A Room for Us All
In 2013, Giovanni’s Room Bookstore, at 12th and Pine Streets, turned forty. At the time, it was the oldest existing LGBT bookstore in the country; a real treasure for Philadelphia’s LGBT community. What was to be a celebratory entry here turned into a memorial when the bookstore closed in May of 2014.
BEGINNINGS: BOYLE, WILSON WEINBERG AND SHERBO
Giovanni’s Room has always been more than just a bookstore, it’s been a meeting place, a community center when there was no community center, a safe haven for those just coming out, and a resource for finding information on all things LGBT. The first store, above, opened at 232 South Street on August 1, 1973. Its three original founders, Bernie Boyle, (now deceased), Tom Wilson Weinberg and Dan Sherbo, left, had been members of the Gay Activists Alliance and worked on The Gay Alternative, a gay literary magazine published in Philadelphia. It was a time when gay liberation was new and the air was electric with possibility.
They named the business after James Baldwin’s 1956 novel—joking that Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness” sounded a bit bleak and foreboding. The three men were inspired by Craig Rodwell‘s Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore in New York, the first gay bookstore in the country. Boyle, Wilson Weinberg and Sherbo were fearless young radicals, with no business plan or experience, but with plenty of enthusiasm and optimism. When the bookstore opened its doors on the dilapidated, abandoned strip that was South Street in the early 70s, it was one of the few storefronts on the block that was not boarded up—but rent was an affordable $85 a month. At a time when gay bars were masked by painted over windows and hidden in side streets, Giovanni’s Room was was a clearly visible gay street presence in the city. Under Rodwell’s guidance, they made regular trips to New York, pushing shopping carts up the aisles of wholesale bookstores like Bookazine in the West Village, paying cash for books by Radclyffe Hall, Walt Whitman, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. The three men ran the store for almost two years, hosting poetry readings and discussion groups, barely managing to fill the shelves with an inventory of fewer than 100 books. In September of 1975, they sold the business to Quaker friend Pat Hill. below, for $500.
Artist-activist Pat claimed that leaving her civil service job to run the store was “like running away with the circus.” She certainly didn’t do it for the money. There was none to be made; every cent went back into the store. Pat continued her predecessors’ tradition of using the space for public events, hosting women’s evenings, bands and a popular series called “Wine, Women and Song.” Next door, at 230 South Street, The Knave of Hearts Restaurant which had opened on Valentine’s Day of 1975, was at the forefront of what was to be known as Philadelphia’s “Restaurant Renaissance.” Pat had thought about raising money to buy the building at 232, but the Knave of Hearts owner Ty Bailey beat her to it. In late 1976, rather than undertaking a move, Pat sold the business to Arleen Olshan and Ed Hermance for back taxes and the same $500 she had paid for it.
OLSHAN AND HERMANCE
Arleen and Ed moved the store to 1426 Spruce Street, above, just west of Broad, on the same block as the Allegro bar. The Kimmel Center stands there now. Pat had met Arleen through Philadelphia lesbian circles and knew she would be a good steward of the Giovanni’s legacy. Arleen in turn had met Ed through the early Gay Community Center, where she served as Co-Coordinator and Ed served as Treasurer. Together, they would run the first gender parity lesbian and gay bookstore in America, unusual in a time when lesbians and gay men were becoming drastically divergent.
The late 1970s saw a tremendous explosion in LGBT publishing and their stock grew from hundreds of titles to thousands. Olshan and Hermance made sure the store carried a wide range of titles and subjects, some of which they did not necessarily personally agree with but felt important to include: pornography, pederasty, S&M. No subject was tabu; Giovanni’s Room was to be a forum for the free exchange of ideas. Over time, adhering to this policy of openness earned them both controversy and praise.
Olshan, center, and Rita Mae Brown, right
The store remained on Spruce Street only a little over two years. The family who bought the property in 1979 were not at all comfortable with an LGBT business in their building. Ed recalls that the family matriarch would stand in the hall and shout for him to bring the rent out—she wouldn’t set foot in the store. Ed and Arleen were told they had to move.
12th and Pine Streets, 1958
Wanting to keep the bookstore on a main street, they looked at space in the new Center City One building, but were refused, on the grounds that “they would attract too many gay people to the area.” With the help of loans from friends and family, they were able to buy the property on the corner of Pine and Twelfth Streets, above. Hours of volunteer labor turned the run down storefront and wholesale antiques warehouse into the largest LGBT bookstore in the country. By the mid-1980s, the stock reached nearly 15,000 titles. Through most of the 1980s, when Philadelphia city health services carried almost no HIV-AIDS related material, the store published an AIDS bibliography every year, serving as the primary source of AIDS information for many Philadelphians.
In 1986, Arleen left the business and Texas born Ed, above, became the sole owner. In 1986, Ed bought the building next door, breaking through walls to double the retail space. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the store entered its most successful period, with sales peaking at $93,000 the month following Bill Clinton’s election. By the late 1990s, Giovanni’s Room was the principal supplier of American gay, lesbian and feminist books to stores in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Over the years the store hosted about fifty readings annually, featuring authors like Leslie Feinberg, Samuel R. Delany, Alison Bechdel, Edmund White, Kate Bornstein, Greg Louganis, and many others of local and international prominence. When New York’s Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore closed in 2009, Giovanni’s Room became the nation’s oldest existing LGBT bookstore. In 2011, Pennsylvania honored the store with a state marker to commemorate its significance to Philadelphia’s LGBT community.
Just as the store was being honored for its long and distinguished history, the twenty first century was taking its toll on bookstores everywhere. Local businesses like Giovanni’s Room were finding it impossible to compete with big-box chains and online megastores like Amazon. In 2013, Ed Hermance announced that he was retiring. On May 17th, 2014, with the future of the building still uncertain, Giovanni’s Room closed its doors after 40 years of serving Philadelphia’s LGBT community. It will be sorely missed. Thank you, Ed.
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On August 16, 2014, it was announced that Philly AIDS Thrift (PAT) had signed a two year lease on the building. It opened as Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room on September 12. Clicking on the photo below will take you to the PGN story.
PGN Photo: Scott A. Drake
• Photo of Boyle, Wilson Weinberg and Sherbo from the May 12, 1974 Sunday Inquirer Magazine.
• Photo of Pat Hill by Joan C. Meyers
• Other photos and flyers from the collection at the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives of Philadelphia
• Much of the information contained here is from a fortieth anniversary oral history celebration, photo above, held at the William Way Center on March 11, 2014. The event was put together beautifully by John Cunningham. From left to right, moderator John Cunningham, Ed Hermance, Arleen Olshan, Pat Hill, Tom Wilson Weinberg and Dan Sherbo. Video by Peter Lien.