The nation’s oldest LGBT bookstore might soon have its legacy recognized by a state agency — as well as all passersby around 12th and Spruce streets.
A group of community leaders recently submitted an application to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for an historical marker to be secured outside Giovanni’s Room. The only other LGBT marker in the state was installed at Sixth and Chestnut streets in 2005 to recognize the 1960s LGBT-rights demonstrations that took place there.
The application, sent out last month, was spearheaded by the Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus, the Philadelphia Navigaytour, the city’s director of LGBT affairs Gloria Casarez, Washington Square West Civic Association, Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation, PGN and Equality Forum, in conjunction with Giovanni’s Room itself. An independent panel of experts will review all of the marker applications this month and make its final recommendations to the PHMC in March.
“Giovanni’s Room has really been one of the central gathering places for our communities,” Casarez said. “In many ways, it serves as an anchor for the community, both physically and otherwise. Giovanni’s Room has actually been around for longer than we’ve had a community center, even though it was only by a few months, but in many ways this place has always been where we can gather informally and find community, and that’s something we thought should be honored.”
Tami Sortman, president of the Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus, noted the importance of the bookstore not just to local residents, but to gays and lesbians visiting the city.
“Giovanni’s Room is more than just a bookstore, it is an icon in the LGBT community,” she said. “It is the starting point for the thousands of gay and lesbian travelers who come to Philadelphia every year. Its comfortable atmosphere in the middle of the Gayborhood, its products and free advice anticipate a traveler’s needs. Giovanni’s Room is special to Philadelphia and a comfortable place to start your visit to our gay-friendly, old city.”
The wording for the marker proposed in the application, which may be edited by the panel, reads: “Giovanni’s Room, founded in 1973, served as a bookstore, clearinghouse and meeting place at the onset of the lesbian and gay civil-rights movement, a time when one could be ostracized, arrested, or fired for loving someone of the same gender.”
A narrative included in the application cites the store’s many accomplishments — such as its growth from just under 100 titles in 1973, which accounted for every LGBT book published at the time, to the thousands it offers now — and also references prominent former staffers like the late famed author Joseph Beam and publishing giant James Baker.
The application also made mention of the recent community outpouring that has raised about $35,000 toward the $50,000 reconstruction of one of the store’s walls, noting the importance of the store to the local LGBT community.
Ed Hermance, store owner, said the recent community support is reminiscent of the response the store saw in 1979, after being forced out of its former building by what Hermance said was homophobia on the part of the landlord.
“I’ve said it a number of times that if someone had come and dumped a $50,000 check on us, it wouldn’t have had the same kind of stimulating effect that this has had,” Hermance said. “Hundreds of people have spent time, energy and intelligence to figure out how to raise money and producing fundraising events. And even hundreds more have taken part in those events and donated. It really feels like it did in ’79, when about 100 people came and volunteered to renovate our new building.”
The application was supported by numerous newspaper clippings that trace the store’s progress over the past 36-plus years, as well as by letters from Casarez, Sortman, PGN publisher Mark Segal, Philly Pride Presents executive director Franny Price and Washington West Civic Association president Judy Applebaum.