The owner of the nation's oldest gay bookstore appears to be writing his final chapter, confirming this past Monday that he plans to close the financially troubled shop this month. It's a thought I have been fearing for some time. Giovanni's Room, founded in 1971, has been losing money "for a long time" due in part to competition from online discount booksellers, and big box booksellers said owner Ed Hermance.
Giovanni's Room is named for the 1956 James Baldwin novel about a young man in postwar Paris struggling with his sexual identity. It's believed to be the nation's oldest independent bookstore specializing in titles written by and for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. New York's Oscar Wilde bookstore had previously held the title until it closed in 2009.
Giovanni's Room had two locations in Philadelphia before moving to its current site in the city's affectionately named Gayborhood section. Ed and his business partner borrowed money to buy a two-story brick row house there in 1979. Seven years later, they bought the row house next door and expanded the shop. Volunteers put in countless hours over the years to help out.
When I first heard the news, I wasn't shocked, but extremely sad, as I have such fond memories of the place. It was the first place I'd go to get literature when I visited Philly in the early 90's, about the gay lifestyle, and being gay, when I came out. Even thought I was always comfortable with being gay, the books helped. It was also a safe haven tucked in the gayborhood, with mostly gay shoppers, so no fear in perusing the books and magazines. One could hear readings by prominent LGBT authors including Armistead Maupin and Rita Mae Brown. During the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Ed said, the shop was the first place some people came after being diagnosed — to find information and for emotional support. Giovanni's Room had a great selection of music, coffee table books, your usual gay " flags and bumper stickers and fare", hard to find titles, gift selection, and a huge selection of every gay periodical known. The place was cool inside too. Two floors to travel, a swanky artistic chandlier on the second floor made by a local artisan, and the people working and shopping were always so friendly. Skip Strickler, the store's only full-time employee, has worked there for 35 years. He said he's anticipated the closing for a while now, and described it as a dignified exit. I would stop almost every time when in center city to get my periodicals and grab more books. Some I haven't even read yet!!!! They also had a great card selection. And one could always expect to see Ed and Skip there. So yesterday the Lad and I stopped in to say our good byes, it is like loosing a good friend.
To me the shop has been a wonderful gift to the LGBT community and I admired Ed's perseverance to holding on for so long. A great and safe place for young gaylings to reach out, and find literature and solence. I sometimes feel sorry for the newer generation as I'm not sure they will ever experience this feeling.
Giovanni's Room is slated to close by mid May.
Thanks for the warm and fond memories Ed, and staff of Giovanni's Room.