“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.” — Barbara Tuchman
For a lot of people in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, Giovanni’s Room was a place that was instrumental in their coming-out process. It was a place where you could find people who were like you, when you might not have known a single gay person in the world. But when you walked in that door, unlike anywhere else, you knew that the person behind the counter would be sympathetic It was a place to get information on myriad topics or to find novels to help you get away from it all. Before the Internet, Giovanni’s Room was my personal “Philly Gay Calendar.” I’d call up and ask whoever was at the desk to read the fliers on the bulletin board and tell me what was happening that weekend. I could call trying to find out how to get in contact with a particular organization and the person at the desk would usually be able to supply me with a name and phone number. It was a meeting place and a space where you could meet all sorts of authors and poets and people making change in the community. And happily, as it gears up to celebrate its 40th anniversary, Giovanni’s Room is still all those things.
Founded in 1973, Giovanni’s Room Bookstore is named after James Baldwin’s novel of the same name. This week, we took a moment to speak to Dan Sherbo, one of the three original owners. An accomplished illustrator, Sherbo now resides in Maryland with his husband and two cats.
PGN: How long did you live in Philadelphia?
DS: I lived in Philadelphia for 11 years.
PGN: Where are you originally from?
DS: From a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, Athens. It’s up at the New York state border. There’s a lot of fracking going on up there now, which has changed the whole nature of the place. It was just a small town in a valley between the mountain ridges on the Susquehanna River when I was growing up. It was a farming community mostly, population 2,000. I think there were about 120 in my graduating class. Everybody knew each other.
PGN: What were you voted most likely to do?
DS: I was expected to go into theater. I actually went to Temple University intending to go into theater but my life skewed off in a different direction.
PGN: What prompted the transition?
DS: It was 1969 and I joined the cultural revolution. What can I say, drugs had a big effect, and I dropped out of school. From that point on, I was living life and coming out and I got involved in the nascent gay-liberation movement. Eventually I did go back to school and got a degree at Tyler School of Fine Arts and became legitimate.
PGN: How long was the gap?
DS: I was out of school for six years. During a large part of that time was when I was acting as coordinator for the Gay Alternative Magazine, which is how I got involved with the Gay Activist Alliance, which incidentally is where I met Mark Segal. He must’ve been about 19 or 20 at the time. At the time, the Gay Alternative Magazine was a celebrated literary magazine of which there were only a few at the time. The magazine was a very modest scale but attracted a lot of top-notch contributors such as Martin Duberman and others who have gone on to make names for themselves as historians or writers. That’s when one of the staff members, Bernie Boyle, and I got the idea that Philadelphia needed a gay bookstore. We got Tom Wilson Weinberg involved and the three of us opened Giovanni’s Room. The bookstore became the headquarters for the magazine and a place for meetings; pretty much anything that needed to happen for the community happened there.
PGN: You were on South Street back then, correct?
DS: Yes, I think it was 232 South, right next to Knave of Hearts.
PGN: What were some of the early fears? I remember reading stories about bookstores having trouble getting books through customs back in the day.
DS: You know, we were fearless back then. But we weren’t even at that level of sophistication to worry about international customs. We were just flying by the seat of our pants. As far as I can remember, we acquired all our books from a warehouse in the village in New York. We would just go in and pull books from the shelves as if we were shopping for cereal and put them in a big cart. Craig Rodwell from Oscar Wilde bookstore told us about it. He helped us a lot and gave us advice about what kind of books to get, what kind of publications, etc.
PGN: Since we’re on the topic of books, tell me about your work as an illustrator. DS: That was a result of the six years I took to work as an activist. It was great but left me really, really poor! I never had any money at all and as I looked around, a lot of my friends had careers and cars and nice apartments and were thinking about making a future for themselves. I decided I needed to get something of my own. I wanted to find a job that would be lucrative but that I would also have a passion for. I got an opportunity to go back to school so I jumped at it and spent four years at Tyler School of Art.
PGN: What was your first paying job?
DS: I did a weekly illustration for the now-defunct Washington Star newspaper. I moved to Washington the day of my last class. There was a guy who worked in Congress I had met while visiting D.C., so I moved down there for love. I got a regular gig doing a column in the Sunday magazine of the Washington Star, which was the rival to the Washington Post. That paper folded within a couple of years but by that time I was working for the Washington Post as an illustrator. [Laughs.] When I first began, they tried to get me to do things like weather maps. In those days they would actually cut out little pieces of paper and paste them on with wax to make a weather map and I was terrible at it! I was trained at Tyler to do intricate illustrations and come up with ideas and concepts but when it came to doing that technical stuff, I was just a basket case. They learned that pretty quickly and began giving me the job of laying out pages and doing the majority of illustrations. This was during the hey days at the Washington Post, after the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate exposé, and it was a very exciting place to be.
PGN: Since that time, you’ve worked as an illustrator and designed for everyone from watch companies to mattress companies. What’s the oddest job you’ve had?
DS: I designed doormats. I still have a couple of them! [Laughs.] A guy that I met at a party owned a rug company. He asked me if I would be interested in designing rugs and doormats for him. He said it could be very lucrative if I took a percentage. I never made any money off of it but I got a few good doormats. When you’re an illustrator, unless and until you start getting really big clients who will pay you a ton of money, you take all sorts of jobs, anything that comes along, and you can get some funny work along the way. The mattress thing was for the National Bedding Institute. When you’re an illustrator, in Washington particularly, you get calls from all these crazy groups; every profession you can imagine has a lobbying group representing them in Washington and they all have publications. I will say there are a couple I flat-out refused to do: right-wing organizations like the Heritage Foundation who wanted to hire me to do illustrations for their magazine. I told them absolutely not.
