Giovanni’s Room – Present: Place and People
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Located in historical Center City of Philadelphia, the independent bookstore known as Giovanni’s Room has been selling literature related to sexuality, gender, and LGBTQ issues since 1973 and has been recognized as one of the oldest gay and lesbian bookstores in the United States. Giovanni’s Room was originally located on South Street, but moved to the corner of Pine Street and South 12th Street in Philly’s “Gayborhood” as the business expanded with the growth of Philadelphia’s gay community and tourism industry.
In their current location, Giovanni’s Room is surrounded by many other small businesses like itself that are mixed in among the residential buildings of the neighborhood. There is not a single chain store located within the few blocks around the bookstore and many of the local businesses actively engage with the neighborhood by supporting local artists and hosting community events. In this sense , Giovanni’s Room’s community is unique with its thriving small business scene and its focus on community, which is not the case for many other urban neighborhoods in the United States.
In addition to being located within the perimeters of Philly’s Gayborhood, Giovanni’s Room is also located in a section of the city known as Antique Row, which refers to the section of Pine Street between South Broad Street and 9th Street. From the early 20th century to the 1980’s, Antique Row housed dozens of antique shops, thereby leading to its naming (Skiba).
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However, many of the antique shops have been replaced by other small businesses, such as boutiques, restaurants and offices. Within a few blocks of Giovanni’s Room, one can find restaurants that range from Greek to American to Italian to ancient Egyptian. All these restaurants take pride in their ability to always offer fresh ingredients and hand-prepared dishes at a reasonable price. Other types of businesses in and around Antique Row include a traditional barber shop, a hookah bar, and international accessory boutique, a bar, and a historical theater venue affiliated with University of Pennsylvania. Not only do these restaurants and businesses contribute to the formation of a multicultural and diverse neighborhood, but they also foster a communal feel by offering personal and friendly service to the residential population of Antique Row and the larger Gayborhood. For a closer look at the specific businesses in this area, please refer to the following map of the neighborhood surrounding Giovanni’s Room.
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Antique Row’s transition from antique center to small business center has caught the attention of Philadelphia reporters. Inquirer Staff Writer, Melissa Dribben, looked into the changing atmosphere of this historical area in Philly. She notes how many antique dealers are going out of business, which she describes as lamentable due to the rich history of this trade on Pine Street. However, she ends on an optimistic note concerning the future of the neighborhood. She quotes antique dealer, James Loughead, “‘Antiques Row is undergoing this rebirth,” said Loughead. He pointed to new art galleries, one started by a young University of the Arts graduate, Matt Trikgo; the edgy James Brown Hair salon; and the hip restaurant Mixto. ‘One way to look at this is that antique stores are closing and the place is dying. Another is to see it as a place in transition. This is going to be new, more vibrant, not less in the long run…'” (Dribben). Given this information, one can see that Giovanni’s Room is operating from within a community that is experiencing quite a bit of demographic change, especially in terms of its businesses.
Giovanni’s Room’s location in Philly’s Gayborhood indicates that a significant portion of the neighborhood’s population identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, or another sexual or gender identity. Although this specific identity of the community helps to inform the establishment and success of the bookstore, some other information about the local population is also helpful in thinking about Giovanni’s Room. According to City-Data.com, the population of Antique Row is roughly 75% white, 9% black, 6% Asian, and 5% Hispanic. The median yearly income for this area is $95,095, where the median yearly income for the entire population of Philadelphia is $35,952, yet about 21% of Antique’s Row population is below the poverty line. There are slightly more males than females in this neighborhood, and only 19% of the households are families. A large majority of people in Antique Row have attained at least a Bachelor’s degree and virtually everyone speaks English fluently. Although some of this information seems a bit contradictory, the statistics do suggest that Antique Row is home to a relatively wealthy and educated group of people.
By occupying a space in this affluent, cultured, and modern neighborhood that is also part of the specific community of the LGBTQ+ citizens of Philadelphia, Giovanni’s Room holds great power in its position as the only independent bookseller in the area. As John Tebbel states, “… the transaction between the bookseller and the bookbuyer remains essentially unchanged as the free passage of ideas from the maker of them to the reader. As the middleman in this exchange, the bookseller is not only the conduit between author and audience, but in the conduct of his business he is in a position to influence that relationship profoundly, whether for good or ill” (3). In this sense, the owners and employees of Giovanni’s Room are in a position to influence what the local community is exposed to in addition to what kinds of literature are being put before visitors to this neighborhood. Although Giovanni’s Room has become a tourist attraction, its relationship with the residential LGBTQ+ community of Antique Row and the Gayborhood provides a strong connection between bookseller and bookbuyer. Especially with this connection through LGBTQ+ identity in mind, one can see how Giovanni’s Room transcends the rational concept of “space” and can be viewed as a “place within which people conduct their lives as individuals” (Cresswell 7). In this unique location, Giovanni’s Room creates a place through which people can connect to one another and themselves by engaging in buying books and reading.
“Antique Row Neighborhood in Philadelphia, PA.” City-Data.com. 2013. Web. 10 Sept 2013. <http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/Antique-Row-Philadelphia-PA.html>
Cresswell, Tim. Place: a short introduction. Blackwell Publishing. Print.
Dribben, Melissa. “Philadelphia’s Antique Row in Transition.” Philly.com. 4 Sept 2010. Web. 10 Sept 2013. <http://articles.philly.com/2010-09-04/news/24976036_1_antiques-shop-antiques-trade-antiques-dealers>
“Gayborhood Map.” Philly Pride Presents. 2013. Web. 11 Sept 2013. <http://www.phillypride.org/gayborhood.php>
Skiba, Bob. “Where Are All the Antique Shops?” Hidden City Philadelphia. 1 June 2013. Web. 10 Sept 2013. <http://hiddencityphila.org/2012/06/where-are-all-the-antique-shops/>
Tebbel, John. “A Brief History of American Bookselling.” Bookselling in America and the World. Ed. Charles B Anderson. New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co. Print.