Death of a Bookstore: Giovanni’s Room Closes in Philadelphia
Author: Victoria Brownworth
April 30, 2014
I write a lot of obituaries and tribute pieces for Lambda Literary. Recently, all the newly deceased have been octagenarians. They all lived to see a long life, to watch the times change, to do prodigious work. They each left a legacy. Still, never enough for those of us who loved their respective work, but at least there is a less onerous sense of loss when you see the panoply of literary achievement left behind.
It has been a while since I have written about a death in the 40s. For Black History Month I profiled Lorraine Hansberry, who died of cancer at the breathtakingly young age of 34. And throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s there were all those other literary deaths, the young ones. That was the purview of the AIDS era, when I came of age as a writer–the deaths of those who hadn’t lived to fulfill their literary promise.
There is a special kind of heartbreak in those losses, a heartbreak tinged with anger for the unnecessary-ness of it all. I felt that constantly for more than a decade.
And then on April 28 I received an email announcing another death, a death far, far too soon. Ed Hermance, who I have known since I was a high-school baby dyke, sent me the sad news. His bookstore, Giovanni’s Room, “the oldest and largest lesbian, gay and feminist bookstore in the world” is closing on May 17.
I felt the tears come almost immediately as the feelings of loss washed over me. How many hours had I spent in that bookstore over the years? How many readings and book signings and community meetings had I attended? How many times had I called up to check on something in stock and rushed in, my car parked illegally out in front of the two-story brick building at the corner of 12th and Pine Streets in the heart of Philadelphia’s gayborhood to pick up this or that new or old or obscure title?
How could this place, this monument to all that has happened for lesbians and gays, bisexuals, trans and queers, be closing its doors forever?
At 73, Ed Hermance is ready for a much-deserved rest. In August 2013 he announced he was retiring and the bookstore would be up for sale, the building and the business.
Did we take it seriously? At first we certainly did. There was the kind of scurrying around and low-toned talking and emails and tweets and all of it as the discussion went far and wide in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community and beyond: Who would buy the place from Ed?
As it happens, no one. There was no one ready to take the helm that Ed has steered for 37 of the store’s 41 years of operation. No one to be there day and night and day. No one to go with the flow of changes in publishing and book sales and the omnivorous expansion of Amazon that has obliterated independent bookstores and retail chains alike with its mighty maw.
No one to carry on our queer literary history.
Oh sure–we can still buy LGBTQ and feminist books. Amazon is just a mouse-click or swipe of the iPad away (and just don’t think about when they accidentally excised lesbian and gay authors from their rolls).
But we don’t meet our authors at Amazon or introduce them to others there. We can click on the “Look Inside!” option for the books that have them, but that isn’t the same as perusing the shelves or holding our first lesbian or gay book in our hands, or reading a queer-friendly book to our children in the room upstairs where the kids books are.
I first went into Giovanni’s Room when it was just that–a large room down at 3rd and South Streets, next to the Knave of Hearts restaurant. I was taken there by an older woman photographer, Joan Meyers, I was seeing at the time whose photographs were on display in the sparse little shop. Her best friend, Pat Hill, a lesbian, operated the fledgling store then.
A few years later Giovanni’s Room changed owners and changed sites, moving uptown to 15th and Spruce, a block from where I lived. I was in college then and there was rarely a day I wasn’t in the bookstore or stopping by on my way to school or to my job nearby. Now the store was co-owned by Ed and by local artist Arleen Olshan, who I had known since I was 14 and she was at a local art college.
It’s difficult to describe the illicit quality of a lesbian, gay and feminist bookstore (the B&T&Q would come later) in the 1970s. Stonewall was so recent. AIDS had yet to drop its lethal pall upon us. Second-wave feminism and gay liberation were meeting and diverging with lesbians at the epicenter. The majority of lesbians and gay men were still deeply, firmly, fearfully in the closet. My girlfriend at that time and I had been turned down several times while trying to rent an apartment together–because we were young and obviously lesbians.
Walking into Giovanni’s Room in the middle of an afternoon was a revolutionary act. The mere fact of its existence seemed incendiary. An omnivorous reader since childhood and a published writer already with two books of poetry to my name, I ached for the books in that store. I wanted all of them. I wanted walls and walls of lesbian and gay books in my fourth-floor walk-up apartment. Just seeing those books, holding them in my hands, meant that I was not alone anymore, no longer a solitary lesbian expelled from my all-girls high school or the seemingly only out member of the student union at my college.
Giovanni’s Room was a life-line, an anchor, a visible monument that existed day and night. It wasn’t like the no-name clubs I went to illegally on the weekends. It didn’t disappear during the week or when the sun came out. It was its own beacon, its own self-contained world of queerness, there, in the middle of one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods.
In those years, Giovanni’s Room and I began our long association in earnest. I hosted a lesbian radio program on Sundays, Amazon Country, the first such program in the U.S., on WXPN-FM, then owned by the University of Pennsylvania. Giovanni’s would have lesbian authors come to the store, I would put them up at my and my partner’s apartment, they would come on the program on Sunday morning.
