The doors to the nation’s oldest LGBT bookstore have been closed all summer. But a deal was inked last week that will reopen them.
On Aug. 16, Philly AIDS Thrift signed a two-year lease to rent the Gayborhood building that houses Giovanni’s Room — and to open a new business that will, in part, keep the iconic name.
Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room will open Oct. 10, with sneak-peak shopping days throughout September. The store will offer new and used LGBT-centric books, as well as a wide variety of higher-end thrift-shop items.
The new store will be considered an outpost of PAT’s successful flagship store at 710 S. Fifth St. PAT is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt charitable organization, which donates proceeds from sales to AIDS Fund, which distributes funding to area HIV/AIDS service organizations.
PAT office manager Alan Chelak will manage the new shop, which will operate with two full-time employees and six people in all on payroll.
Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room will encompass the 3,000-square-foot building at the corner of 12th and Pine streets It will stock $15,000 worth of LGBT-related books, about 2,000 titles, as well as items such as clothing, jewelry and small furniture.
The store will still offer books and ebooks online at www.queerbooks.com.
Chelak told PGN the store would operate similar to PAT’s Queen Village location, with a majority of labor from volunteers and inventory from donations.
Chelak said he hopes to continue the book readings and events Giovanni’s Room previously hosted.
In September, Giovanni’s Room founder Ed Hermance, who started the business in 1976, announced his plan to retire and sell both the business and building. But, the store closed in May after a deal was unable to be reached. At the time, Hermance said he was in talks with a local LGBT-related organization interested in the space, although he did not disclose the group’s name publicly.
“I remember reading the article in the fall when Ed first announced he was looking for a buyer,” said PAT co-founder Tom Brennan. “I thought it was interesting, so the board talked about the possibility and then we called Ed.”
Brennan said the board approached Hermance with a plan for the new venture.
“We had a long talk and then met him in person throughout the summer and within a week or two we had a basic idea of what we wanted to do and he liked it,” Brennan said.
PAT co-founder Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou said the opportunity was a natural one for the store.
“We’re in the business of preserving precious things and what can be more precious than Giovanni’s Room?” she said.
The PAT board officially voted in favor of leasing the space last month, but both Brennan and Kallas-Saritsoglou said the store has been collecting more higher-end items for the outpost since the beginning of the summer.
Hermance told PGN that it “feels good” to finally let go of the store he owned for 35 years.
“We’ve been struggling for so long and I think Philly AIDS Thrift has a real chance of turning it around and making it profitable again,” he said.
Brennan said the opportunity to take over Giovanni’s Room was a once-in-a-lifetime chance the store could not afford to miss.
“You only have one shot,” he said. “People were thinking some other LGBT group would take over it but it has to be something that will make sense for us to do. If anyone is in the position to do it, we are.”
Since opening in 2005, PAT has generated nearly $900,000 for HIV/AIDS causes. The flagship shop moved to its current location in 2011 and last fall expanded its sales space by 50 percent.
Kallas-Saritsoglou said it was too early to predict how much monthly fundraising the new outpost will generate for AIDS Fund.
“We won’t know until we open the doors,” she said. “But nine years ago, we opened a smaller space and started giving $500 a month pretty fast. Now, in a much larger space, we’re up to $20,000 a month. Originally, we started the store from scratch and totally word of mouth, but Giovanni’s is already so known and loved that we hope the monthly number can be a significant one, at a faster pace.”
Hermance said he will be on the premises the first week to answer employee questions and assist with general operations, but that he otherwise hopes to serve as a back-up employee for the small staff if someone goes on vacation or gets sick.
Hermance said he will miss the connections he made at the store through its nearly 40-year tenure, but said he will continue to be involved with the LGBT community in one capacity or another.
“I have had thoughts of offering walking tours of LGBT Philadelphia on a regularly scheduled basis,” he said.
Brennan declined to identify how much PAT will be paying in rent, but said Hermance was generous in the agreement, and that the amount “barely covers Ed’s property taxes on the building.”
Brennan said Hermance will act as landlord and, after the two-year lease is up, they will reevaluate the success of the store.
“Nothing is a sure thing, so we can’t just keep it running because it is historical,” he said. “We think our version of Giovanni’s Room will be successful but the bottom line is we can’t keep it going just because we love Giovanni’s Room, so at the end of two years, if it becomes successful, we’ll talk to Ed about a long-term lease or buying the building. It’ll be a big undertaking.”
PAT started moving inventory in on Monday.
Chelak, who was among the movers, said the LGBT bookstore was one of the first places in which he stopped when he first visited Philadelphia a few years ago.
“Just the historical importance of it and being able to be involved in any capacity, especially in the Amazon age when keeping independent bookstores alive is really important, is wonderful,” he said.
The Giovanni’s Room sign and rainbow flag will remain outside the store, but Brennan said organizers will likely add a banner or poster in the window displaying the new name. Also remaining in place will be the historical marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, placed in 2011 after a campaign from local community leaders, denoting the store’s historical significance.
Brennan added that the new store should preserve the Giovanni’s Room moniker as the oldest LGBT bookstore in the country.
Chelak, a former PAT volunteer, said he has been working with Hermance for the past month to learn the ropes on operating the store.
Kallas-Saritsoglou said she’s confident Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room will be in good hands.
“I am just so happy it will be Alan running the place but I am sad I won’t be working with him directly,” she said. “He is so wonderful and has book experience, and this is a wonderful experience for him. He is the perfect match.”
Chelak said there is a sense of relief knowing PAT will be involved in keeping the spirit of Giovanni’s Room alive.
“It makes it 10 times better,” he said. “We get to keep the space going and create and nurture positive relationships with the community, and the money we make will continue to go to an amazing cause.”
As far as advice for the staff at Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room, Hermance said it is all about being attuned to what the community wants.
“You really have to be all ears and eyes to identify new forthcoming books, which is not as easy as it used to be,” he said. “I am hoping it will be bigger and better but still include some of the older stuff, so it still feels like home.”
Community-mindedness will be at the forefront of Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room, said Kallas-Saritsoglou.
“I only see wonderful things happening with this,” she said. “Ed and I did similar things. He has created a safe space for people and we do that at Philly AIDS Thrift — it is a communal kind of space. We created a space where people can hang out and we have a ton of regulars. We created a place for all walks of life and we will continue what Ed has already created there in that matter. We have that vision."