Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia is the oldest gay bookstore in the United States

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When Giovanni’s Room opened in 1973, it was only the second LGBTQ bookstore in the country. It came right after New York’s Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, which suffered a decline in sales and closed in 2009.

This made Philly’s queer literary outpost the oldest in the nation – and played a central role in the lives of many.

The first time Kelly Rial visited the bookstore on 12th and Pine Streets, she looked both ways before entering. Rial hadn’t come out as a tranny at the time. She wanted to find out who she was, but she didn’t want to be caught.

“I think a lot of first-time people have a similar reaction,” said Rial, now a 70-year-old South Philly resident. “Look around and make sure that nobody walks in.”

The bookstore was an oasis for Rial. At home, her parents sent her to a psychiatrist when they suspected that she was a transident. But there were gay memoirs and lesbian non-fiction in Giovanni’s room. There were feminist readings, muscle magazines, and LGBTQ-friendly travel guides for big cities. It helped her find herself – and eventually get out.

“It’s comfortable,” said Rial. “You have the feeling that you are talking openly and openly about topics that you cannot talk about in other places.”

Within a few decades, the experience that meant so much to Rial and the rest of the city’s LGBTQ community was in jeopardy. The financial outlook for the popular Gayborhood bookstore was so dire that the owner said he had to close it for good.

A few months later, Giovanni’s room opened as suddenly as it disappeared.

“Continuing the legacy of the bookstore was very important to us from the start,” says current manager Alan Chelak, who oversaw the reopening in 2014. “And the rest is history.”

With the support of the Philly AIDS Thrift thrift store and a team of employees and volunteers, Chelak took over the traditional bookstore and made it a success again. He messed up the business model and made the choices more extensive – and actually started making a profit. The two book floors are fully stocked again and the exterior is draped with LGBTQ works of art in the public space.

Keeping the world’s queer indie bookstores alive can have a huge impact. Safe spaces remain as important as ever – with 2021 being the most violent year for transsexuals ever recorded.

“This is a safe place for everyone,” said Chelak. “When you’re out and about hanging out with the norms, you kind of have to get on stage. But when you are here, that falls away and you can be your real self. “

Kimberly Paynter / WHY?

When it first launched near 2nd and South, Giovanni’s Room had fewer than 100 titles available for purchase and was operated “discreetly” to avoid discrimination, according to a 1998 Inquirer report.

Back then, the bookstore could have been described as an outsider. Open queer entrepreneurship was virtually non-existent in Philadelphia outside of the gay nightlife.

But like most of the misfits in Philadelphia, the bookstore flourished. Then-owner Ed Hermance told the Inquirer that they were benefiting from a gay “information revolution” – a deluge of literature suddenly published about LGBTQ life. Sales more than doubled from 1976 to 1979, the range grew to over 2,000 titles with a successful mail order company by the side.

“We’re the largest gay bookstore in the world,” Hermance told the Inquirer in 1998. “Our culture is getting stronger and it’s now more comfortable than ever.”

Rhinestone heels among the personnel book picks
Kimberly Paynter / WHY?

It wasn’t always easy. In order to enlarge the bookstore, the owners moved the shop to the 15th and Fichte in 1976. The new landlord’s homophobia forced them to leave within three years, and they ended up at the current location, 12. and Pine.

And by 2014, e-commerce had leveled the lead that Giovanni’s Room once had on the LGBTQ market. Hermance had lost between $ 10,000 and $ 15,000 trying to keep the bookstore afloat and it burned out.

Could someone else save the place? He was pessimistic.

“Whatever you do, it has to be different from what we’re doing now,” Hermance said to Philly Mag at the time. “It won’t survive if it’s not different.”

Shot, hit hunters. Under Philly AIDS Thrift, Chelak took over four months later.

Vintage capes, literary classics and art books
Kimberly Paynter / WHY?

Chelak knew he had to diversify the choice of store. There were few titles by trans writers and for trans readers. There was even less for two-minded individuals – the intersection of indigenous and LGBTQ identities. Before opening, the nonprofit invested $ 15,000 to revamp its inventory.

A longtime Philly AIDS Thrift employee Chelak came up with another addition to the store – one he thought might save. Used goods.

“So we have new and used LGBT books here,” he said. “But you can also get records, CDs, DVDs, vintage clothing, and all sorts of weird ephemera from literally all over the world. And those are things that the people in the community just give us. “

Giovanni’s Room now works like a kind of bookstore-thrift store hybrid. There are still the two floors of literature – from erotic to transhistory. But now they have diversified their inventory with no new overheads as all used sweaters, shoes, postcards, and knickknacks will be donated.

Richard Smith, a 41 year old volunteer, behind the counter in Giovanni's Room
Kimberly Paynter / WHY?

“When I first came here, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is a bookstore, what’s going on here?'” Said Rial, who now works in the store two days a week. “But I think that saved this place because it attracted a lot more people.”

In its first year of operation under Philly AIDS Thrift, Giovanni’s Room made approximately $ 1,000 in profit. By 2018, Chelak had saved enough to buy the 12th and Pine buildings. Now, as with Philly AIDS Thrift, all proceeds have been donated to local organizations that fight HIV / AIDS.

Admittedly, that was what brought regular customer Jeffrey Urbano into the house first. The 30-year-old Center City resident first stumbled into the store for the selection of second-hand goods. Then he realized what an enrichment it is.

“There’s a huge community of people here who want to connect and have different safe havens,” said Urbano, who is gay. “Simply to shop in peace or to find certain items that identify with you, with your person and your authenticity.”


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