Giovanni’s Room: Stepping in to Come Out
In a quiet neighborhood in Center City, Philadelphia, there is a small bookstore tucked into the buildings on South 12th Street called Giovanni’s Room. Walking past, you may quickly notice that this is a specialty bookshop that sells gay and lesbian literature. Not only do the rainbow flags and bold window displays tip off any passerby, but a peek inside the store would make it clear that Giovanni’s Room isn’t just a regular bookstore. However, what might not be noticeable to the eye is the business’s amazing legacy as an important place in the LGBTQ community since its opening in 1973. It has been a meeting place, a refuge, a resource center, a home, and so much more for this community.
The birth and growth of this bookstore has paralleled the Gay Rights Movement that spread across the nation starting in the 1960s. The neighborhood surrounding Giovanni’s Room has been a home for the queer community since at least the beginning of the 20th century (Nickels). During the tumultuous fight for equality, Giovanni’s Room provided a much needed refuge and resource center for the LGBTQ community. But on September 5, 2013, owner Ed Hermance announced that unless he finds someone to buy the store, it will close in January of 2014. This isn’t unusual, as brick-and-mortar stores across the country close in the face of Internet giants. Could it be that Giovanni’s Room grew out of a certain time and place for a certain community? Could it be possible that this bookstore has fulfilled its purpose, despite the major role it has played in the neighborhood?
The timeline below highlights the Gay Rights Movement and the role that Giovanni’s Room played in it:
It was into an atmosphere of secrecy and intermittent violence that Giovanni’s Room entered the scene in 1973. Tom Wilson Weinberg, Dan Sherbo, and Bernie Boyle took advantage of the political awareness resulting from the Stonewall riots to open the second gay and lesbian bookshop in the country. It was a labor of love, not money. When it opened, Giovanni’s Room carried less than 100 books in stock. Each month the owners drove to New York to meet up with the owner of the other gay and lesbian bookstore, then drove the books back to Philadelphia.
By establishing an openly gay-lesbian bookstore on South Street, a major thoroughfare, the founders made a statement for gay rights that was an essential part of the store’s identity. 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). The founders stepped forward to be leaders in the Gay Rights Movement in Philadelphia; they made their sexuality public and weren’t afraid to be in the spotlight. Through the decades this bookstore hasn’t shied from taking on a political role, simply by being a gay and lesbian bookstore during a time of drastic shifts in attitudes about LGBTQ rights.
When Ed Hermance bought the store in 1976, he chose to stay in the spotlight. He has accepted his responsibility as a bookseller to influence public opinion, even acting as the mayor’s liaison to his community (Schechner). With this he fulfills the idea of a powerful bookseller promoted in Archibald MacLeish‘s A Free Man’s Books. Books have political importance, which is why MacLeish stresses the importance of a knowledgeable seller to disseminate information. He puts the onus on the bookseller in particular to know “his books and his customers” in order to be persuasive (MacLeish 14). The original founders, and Hermance, understood the unique literary needs of the LBGTQ community, giving them political power to fight for equality.
After it changed hands, Giovanni’s Room moved to a new location on Spruce Street. Unfortunately, a new, homophobic landlord would “just stand in the hallway and yell at us” says Hermance. He talks of the early history of Giovanni’s Room as one of ridicule and abuse, with people yelling “faggot” and “queer” and throwing bricks through the windows (Schechner, Flynn). It was time to test the dedication of the community, and they met the challenge, proving that Giovanni’s Room was something they wanted in the neighborhood. Hermance borrowed enough money from customers to buy his own building at 345 South 12th Street, where they remain today. More than 100 volunteers came to help renovate the run-down structure. They would aid the bookstore again through fundraisers and donations in 2009 for building repairs costing around $50,000.
