Goodbye to Giovanni’s Room

Just a short five years ago, gay bibliophiles in San Francisco, Nashville, West Hollywood, Atlanta, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia could count on the magic of an indie gay bookstore in their hometowns. By the end of the weekend, all seven of those cities will have officially lost their local LGBT bookstore.
The last one to go will be Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, whose owner Ed Hermance told Philadelphia Gay News that the bookshop he’s owned for 38 years will close its doors on May 17.

“It has been a wonderful life for me and it combines my best skills with my deepest interests, so it certainly is going to be a lifetime’s work. I know that thousands of people have used and cared about this store. It is very emotional for me,” Hermance said.

News of the oldest surviving LGBT bookstore shutting down prompted Steve Berman, publisher of Lethe Press and a friend of Hermance, to pen a personal essay that tied the demise of these shops to the tragic state of the gay publishing industry as a whole.

Berman writes that this epidemic has been slow, but no one would argue that Amazon certainly has played an important part in accelerating the LGBT bookstore death toll. Certainly not Hermance, who was quoted in the PGN as saying, “The government is allowing Amazon to tighten their fingers around the throats of the publishers and drive their retail competitors out of the business by clearly monopolistic methods.”

Furthermore, Berman argues that Amazon’s capitalistic raid on physical retailers is not the sole culprit.

“The community has failed the local bookstore,” he writes. “I remember working the front counter of Giovanni’s Room and men and women entering the store at all hours asking to hang posters or leave fliers for their LGBT event or cause. We always agreed and gave them space. And how many of these individuals would then walk around the store. None. We would get people associated with functions and charities and socials approaching Ed for gift certificates to offer as door prizes or silent auctions. And he would never refuse. And after he handed the certificate over, out the door they went.”

I worked at San Francisco’s branch of A Different Light, right up to the point it closed its doors in 2011, and I completely agree with Berman on this one. Many, many niche bookshops — quirky, tiny, fragile hidden worlds behind unassuming doors — have survived (even thrived!) against the beast that Amazon dot com.

For an LGBT bookstore to survive in this day and age, it needs to count with the unwavering financial support of the community for which it aims to be a hub.

Oscar Raymundo
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Comments (3):

  • Absolutely true. I don’t know who is the “oldest surviving” after this weekend, but in any case it can only be one of a handful. My store, Common Language Bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI has been around since 1991. Like Giovanni’s Room, and others, we run the store somewhat like a mission oriented non-profit, complete with fundraisers. This shouldn’t be the case. We shouldn’t need the extraordinary support of the community, just the ordinary support. And yet, we have many days with zero sales. Again, a fundraiser rarely occurs where we are not asked to give something. And we should. That is part of being a community. But it must be a two-way street.
    If the question is simply who can deliver the book at the cheapest price, amazon dot com will win every time. But amazon dot com does not care if you buy a chrome plated shower head or My New Gender Workbook. If you buy My New Gender Workbook from an independent bookstore you support your local economy, and if you buy it from an LGBT Bookstore, you support your community.
    David Halperin has written a book called “How To Be Gay”. It started out as a class at the University of Michigan and the work in that class ultimately led to the book. The class got lots of attention from the right wing…”See, they ARE recruiting our boys”. However, the book is not about how to become a gay person. It does, however argue something nearly as transgressive. We may be born gay, but we must learn our culture. I grew up in the 60s. My culture consisted of things like Thanksgiving and Gilligan’s Island. I did not have to be introduced to this culture. It was around me all the time.
    However, I DID need to learn a culture that (at various times in my life) included opera, musical theater, a specific set of classic movies, Armistead Maupin, Paul Monette, Joseph Hansen, and more. I even had to learn how to date, since as a gay boy in the 60s and early 70s I basically avoided all dating.
    Much of my gay cultural education came through books and bookstores.
    We are perilously close to losing that.
    And do not think for a minute that amazon dot com cares about the literary discovery of David Pratt or promoting the important work of S. Bear Bergman. When we lose our culture, we will lose our community. And we are nowhere near to a place where we can survive without our community. It does not take much time sifting through the news for evidence…violence, murder, bullying, not to mention the political attacks on our rights.
    There is a reason that the few of us that remain tend to be in smaller towns and often in the midwest. We are closer to the forces which threaten us. New York, San Francisco, and the rest you list have gayborhoods which disguise our precarious position. Though in the “safe” community of Ann Arbor I live in a State which is politically dominated by religious fundamentalists. The reality of the fragility of our gains is much more apparent from this vantage point.
    My husband and I hang on because we believe our bookstore is one of the elements critical to that gay culture. But we need much greater support from the community to continue. There is only one solution if people want stores like ours to survive. You must swear off amazon. Period.

  • Thank you for writing this Oscar. I appreciated the opportunity to read at A Different Light and to have some of my books sold there. Thanks again for making that happen.In Boston, there’s still Calamus Books which is a hang out for many folks.

  • Inside the New Giovanni's Room

    […] Back in May I shed a little tear when I read that Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, the oldest LGBT bookstore in the country, was closing. It could be read as the final chapter in a tragic tale of low book sales and disappearing queer spaces. […]

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