PGN: That’s crazy. But did I read you designed a headstone?
DS: Yes, a friend’s brother died of AIDS and she asked me to design a graphic for his headstone.
PGN: Interesting. And what would you like on your headstone?
DS: Oh, I wouldn’t want a gravestone. I would want to be cremated and cast to the winds or something like that.
PGN: OK. As a tea lover, I have to ask which tea company you designed for.
DS: How do you know all this? It was Tatra Tea Company. They were located right outside of Philadelphia. I was still in art school and I designed a box for them that they were going to use for their line of teas. I don’t know that I got paid anything for it, but it was a pretty prestigious thing to have in my portfolio right out of school.
PGN: Who was your favorite illustrator and book as a kid?
DS: Favorite illustrator was probably Norman Rockwell and my favorite book was “Alice in Wonderland.”
PGN: I went to the Norman Rockwell Museum and had the most unintentionally funny tour guide.
DS: Ha. We took a tour of the Margaret Merriweather Post mansion here in Washington. She was the heiress to the Post cereal fortune and her husband was the ambassador to Russia. During the time of the revolution, she looted Russia and brought back all these treasures. There was a closet full of square-dancing outfits that we were fascinated by. I guess we were lingering too long and the tour guide kept saying, “Hurry up! Every one a treasure! Every one a treasure!”
PGN: Speaking of treasures [laughs], how did you start tap dancing?
DS: Well, it was one of those things. I have always loved Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and Ginger Rogers of course. Back in the day, a friend of mine and I used to go to independent theaters like TLA and watch the old Busby Berkeley musicals because they were so much fun and so campy. So when I turned 30, I thought, It’s now or never, and signed up for tap-dancing classes. Within a couple of years, I was performing and teaching. I seemed to have a natural feel for it. My jazz tap group did well and even got reviewed by the dance critic in the Washington Post. We got to the point where we had to decide if we were going to make it a career or disband. It was too much time and stress not to go one way or the other. We disbanded. But it was pretty darn nice while it lasted.
PGN: What’s your go-to karaoke song?
DS: Oh gosh, the only thing I can think of is “Everything’s Coming up Roses.” That’s a gay answer, isn’t it?
PGN: Who are Janet and Jackie?
DS: They are and were our cats. Janet died at the ripe old age of 19 in 2009 and Jackie is still with us. Janet was one of two cats that my husband and I got when they were eight weeks old. They were two little black-and-white kittens and we thought, Wouldn’t it be funny to stand outside and call “Janet, come here Janet”? They turned out to be both males but we called one Janet anyway and his brother was Bob. We thought it was kind of silly but it turned out to be a very interesting thing. It was a real learning experience for us and for our family and friends. It took a while to get used to using the pronoun “he” with the name Janet. Some people never got used to it, even after 19 years, but most of our family got very comfortable with thinking of Janet as a he. It taught us a lot about the association of words and names and gender. Janet was Janet and we loved him.
PGN: A learning lesson.
DS: Yes, which makes me think of something. Back in the early days of gay lib, when we opened up Giovanni’s Room and started the Gay Alternative Magazine, we had women in the group and they taught us so much. In those early years, we, as young gay men, were still men with the very sexist attitudes towards women that were prevalent in the early ’70s. It was the women who were part of the organization and who came into the bookstore who challenged us and our way of thinking and talking, and perceiving women. They really made feminists out of us, or at least gave a jolt to our consciousness. It was a great learning experience for us and helped us grow a lot faster in that realm.
PGN: Now that you’re all grown up, what are some of your hobbies currently?
DS: I run and I am an avid step-class fanatic. And I love reading.
PGN: Since this is our wedding issue, tell me a little bit about how you tied the knot.
DS: I married my husband, Tom Wilson, last year. We had a 29-year engagement. We have been living together and owning houses since 1987. In 2012, Maryland became the first state to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples by popular vote. So last year we got married legally in June and then we had a huge wedding at our house in the suburbs in August. We invited friends and family from around the country and it was really, really a meaningful thing for us, even after all these years.
PGN: I’ve heard a lot of couples speak about how surprised they were that it did seem to make a difference even after they’ve been together for a long time.
DS: You know something, we felt that too. We felt very much changed. Even as I’m talking to you looking down at the ring on my finger, I feel it. I mean we’ve been together long enough that we felt pretty secure in our relationship, but it really gives you much more of a bond and a commitment. Having a wedding ceremony in front of family and friends really cements it, makes it even more meaningful. I remember five or six years ago when people were first starting to talk about gay marriage I thought, You know we really don’t care about gay marriage, we just want the same rights and benefits. I don’t care about a ceremony or any of that stuff. But as marriage rights gained momentum around the country, I changed my tune and I’m glad I did. The experience really made a difference. It makes us equal. It doesn’t matter where we are or who is around us, I have that ring on my finger and it’s official. It’s a good thing. And I’m looking forward to the day when it’s recognized in all states. It’s really, really an exciting time to be in. Things are moving so fast! Back in 1973 when we opened Giovanni’s Room, we would never have even been able to dream that in such a relatively short amount of time, things could have changed so much. I think it’s incredible.
Join Giovanni’s Room at its 40th-anniversary celebration at 7:30 p.m. March 11 at William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St.
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