In the 1980s, Giovanni’s Room provided a much-needed gathering place and resource center when the AIDS epidemic traumatized the gay community and the Gay Rights Movement gained momentum. The bookstore was a meeting place for people who wanted to contribute to the Movement, and offered some of the only local AIDS health information. As time went on, Giovanni’s Room continued to find itself at the heart of LGBTQ pride celebrations that would become some of the biggest in the nation, like OutFest and PrideDay. The bookstore was officially recognized in 2011 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, but the community has long known the value of Giovanni’s Room.
Today, Giovanni’s Room is located on the edge of the Gayborhood, a neighborhood officially recognized by the city of Philadelphia in 2007 as an important historical site and tourist destination. But, if you’ve been to Philly, you’ll recognize that many of the surrounding buildings in this neighborhood are residential – this is a place where people live, not just visit.
Interspersed among the residential buildings are numerous small businesses and restaurants. There are no chain stores located within the few blocks around the bookstore. Many of the local businesses actively engage with the neighborhood by supporting local artists and hosting community events. In this area, there are restaurants that range from Greek to Egyptian, a traditional barber shop, a hookah bar, an international accessory boutique, a thriving bar scene, and a historical theater venue. Giovanni’s Room is a product of its community; its cultural function wouldn’t be the same outside of this specific location. The bookstore was able to achieve a sense of belonging in its neighborhood organically and authentically.
For a closer look at the specific businesses in this area, please refer to the following map of the neighborhood:
View Giovanni’s Room – Present Neighborhood in a larger map
While the bookstore prides itself on serving the needs of the community around it, it has also run into the politics of bookselling– fighting against the world of online consumers and super-store customers. Its website 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 has a combined experience of over one hundred years working in our specialties. No other online bookseller comes even a little bit close.” With its personal touch, Giovanni’s Room critiques 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 isn’t the same experience as shopping in any other type of store (Miller 110). Giovanni’s Room is that place.
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,” in that “subjective and emotional attachment” is incredibly strong here (7). Although Giovanni’s Room has become a tourist attraction, its relationship with community’s culture provides a strong connection between bookstore and book-buyer. The bookstore is more than just a warehouse for books; it is a home – a physical place where people can just be. 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).
Giovanni’s Room is undeniably part of the Gayborhood. The image it projects onto South 12th Street is one of pride – large windows and waving rainbow flags proclaim its identity as a gay and lesbian business. Upon entering the bookstore, this theme continues.
You are immediately greeted by safety and informational pamphlets, current magazines, community newspapers, and free condoms. Because these objects greet customers right away, there is no chance that they will feel ashamed about sex and sexuality within this space. Openness and acceptance continues to be expressed through objects as one walks further into the store – it’s not only the employees at Giovanni’s Room that make the customers feel welcome and accepted in this space, it’s the items for sale, too.
It might seem odd that so many non-book items are offered at this bookstore. But for the customers of Giovanni’s Room, these items are probably just as important as the books themselves. The free health information, rainbow paraphernalia, and even the lube displayed around Giovanni’s Room have become “things” in the way Bruno Latour describes them. He says, “a thing is, in one sense, an object out there and, in another sense, an issue very much in there…the same word thing designates matters of fact and matters of concern” (2288). On the surface, the fliers and trinkets are just objects – pieces of paper tacked to some cork and things to put on your key chain.
They are at first just a matter of facts, but on closer inspection these “things” are matters of concern. They represent a neighborhood of people who have bonded together and come forward to support each other around issues for the LGBTQ community. It is an issue that gay and lesbian teenagers are afraid to come out to their parents for fear of rejection. It is an issue that many gay and lesbian people, afraid of social consequences, don’t seek needed health care. Providing solutions, the back upper room has not just books about health and sexuality, but also real-life Philadelphia information on dealing with issues relevant to the community. At Giovanni’s Room, it isn’t only the books that hold importance and value for the customers; all of the things inside the bookstore help to accomplish the goal of providing resources and literature.
A close look at the layout of Giovanni’s Room speaks volumes about the meaning behind the objects within the store. Please use the floor plans below to explore the physical layout of Giovanni’s Room. Hovering your mouse above the icons will reveal photos and text.