I met a plethora of writers then through Giovanni’s Room–Rita Mae Brown, Charlotte Bunch, Audre Lorde, Mary Daly. There were publishers, too–the women of Persephone Press and Daughters, Inc. And then the women’s music icons, because Giovanni’s carried music as well. Meg Christian, Willie Tyson, Gwen Avery, Margie Adam, Alix Dobkin and Kay Gardner.
The adventure of lesbian and gay publishing was beginning in earnest and Giovanni’s Room was there, a champion, a welcoming world of books, not booze, a place for those of us who were under 21 to hang out and be openly gay and surrounded by gayness without getting arrested.
It seems like Giovanni’s moved to the big place at 12th & Pine at the same time I started publishing books regularly. That may be true, or not. It may just feel that way. But it seems that the store was always there and that I was always in it, promoting my own work or supporting that of other writers. I gave so many readings, so many signings and attended so many others. Sometimes it was cold and sometimes the bright, sunny room on the second floor was streaming late-afternoon summer sun and it was way too hot, but it was always a good crowd, always a revivifying experience. I always left there feeling so deeply connected to my own community, in part because Ed and Giovanni’s were constants. I had literally grown from a teenager to a middle-aged woman in that bookstore’s environs. I had spent hours perusing the shelves, trying not to buy everything in sight, but hundreds of the books I own to this day have the Giovanni’s Room sticker on their covers.
That bookstore fed my library just as I had wanted it to. Every women’s music album I’ve ever owned, every gay male performer–all from Giovanni’s.
But it wasn’t just the books and music, it was also the people. I met so many of my writer friends there. The many gay men who are all, alas, dead now, and the many lesbians who have remained my friends over the years. One of my best friends for decades, the late photographer and writer, Tee Corinne, I met when she appeared at Giovanni’s Room. I met Katherine Forrest there, and Barbara Grier. Joan Nestle and the late Pat Parker. Quentin Crisp and Andrew Holleran and so many, many others.
When I founded my own independent press in 2010, Tiny Satchel Press, for young adult books, Giovanni’s Room opened its arms to me. Every one of our books has had its debut there, sometimes to a small audience, sometimes packing the place. But always equally well-received and nurtured by Ed.
And so the death of Giovanni’s Room–premature, untimely, whatever the adjective–is like the death of part of my own personal history, a loss of part of what helped shape me as both a lesbian and a writer, because every writer is shaped by the books of others.
As Giovanni’s Room played a role in my life, it played a role in the lives of so many. For years there have been the book groups and the open readings and the various community activities. And in those darkest days of the AIDS pandemic, it was where people went for information, for the newspapers and books and anything that would tell us how to cope with all the death and dying.
And now Giovanni’s itself is dying.
It’s not the first LGBT bookstore to close up shop, of course. Oscar Wilde in New York, OutWrite Books in Atlanta, A Different Light in San Francisco and so many others I never knew like I knew those.
The bookstore era itself is coming to a close. We want our books immediately. We hear an interview with an author on NPR or see it on TV, we click on Amazon. In seconds the book is on our Kindle or in a day it’s at our front door in book form, discounted. We never need to leave the house, go to an actual brick-and-mortar shop to pay retail price.
That synergy between book and reader is disappearing. The thing that happens when you pull books you know nothing about off the shelves and flip through them is going the way of the rotary dial and the dot matrix. Yet while the advances in phones and computers have benefitted us tremendously, that is not the case with the demise of brick-and-mortar bookstores–especially not for our marginalized communities.
Yes, you can go to Amazon and input “LGBT books” in the search box. But what you’ll get, always, is Amazon’s version of what you should see. The popular books by the best-known authors. Small presses like mine with debut authors will not always get ample placement on the top of your screen.
And then there is the atmosphere. Of course it is different now, 41 years after I first walked through the door of the one-room bookstore lined with Joan Meyer’s beautiful, evocative lesbian photographs. But it’s still a uniquely LGBTQ space. It’s queer-only. It’s ours. The two-story shop with its many rooms that open into each other still holds so many secrets we have yet to uncover.
The final sale starts April 30, the store closes its doors forever on May 17. For 37 years Ed Hermance has been the steward to a world we never thought would be possible–the world of lesbian and gay, feminist and bisexual, trans and genderqueer books.
Giovanni’s Room has been a bedrock, a place to showcase our growth as a community, to debut our best and brightest as well as our quotidian and mundane. The sheer breadth of the books Ed sold illumined how far we had come in four decades. That sparse little room has been a huge space for a long time, our literary canon growing exponentially each year.
When Ed shuts the doors that last time, he will close them on a major chapter in our literary history. Giovanni’s Room was a great story, a compelling, engaging, provocative story. It deserved a sequel, however. And we are far, far the less for not getting that next part of its tale.