Road to Stonewall: Giovanni's Room

Road to Stonewall: Giovanni's Room

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The historic marker outside Giovanni’s Room bookstore at the corner of 12th and Pine Streets in the heart of the Gayborhood reads, “Founded in 1973, the bookstore served as a refuge and cultural center at the onset of the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights movement. The store provided resources to those working to gain legal rights for LGBT people.”

While succinct and accurate, those two sentences don’t begin to cover the impact and import of Giovanni’s Room since its founding a few years after Stonewall. When it closed in May 2014 (now reopened under Philadelphia AIDS Thrift), Giovanni’s Room billed itself as “the oldest and largest lesbian, gay and feminist bookstore in the world,” with an inventory of more than 20,000 books. Giovanni’s Room had survived and thrived over more than four decades while other iconic LGBT bookstores across the country had closed.

Founded by three gay activists, Bernie Boyle, Tom Wilson-Weinberg and Dan Sherbo, the bookstore began as a one-room shop at 232 South Street. Named for the iconic James Baldwin novel about gay men — the founders joked that Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness” was too downbeat a title — the bookstore was only the second gay bookstore in the country. The three founders were members of Gay Activists Alliance and each wrote for The Gay Alternative, an early gay newspaper. They sought to create both a meeting space for gay people and access to queer literature.

In 1973, South Street was different. Few businesses existed and it was far from the underground political and social mecca that was then centered in Rittenhouse Square and Sansom Street head shops and coffee houses like The 2nd Fret.

It wasn’t long before the bookstore became a locus of activist meetings and a place to hang out for those who either eschewed the bars or were too young to get in. With its declarative flag of lavender interlocking male and female symbols hanging above the door, Giovanni’s Room was out and proud in a still-closeted world.

Boyle, Wilson-Weinberg and Sherbo bought inventory from remainder houses and learned what they could from Craig Rodwell who had founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore in New York in 1967, the nation’s first gay bookstore.

Giovanni’s Room’s inventory was small — about 100 books — when the trio sold the shop two years later to its next owner, lesbian activist and artist Pat Hill. She bought the shop for $500.

Hill built on what Boyle, Wilson-Weinberg and Sherbo had established and focused on making the shop a mini-gay arts center almost immediately. She hosted writers, artists and musicians. A popular lesbian event, Wine, Women and Song, featured local performers and women from the burgeoning Women’s Music scene. Giovanni’s Room was fast becoming a hub for gay and lesbian Philadelphians in those early days, post-Stonewall.

Introducing Philadelphia to out gay and lesbian authors meant more than putting books on the shelves and in the hands of patrons, it meant spreading the word that there was a public space where these books were displayed without shame.

It was the beginning of a mini-cultural renaissance that Giovanni’s Room would foment for the next four decades, as the bookstore became a cultural and political mecca for Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community.

Yet the labor of love so exciting that Hill once said it was like “running away to join the circus,” was as crushing a financial burden for Hill as it had been for the previous owners. What’s more, South Street was beginning to change and rents were rising. Hill had hoped to buy the building at 232 South Street, but it was bought by the restaurant next door and soon Hill found the expenses mounting against sales that were less than brisk.

Hill sold the business to Arleen Olshan and Ed Hermance for the same $500 she had paid for it, plus back taxes. 

Olshan, who Hill knew from lesbian feminist organizing, and Hermance moved the bookstore uptown, to the first floor of a brownstone at 1426 Spruce Street. Olshan and Hermance worked to make Giovanni’s Room a viable business, rallying volunteers to help with that goal.

It was a struggle, but Olshan and Hermance each used their connections within the community to make Giovanni’s Room a hub for queer writers and writing. Olshan spoke often of how they would continuously call publishers and write to authors to secure big-name writers for readings and book signings. 

In 1979, the bookstore was forced to move again due to a homophobic landlord and settled in its permanent location on the corner of 12th and Pine Streets in the heart of the Gayborhood. There, in a building built in 1880, the business grew to become one of the most important LGBTQ venues in Philadelphia history. A few years later the bookstore expanded, buying the trinity next door, which was built in 1820. The historic bookstore was now housed in a historic space.

Ed Hermance said of his decades running Giovanni’s Room, “no one ever ran a gay bookstore to get rich. Giovanni’s Room certainly never provided more than a modest income for its owners and paid staff. So why do people open and operate gay bookstores? In my case, for personal as well as political reasons. The personal becomes political.”

Hermance said that as a gay man born in the South in 1940, who had read through three encyclopedias by the time he was 14, the only comments about homosexuality for the “first 30 years of my life” were “expressions of fear and contempt, fear of contamination of self and society and contempt for weak, unnatural perverts. Homosexuals were seen as threats to the family and the continuation of the species.”

Hermance’s life’s work was building an inventory of thousands of books by, about and for “homosexuals” and all LGBTQ people to open doors for queer folks the world over, achieved through the bookstore’s thriving mail-order business.

While Giovanni’s Room has become a landmark after nearly 50 years of operation, it was those early years that made the bookstore so critical to the Philadelphia LGBTQ community, providing a keystone for those of whom the bookstore was their first gay experience.

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 the community. 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.

Walking into Giovanni’s Room in the middle of an afternoon was a revolutionary act. The mere fact of its existence seemed incendiary. Seeing those books, watching others picking them up and reading them — for the queer person going into Giovanni’s Room, it meant that they were not alone anymore. Those books represented community and Olshan and Hermance were building it.

In that first decade after Stonewall, Giovanni’s Room was a lifeline, an anchor, a visible monument that existed day and night. It wasn’t like the no-name bars and clubs that had windows that were blacked out without signs indicating what they were. Giovanni’s Room dared to speak its name. The bookstore was its own beacon, its own self-contained world of queerness, there, in the middle of one of the city’s best neighborhoods. Giovanni’s Room was a symbol of what the Stonewall Rebellion had wrought every single day.

Hundreds of authors, artists, musicians, athletes and celebrities gave readings and book signings at Giovanni’s Room over the years. James Baldwin himself turned up in 1987 for a whirlwind 10-minute visit after years of requests from Hermance and Olshan.

The new incarnation, PAT at Giovanni’s Room still holds literary events, feting local and national authors, serving a new generation of LGBTQ people, but in those first years, Giovanni’s Room was the place that told many closeted LGBTQ Philadelphians that there was community, literature and a foundation upon which to build an out queer life.

On the road after Stonewall, Giovanni’s Room provided the stories and faces to go with a hidden culture the LGBTQ community needed. Even today, when one can buy whatever LGBTQ book one wants via Amazon, it’s not the same as walking the stacks at Giovanni’s Room and discovering a new author or an old one, a foreign writer or a local, a writer you never knew was LGBTQ or an LGBTQ voice that finally represented you.

“If ever a business was created by a community, this is it,” Hermance said in a 2008 interview for the bookstore’s 35th anniversary. “People made this place with their blood and guts.”

He said, “From the very beginning, we sent the message that we are above ground and out of the closet. Homosexuals are not vermin seeking the shadows. We’re not afraid. We bring people together.” 

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