Here is the first floor:
And here is the second floor:
Immediately inside the bookshop, you see a variety of gay and lesbian literature as well as LGBTQ resources and community information. Popular magazines like Bitch, Out, Attitude, Diva, Ms., Curve, Bust and many more are some of the first titles a customer sees upon entering the bookstore. Full of pop culture, travel, and fashion information, these publications are flamboyant but casual.
Thanks to Google Maps, you can “walk” into Giovanni’s Room and explore it for yourself:
Progressing forward from the front entrance brings you into a room stocked with lesbian and feminist titles, including things like feminist science fiction and fantasy, lesbian fiction, and feminist criticism. Walk through the door to the left and another room is revealed, containing men’s erotica and magazines with adult content. The fact that this room is separated from the main entrance lends a certain privacy to browsers. They can enjoy the fun, friendly entrance, and then proceed on to peruse the shelves of more private matters in peace, but not in hiding.
Unlike most bookstores, erotica isn’t something that needs to be hidden at Giovanni’s Room. It stands just like any other section of any other bookstore. There is neither guilt nor boasting, just a simple statement of merchandise. Giovanni’s Room chooses to ignore the usual placement of pornography and instead gives these objects a firm sense of value. James Clifford says that collections “embody hierarchies of value” (218). The collection of reading material at Giovanni’s Room naturally places sex and sexuality at the top of its hierarchy of value. Erotica is treated the same as the crime novels it is placed next to.
On the second floor, the main room is very open and comfortable. The largest, most central bookcase on the left wall, facing the fireplace and reading area is stocked with books on the history of sexuality. This case begins with books about coming out, then progresses downwardly to books about politics and society.
The sequence of books in this case mirrors the trajectory of someone who is newly out, first providing him comfort through books about the process of coming out, then what that means in today’s society. This area further proves that sex isn’t something that has to be hushed up, because there is a section that boldly includes books on religion right next to a section with S&M titles. Just like the erotica section, S&M literature isn’t put behind closed doors, it’s just another section that deserves a place on one of Giovanni’s Room’s many shelves.
Giovanni’s Room presents a very specific conception of literature. As a specialty bookstore, it focuses on providing its customers with LGBTQ literature, but what does this really mean? Looking at the shelves, you see a broad range of genres, categories, authors, and other types of media, as well as a great many non-book objects. Next to books about history you might find a tower of erotic cards, and amidst all of the rainbow decorations at the entrance are lube and condoms. Having these kinds of items mixed in with the books makes a statement: this store has nothing to hide. Their pride shines through not only the literature they sell, but also the eclectic collection of non-book items related to an LGBTQ experience.
The literature also has an important function for members of the LGBTQ community on a more personal level. Literature in this store is seen as a guiding light for finding one’s identity. There are books to help someone through discovering their sexuality, expressing their sexuality, and ultimately becoming comfortable with who they are in a hetero-normative culture. Not only are there many resources, but also rooms full of imaginative literature that contain images of gay pride. Without being able to read lesbian romances, lesbian women would never see characters who are in romantic relationships similar to their own; without biographies written by gay men, other gay men would never have the chance to hear encouraging stories about struggles they are going through. These types of books, along with factual resource items provide a multitude of ways for LGBTQ people to find support, information, and affirmation of their identity. Giovanni’s Room functions simultaneously at a sociopolitical level by making a statement about LGBTQ rights, as well as at a comforting, personal level.
As influential as this bookstore has been to Philly’s Gayborhood, Giovanni’s Room is currently facing the reality of possible closure in a few months. Considering the huge role the bookstore has played in supporting the Gay Rights Movement and members of the LGBTQ community, it might seem surprising that the bookstore’s survival is in peril. Hermance suggests that online booksellers and big-box stores are fierce competition in selling LGBTQ literature at low prices.
