Rallying Behind Giovanni’s Room

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

In my last column back in April I mentioned that Giovanni’s Room, the nation’s operating oldest LGBT bookstore, was going through an economic rough patch. Not only they have been losing business to competing bookchains, the online bookstores, and having to deal with a rough recession, the city of Philadelphia’s water department was also proposing that a good portion of Pine Street be dug up to replace the sewage pipes which would involve a long and massive process that could drive more foot traffic away from the store. Since that article came out, the owner Ed Hermance announced that one of the store’s brick walls was in need of replacement. The construction project would entail one the walls being torn down and replaced. The price tag for the needed facelift will come with a heavy price tag of approximately $50,000.00.

But so far the gay community has positively responded by setting up various planning committees for fundraisers in the fall. The local and national media outlets like the Daily News have covered the story. With the fundraising efforts by e-mail and the resulting publicity, the longtime gay and lesbian institution have already raised nearly one-fifth of the money needed for the construction project so far. The remodeling is expected to take three or four weeks, and the store plans to be during its reconstruction.

A brief history of Giovanni’s Room: the bookstore originally opened its doors at Second and South streets back in 1973. (It was modeled after the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York City, which had opened in 1967 and had closed earlier this year.) It took its name from the 1956 James Baldwin novel. The store was sold to Ed Hermance and former co-owner Arleen Olshan three years later. The store would be moved to its current location in 1979. It would be, and still is, a longtime supporter of gay literature in this area; long before the bookstore chains began to carry gay-themed books.

Renovations for the bookstore has started last week.  The store will be open straight through the whole project.  In an e-mail update it said, “we need your business now at least as much as we have ever needed it.  We cannot afford to close.  We cannot afford a slowdown in business either.”  

Recently I talked to Ed about the construction project and the various fundraisers, and he sounded quite optimistic about them. We also talked about a certain online bookstore’s censorship policies and where gay culture is going in the future. May Philly’s LGBT community keep rallying behind Giovanni’s Room, since if the store goes under, the gay culture of this city will be a lot poorer!

Which renovations of the bookstore have to be done?

The front wall of 345 South 12th St., the wall with the front entrance in it, is severely bowed out, so that some of the bricks protrude almost an inch and the lintel above the display window has cracked. To keep the building in its historic context, the bricks will be taken down, cleaned, and put up again, so that the wall will look more or less like it did in 1880, when it was first put up.

So what plans are there for fundraising?

We have many fund raising activities planned, beginning, we hope, with OutFest, which is on Sunday, October 11, where we will be hosting a stilt walker, a clown, and some of Spiral Q’s giant (15 to 20 foot tall?) puppets; a collection of regional LGBT publishers called Publishers Row; we hope a number of the LGBT campus groups will have tables near the store; Joe Coffee will be selling fair-trade organic coffee, brewed and bagged; we hope to have a bake sale–get your aprons on! We’ll have a dyke t-shirt company; Lambda Legal Defense; possibly a choral and organ performance at St. Luke’s on 13th St., and a massive display of used books. Other activities definitely include more store readings than we’ve ever had before, private dinners that will cost attendees an arm and a leg for the privilege of talking with famous authors. Authors committed to participate are Edmund White, Christopher Rice, and Samuel R. Delany. More to come, I hope. We’re holding a raffle with great prizes. The drawing will be December 12 at the store, during a planned family Santa event, followed in the evening by a Bad Santa event. Maybe fund raising cocktail parties. Additional ideas are floating around as well.

How has the response from the community so far?

Community response has been strong. On the basis of two emails and the resulting publicity, people have given more than $8,000. People may drop off or mail checks to 345 South 12th St., Philadelphia, PA 19107 and may contribute on our website www.queerbooks.com, where they may buy a gift certificate and give it to the store “for store pick up.” We’ll know what you mean. Many people have volunteered to help. If people would like to help, they can contact Elly at ellypw@gmail.com

What is your opinion about the controversy a few months back over the “glitch” from Amazon.com that delisted gay books, making them hard to search for?

Amazon.com is an amoral corporation that has no more concern or interest in LGBT books than they do in fascist materials. That they classified tens of thousands of gay and lesbian books (including Michel Foucault’s books as well as every other LGBT book you ever heard of) as “adult” meant that you had to swear you were 18 or more to see them at all. At the same time Amazon did not classify Playboy’s picture books as “adult”. Amazon’s subsequent explanations, first that it was a glitch, then that it was a programming error, explained nothing. You may know that last month Amazon reach into every Kindle in the land a plucked out the copies of Orwell’s novel 1984 that Amazon had sold to them because Amazon did not have the rights to the book. Talk about Big Brother!

On a final note, what do feel where gay culture is heading to in the future? It seems that we’ve been losing gay institutions like the Oscar Wilde Bookstore in NYC, yet we haven’t gotten our full rights.

Where are we headed? It depends on what the younger generation wants to do. The gay movement has always been a minority enterprise, that is, most homosexuals have not participated. Now, as in earlier times, many people say that their sexuality is a private matter and not anybody else’s business. Therefore, they unreasonably conclude, they are not responsible for what happens to people out of the closet, no matter how they got there. If everybody slips back into their socio-economic niche, there won’t be a movement or a culture.

Read Related Posts...