeria called Pine Street Pizza. Down Pine Street, nestled snugly between old brick buildings and leafy trees, are a few salons, a small bar, and a photography studio. Nearer to Louis I. Kahn Park, there are a couple of antique shops and a Buddhist center.
Much of the surrounding area is residential, which may explain why Giovanni’s Room isn’t packed in around tons of lounges and restaurants like there are in the upper left part of the Gayborhood. This emphasizes the sense of community that Giovanni’s Room both creates and participates in. This is a place where people live. Though Giovanni’s Room itself is a destination for some outsiders, it is firmly implanted in the home community that surrounds it. This home community seems to be a somewhat personal one. Of the small businesses located near Giovanni’s Room, not one is a big name chain. Pine Street Pizza is obviously unique to this specific street. The rest are independent stores, selling a variety of things like original jewelry or antiques, all one-of-a-kind products that fit with the personalized atmosphere and specialized knowledge of Giovanni’s Room.
As far as the population goes, this area is on the whole fairly educated. The vast majority of people, according to Homes. Point2.com, have either a Bachelor’s Degree (2352 people) or a Graduate Degree (2653 people). In addition, they mostly work white collar jobs, with 39,011 white collar jobs as opposed to only 7,846 blue collar jobs. These demographics could be the reason that Giovanni’s Room and all of the other artsier independent businesses nearby have been able to thrive in the past. People who are more educated tend (overall, though certainly not always) to appreciate the kind of intellectual and cultural value of bookstores and the like.
As mentioned earlier, perhaps the most important part of the neighborhood and culture surrounding Giovanni’s Room is the sense of community. As its historical street marker states, Giovanni’s Room served as a “refuge and cultural center at the onset of the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights movement.” The store has long been a resource center, and goes even further than that – the store’s website boasts that many lovers have met at Giovanni’s Room. In this way, the store fits the qualities of a “meaningful place” that John Agnew outlines and Tim Cresswell expands on (7). The locale is material, and fits comfortably into its setting as previously described, creating the feeling that it is meant to be there. Most importantly, the sense of place, which necessitates “subjective and emotional attachment,” is incredibly strong here (7). This place has been around for thirty years, acting as a resource center for people to find support from the people who wrote the books, as well as from the staff and customers in the store. Any place where lovers meet is obviously a very meaningful place. The sense of place, homeyness, and comfort is something that many bookstores are after, specifically the large chains, according to Laura Miller. Bookstores like Barnes and Noble wanted to “invite people to linger, “ and so designed their bookstores to look like libraries or living rooms (Miller 94). Giovanni’s Room, on the other hand, was able to achieve this homeyness and sense of belonging in its neighborhood organically and authentically. Needing no flashy signs or obnoxious advertisements to attract customers, it has sat contentedly on the corner of 12th and Pine for thirty years, and has become what Cresswell calls a place of understanding. Throughout its time, it has become more and more well-known by people all over the world, establishing its place as an important node in the web of “attachments and connections between people and place” (Cresswell 11). And so whatever the future hold for Giovanni’s Room, the past thirty years have at least established it as one of history’s most important and most famous LGBT bookstores, a small building brimming with meaning for so many customers of the past and present.
Bookstore photo: http://farm2.staticflickr.com/1275/4664249433_367878187a_z.jpg
Historical marker: http://www.giovannisroom.com/newsletter
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.
Flynn, Elisabeth. “Philadelphia Story.” Lambda Book Report 12.1/2 (2003): 36.Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 Sept. 2013.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Google Maps: James Brown Hair, Mixto Bar, Washington Square West area
Guide to the Gayborhood map: http://www.phillypride.org/gayborhood.php