Name of Organization: Giovanni's Room
Location: 345 South 12th St. (corner of 12th & Pine Sts.)
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Period in existence: 1973 to present (3/08)
Philadelphians who participate/d in this organization:
Founders (1973 - 1975):
Tom Wilson Weinberg, Dan Sherbo, and Bern Boyle (deceased)
Second owner (1975 - 1976):fm
Arleen Olshan (1976 - 1985)
Ed Hermance (1976 - present)
The first three years the store was staffed entirely by volunteers. Volunteers have continued to play a major role in the life of the store, providing 25% to 30% of the labor in 2008. The store's paid staff has included Jim Baker, who went on to found the largest gay and lesbian publishing company in Germany, and Cheryl Dunye, who wrote, directed, and acted in "Watermelon Woman," among other films.
The store started off in 1973 in a very small storefront on South St. with far fewer than a hundred titles. Inspired by Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in NYC (founded 1968), Giovanni's Room, the second gay bookstore in the U.S., has always been on a major street (not in an alley) and had windows onto the street so passersby could see that the atmosphere was pretty normal even welcoming, something most people in those days did not assume about gay venues.
The first three years the store was staffed entirely by volunteers. In 1976, when Arleen Olshan and Ed Hermance bought it, we moved the store to larger premises on Spruce St., where the Kimmel Center is now. By that time the store had not only Rita Mae Brown’s 1973 novel Rubyfruit Jungle// (1973) to sell but also Jonathan Katz’s //Gay American History (1976). Lesbian and gay publishing was expanding quickly, fast enough for the store to pay Arleen and Ed to work.
In 1979 a homophobic suburban family bought the Spruce St. building and immediately told us we had to leave. They later rented the space to a palm reader, so they weren’t looking for a higher rent. In those days no landlord of property not far from Spruce St. between 11th and 17th Sts. would rent to us, one saying bluntly that we would attract too many homosexuals to his building, an apartment building with more than 50% homosexual tenants.
We had never considered buying a building because we did not have any money. But our eviction was drawing near, so we located a building on the corner of 12th and Pine Sts., where we still are, and borrowed the down payment from our customers, which we were able to pay back with interest on time. More than a hundred volunteers helped tear out walls, install a skylight, renovate the windows, install wallboard on the walls and ceilings, rebuild the staircase, and build bookcases and the front counter. At the time we opened the new store, business was so good that we hired a staff person, first Barbara Kerr, then later in the year Skip Strickler, who has been here ever since. Ten years later we expanded into an adjoining building, strengthening our claim to be the biggest, the best, and the most beautiful store of our kind in the U.S. (we don’t say the world, because some lgbt bookstores overseas are our customers).
Those homophobic landlords saved the store by forcing us to buy. We would not be able to afford the normal rent for such a large and beautiful space in what is now a nice neighborhood. The store would have folded ten or fifteen years ago if we did not own our buildings.
There’s no better place to see the breadth and depth of lgbt culture. Our staff has, collectively, more than 70 years’ experience with the books, magazines, movies, and music that we carry. Our regular announcements of new books and movies comprise the most up to date and complete listings of materials in our subjects available anywhere on the Internet. Our website (www.queerbooks.com or www.giovannisroom.com), broken into lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual sections, organizes by year and subject (fiction, parenting, etc.) almost all the books we’ve received going back about five years, so if you want to see what’s been published in fiction for young lesbians in recent years, you have a convenient source of information and for the books themselves.
The store hosts about 50 author readings a year. Past guests are a who’s who of the lgbt world: Rita Mae Brown, Kate Millett, May Sarton, Leslie Feinberg, Dorothy Allison, Lillian Faderman, Chrystos, Olga Broumas, Cheryl Dunye, Emma Donoghue, Radclyffe, Armistead Maupin, Edmund White, Andrew Hollinghurst, Jeffrey Weeks, George Whitmore, Felice Picano, Quentin Crisp, Greg Louganis, Colm Toibin, George Chauncey, E. Lynn Harris, Joe Beam (who was working in the store while editing "In the Life," the first collection of work by black gay men), Thomas Glave, James Earl Hardy, Jonathan Ned Katz, Fr. John McNeill, Bishop John Spong, Holly Near, and many hundreds more.
The Giovanni’s Room Women’s Book Group meets once a month. The book they are reading now (3/08) is Amber Hollibaugh’s “My Danderous Desires.”
One of our proudest periods was during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The federal, state, and local governments were unwilling to make any effort at distributing public health information for fear of being accused and convicted of promoting homosexuality. In those days lesbians came forward in huge numbers to support gay men in this awful situation. The community produced, paid for and distributed the only safer sex brochures available anywhere in the country, and still Jesse Helms (R, NC) couldn’t resist waving a copy on the floor of the U.S. Senate and denouncing the people who had produced this “filth” and implying that the Democrats had gotten the federal government to pay for it. If only! Staff from the city VD clinic three blocks from the store, at the risk of losing their jobs, came to the store and stuffed their pockets with the infamous brochures and took them back to the clinic to give to patients whom they thought would benefit from the information.
This year (2008) a retired school teacher in South Jersey asked his friends to give him money to buy books for a bookmobile that he would drive once a week from each school in his area that has a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) for the students. To date he has bought over $800’s worth of books and is making his rounds. The store helped him select the books and gave him a wholesale discount, to make his money go as far as possible.