The image Giovanni’s Room projects onto South Street and the surrounding areas is one of pride. Large windows and waving rainbow flags proclaim its identity as a gay and lesbian business. Walk into the bookstore, and that theme continues.
The entrance is at the upper right-hand corner of the ground floor. Feel free to browse the floor plan however you wish, going upstairs when you have finished with the ground floor.
Giovanni’s Room has ample space for the wide selection of books, music, DVDs, magazines and more that it offers. But there is no room for shame. Aisles are wide enough to allow readers to casually stand while they read the back cover of a potential purchase. Bright lights illuminate every corner of the store while large windows look out onto the busy streets outside. No hiding, no discomfort. Giovanni’s Room is a place of welcome, not of embarrassment.
The intention to be welcoming can be seen at once upon entering the shop. Proud displays of rainbow paraphernalia adorn the walls and the ceiling everywhere you look – flags, kites, stained glass window hangings. Then you, the casual customer, have two options. You could walk forward, past the display cases with more of objects proclaiming gay pride, until you come to a large lesbian fiction section. You might stand and peruse for a few minutes, caught up in the latest Jeanette Winterson
novel catching your eye. Noticing that the store continues into a back room, you decide to leave that section and keep going forward. Suddenly you are face-to-face with a boldly presented Men’s Erotica section featuring both magazines and books. A sign on the shelf says, “Browsers must be 18 years or older.” Slightly shocked at first, you shrug your shoulders and move on to the genre section full of mysteries and science fiction. Had you taken the second option and turned left after entering the shop, you would have walked through to the back room and seen a large display of greeting cards featuring barely-clothed men in the opposite corner. Either way, you are sure to see enough to realize the identity of Giovanni’s Room.
Because at Giovanni’s Room, erotica is not something to hide. It stands in the corner just like any other section of any other bookstore. There is neither guilt nor bragging, just a simple statement of merchandise. Particularly noteworthy is the erotica section in comparison to other sections of the bookstore. Giovanni’s Room is also noted by for its children and youth selections, often helping school districts to find material for their classrooms. But customers must walk upstairs to find books for a younger audience. And to get to the stairs, it is nearly impossible to avoid at least a glance at the pornography. Should the arrangement of Giovanni’s Room’s collection be considered vulgar or at least reckless? Not unless you choose to make it so. Clifford Latour gives some insight into this phenomenon in his essay “On Collecting Art and Culture.”
He notes that the “history of collecting is concerned with what from the material world specific groups and individuals choose to preserve, value, and exchange” (221). General society has decreed that erotica, particularly homosexual erotica, should be considered obscene. It is associated with dark, dirty stores on shady streets. Giovanni’s Room chooses to ignore that characterization and instead gives the magazines and books its own idea of value. Erotica becomes no more “dirty” than a crime novel. Latour also says that collections “embody hierarchies of value, exclusions, rule-governed territories of the self” (218). The collection of reading material at Giovanni’s Room does not subvert pornography in its hierarchy of value. You can find it with less effort than getting to the children’s section.
Not only does the bookstore exhibit a distinct lack of shame, it is a place of refuge. As you resume your tour and prepare to ascend to the top floor, your eye catches a bulletin board you hadn’t noticed before. “Lesbian Interest Wall” it proclaims, fittingly right across from the Lesbian fiction area. It seems to be a board for anyone to post information about feminist activities or women’s gatherings in general. After reading some notices, you head up the stairs and notice the large movie posters and DVD collection. Clearly, Giovanni’s Room does not mind half-dressed figures upstairs any more than downstairs. You turn and head to the back room and find a large section devoted to health and sexuality concerns. Next to it is another bulletin, this time for health information. Posters on the walls announce the importance of getting checked for STDs and AIDS. Brochures and ads from doctors’ offices complete the board. After purchasing your wares, you head out the front door, only to spy a wall of community fliers on your way out. Apparently, this bookstore is very connected to the neighborhood around it.
The bulletin boards 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 gatherings of fliers are just objects, pieces of paper tacked to some cork or hung on a wall. They are at first just a matter of facts – this group will be meeting on Wednesdays, that restaurant
offers deals to tourists. But on closer inspection these “things” are issues. They represent a neighborhood of people who have bonded together and come forward to support each other. It is an issue that many gays and lesbians, afraid of social consequences, do not seek needed health care. So a back upper room provides not just books about health and sexuality, but real life Philadelphia information on dealing with that issue. The fliers around Giovanni’s Room are matters of concern. Latour adds that for objects to become things, “they have to be gathered first in order to exist later as what stands apart” (2291). Giovanni’s Room provides a place for the gathering of these objects. It’s collection includes not just the books, DVDs, and music for sale, but the free giveaway of important information. They stand out from piles of paper; they are things.
Nervous teenagers, tourists, schoolteachers, longtime members of the gay community. All find welcome in Giovanni’s Room, where the collection is curated and objects arranged to make you feel at home.
Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988.
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.
Images courtesy of Google Maps.