But perhaps there has been progress for equality in society. Perhaps this safe haven for the LGBTQ community is slowly becoming less necessary to the fight. The situation begs the question of whether or not Giovanni’s Room is still needed to serve its original purposes of a refuge, a resource center, and a space that shamelessly asserts gay pride. Could this age of online bookselling combined with improving attitudes about the LGBTQ community spell the end of a beloved bookshop? Hermance seems to be optimistic that he will find a buyer and that the bookshop will live on, but whatever happens it will always have its place in the history of the Gay Rights Movement.
Map and Street Views embedded from Google
Center for Disease Control, “HIV and AIDS -United States, 1981-2000.” <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5021a2.htm>
Giovanni’s Room, “Giovanni’s Room: An Introduction.” <http://www.giovannisroom.com/newsletter>
The Leadership Conference, “Stonewall Riots: The Beginning of the LGBT Movement.” <http://www.civilrights.org/archives/2009/06/449-stonewall.html>
Publishers Weekly, “Country’s Oldest LGBT Bookstore Could Close in January.” <http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/59005-country-s-oldest-lgbt-bookstore-could-close-in-january.html>
VisitPhilly.com, “Philadelphia: Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay.” <http://www.visitphilly.com/c/gay/>
Wikipedia, “Archibald MacLeish.” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archibald_MacLeish>
Photos and Images
“Giovanni’s Room.” Mina Smith-Segal. Watercolor. <http://brewermultimedia.com/PhiladelphiaArt&Artists/william-way-gay-community-center/.
“Historical Marker.” <http://press.visitphilly.com/media/3433>
“Outside View.” <http://unpackingthebookstore.susqu.edu/wp-content/uploads/gios-room.jpg>
“Reconstruction of Building.” <http://epgn.com/view/full_story/3899905/article-Giovanni-s-Room-kicks-up-fundraising-efforts>
Images in the timeline
American Booksellers Association. “Historical Marker.” <http://www.bookweb.org/files/GiovannisRoom2.jpg>
Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, “Closed Sign.” <http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs162/1102486612779/archive/1111328797571.html>
Dick Mac (alive!). “Business Owner of the Year -Ed Hermance/Giovanni’s Room.”<http://dickmacalive.blogspot.com/2010/07/business-owner-of-year-ed-hermance.html>
The Gayborhood Guru. “Enter Rusty’s.” <http://thegayborhoodguru.wordpress.com/tag/rusty-parisi/>
Philadelphia Gay News. ”Giovanni’s Room kicks up fundraising efforts.” <http://epgn.com/view/full_story/3899905/article-Giovanni-s-Room-kicks-up-fundraising-efforts>
“Rainbow Flag.” <http://images.wikia.com/rsplayers/images/6/6d/Rainbow_flag_and_blue_skies.jpg>
South Street Headhouse District. “South Street View.” <http://southstreet.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Screen-Shot-2012-10-24-at-9.17.14-PM2.jpg>
Time Magazine. “AIDS: The Growing Threat.” <http://swisely.wordpress.com/2008/10/13/a-modern-tragedy-how-aids-became-a-pandemic/>
uwishunu. “Counter at Giovanni’s Room.” <http://www.uwishunu.com/wp-content/uploads/giovannis_room_comp.jpg>
Visit Philly. “Outfest.” <http://press.visitphilly.com/uploads/photos/1039_l.jpg>
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004. Print.
Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988. Print.
Flynn, Elisabeth. “Philadelphia Story.” Lambda Book Report 12.1/2 (2003): 36. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.
Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 2282-302. Print.
MacLeish, Archibald. A Free Man’s Books: An Address. Mount Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper, 1942. Print.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Print.
Nickels, Thom. “Philadelphia Stories.” Gay and Lesbian Review 10.5 (Sept/Oct 2003): 25-28. Print.
Schechner, Karen. “Giovanni’s Room Honored with Historical Marker.”Bookweb.org. American Bookseller’s Association, 20 Oct. 2011. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.