Giovanni’s Room at 12th and Pine streets is a source of knowledge and a safe-haven for the GLBT community for approximately 40 years.
For those looking for literature pertaining to homosexuality or written for GLBT people, a search on Amazon’s online bookstore offers mixed results.
Though a search for ‘homosexuality’ on the site returns thousands of books, at the top of the list is “A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality.” Ed Hermance, the owner of Giovanni’s Room, a gay and lesbian bookstore at 12th and Pine streets in Center City, said this book has been the first result in this search on the site for at least two years.
His explanation of this scenario isn’t simply a case of a small bookstore owner taking a shot at Amazon’s monopoly on the book-selling industry. Hermance emphasizes the significance of buying books at a store where the employees have a knowledge of what they’re selling, especially regarding a topic that was unaddressed in mainstream literature for so long.
And his explanation for the results that Amazon offers on the topic, many of which he describes as “diatribes against homosexuality,” is the difference between human attention to a subject versus a computer’s.
“There are thousands of books in the store right now, in our own database we’ve created records for more than 48,000 books and DVDs [and eBooks],” Hermace said. “It’s much finer grained categorization than anyone else is even trying to do, it’s not on the law of averages, it’s someone who knows something about the subject organizing the material, there’s human input and Amazon is not human.”
After opening its initial South Street location in 1973, Hermance is able to recount the history and growth of the city’s GLBT community, playing a critical role in it himself for the last 38 years. He recalled the days when the now-thriving gay community was forced into the shadows, and the store was of one of the few gay-friendly businesses, even at its current location in the Gayborhood.
According to Hermance, other places that initially offered a similar environment of acceptance opened the same year, including a gay coffee house, the switchboard and a Catholic organization for GLBT people.
Hermance said 1973 was a big year in Philly for gay organizing.
“The switchboard especially provided a resource but only between certain hours – we were here seven days a week,” Hermance said. “In the beginning there really was no other gay space that was public or people who would be reasonable to ask questions of. The bars [windows] were all blacked out, some of the time you wouldn’t even know if it was a business, no signs or nothing. In the old days people were desperate for information, and for some reflection of their lives. There’s still so much more than there was [in the past], we started with a few hundred books because there simply weren’t any.”
Despite the change of scenery and the store’s success since then, that’s not to say there weren’t any obstacles creating the store that stands today.
“Part of the identity of the store was to be public, but nobody would rent to us on a numbered street or trade name street [in the ‘70s],” Hermance said.
After he and his partner briefly operated out of their next location, an old apartment building on Spruce Street, Hermance said they soon relocated after the owners of the building hated the store being there, and eventually said they didn’t want to rent to homosexuals.
“That’s illegal now and basically that attitude is gone in Center City, but that was kind of just the reality, they really would only rent to us on backstreets,” Hermance said.
Hermance explained that buying a property wasn’t really a possibility because of how little money the store was bringing in. So when it came time to place a downpayment on the current 345 S. 12th St. property, the money, and help with the much needed renovations, came from more 100 members of the gay community.
Aside from the discrimination that was common during the time, a second snag in the growth of the store and gay community, according to Hermance, was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, which he noted when summarizing the history of the store.
“That was an overwhelming experience for everyone, especially in the beginning when nobody at the state, federal, local level would say anything; the government was paralyzed,” Hermance said. “There was no public health info published whatsoever for years, and during that time the gay community was obviously on its own.”
Hermance said that the Philly gay community, as well as the store’s, response to the epidemic was to produce small, foldout booklets with information about how to practice safe sex. Congress condoned it in one session, the public health clinic at Broad and Lombard streets was forbidden to give any out, so people would come to the store, “stuff their pockets,” and distribute them.
“It’s scary when the government is against you, not to mention the reason the government is against you,” Hermance said. “It was a pretty horrible time.”
But out of adversity came a vibrant neighborhood center. Today, the community has rallied around the store once more, when Giovanni’s was required by the city to put up $50,000 for repairs and upgrades to the building’s facade. Because of its situation in a historical neighborhood, these general repairs become very expensive.
Various fundraising efforts and donations have brought the store close to its fundraising goal. Hermance describes the situation as “very like those days when people were renting us the money for the downpayment on the building, and renovating it, working like dogs.”
The decline of the publishing industry, coupled with the rise of Kindles and eBooks, also is a challenge faced by Giovanni’s Room. But Giovanni’s has kept with the times and entered the eBook realm, with more than two million of them available on its website. And Hermance said that any book found online can be called into the store and ordered.
“In some ways the store is still unique in being a gay business in that what we sell is gay,” Hermance said. “There’s lots of gay friendly places and companies that are operated by [GLBT] folks in a way that was unimaginable not so long ago. But this is a store that is specifically, ‘this is what we do, this is what we have to say.’”
Though its role continues to change, the store remains a source of knowledge and acceptance for GLBT people, both in the immediate area and from across the world.
Giovanni’s acts as a tourist destination – a role that will likely increase with the dedication of a historical marker at the store at Outfest, on Oct. 9.
Kara Savidge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.