Giovanni’s Room and the Fate of LGBT Bookstores in a Dying Industry
Independent bookstores have been pillars in many LGBT communities across the United States for decades. Since the Supreme Court ruled that gay magazines were protected as free speech in the late 1950s, newsletters and publications circulated from reader to reader. In 1969, some of these underground publications found new brick-and-mortar homes in bookstores scattered across the country, like the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in Manhattan, Lambda Rising in Washington, D.C., A Different Light in San Francisco, and Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia.
Over the past two decades, many bookstores shuttered their windows for good. The entire bookstore industry—including big-box chains—has struggled, off and on, since the ‘90s. In 2016, the U.S. hosted fewer than half the number of bookstores that operated in 1992. However, LGBT shops have experienced disproportionate harm. Gay novelist and professor Michael Lowenthal describes writing when gay and lesbian bookstores were “at their peak, with close to 100 in operation across the United States.” Now, only a handful remain.
Among the first four LGBT bookstores in this country, only Giovanni’s Room remains. This place offers us a unique glimpse into the rise and fall of the queer bookstore industry, and it introduces us to the preservationist communities who are trying to save America’s LGBT bookstores.
Alan Chelak, the manager of Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room, the new name and face of the traditional bookstore, argues that we can preserve the memories of local LGBT communities when we save and adapt these bookshops.
Physical bookstores serve a unique role. As Chelak describes, “Booksellers have a specialized knowledge. They can put the perfect book, the book that you didn’t even know existed, in your hands. The book that you need just that second. Amazon can recommend titles to you, but you just don’t get … these personal experiences online.”
What’s more, the few surviving LGBT bookstores in the U.S. help patrons engage with books and with one another. Chelak says, “A couple will come in for their first or third or twentieth anniversary because this store is the place [where] they met or where they came on their first date.”
Among regular community events like pop-ups, comedian shows, author talks, and even a musical, Chelak says, “[Queer bookstores] allow people to experience something human and real.” Such bookstores grew during the AIDS crisis and the Civil Rights movement, when many LGBT people desperately needed safe venues in which to express themselves.
While queer bookstores shaped history by helping numerous LGBT people find the support that they needed, this legacy is far from over. “My favorite part about working here is that I get to see so many regular faces,” says Chelak. “Visiting the store is a weekly or even daily ritual in some people’s lives. Maybe they’ll buy something; maybe they won’t. But they keep coming, and that shows me that this store is an important part of this community.”
“Communities built places like Giovanni’s, and only communities can preserve them.”Alan Chelak
Giovanni’s Room is well-situated in Philadelphia, among icons of American history like the Liberty Bell. As the longest-operating LGBT bookstore in the country, the store attracts reverent guests from down the block, from other states, and even from other countries.
And educating visitors about the store’s original story was just as important to Chelak as preserving the building’s history. A sign stands outside the store to educate passerby about the site’s significance to local and national LGBT history.
The bookstore was originally a corner shop or a butcher shop. When Giovanni’s Room acquired the location, the new owners had to gut the structure. Chelak says, “Everything inside—the counters and bookshelves—was built on a shoestring budget by volunteers who wanted to see an LGBT bookstore in this community."
These first volunteers literally left their mark on this building. In the basement, workers’ names and signatures mark the concrete floor. Pictures of many of these same volunteers line the walls in his office. Chelak says he wants to honor the people who built this space: “They were doing this work when people were throwing bricks through the windows. It wasn’t easy for them back then, and it’s still not easy to be LGBTQ, but Giovanni’s wouldn’t be here without them.”
Chelak explains that Giovanni’s room warrants protection as he recounts the story of a young woman from Colombia. She visited the store on a cross-country tour. When Chelak asked the guest why she was traveling, she answered that she had come out as a lesbian to her family. Her mother wasn’t supportive. The young woman needed someone to help her find a book about affirming Christian beliefs. She wanted to send a book to her mother to show that other religious parents can have a positive relationship with their LGBT children. Months later, Chelak received a letter from the guest. Her mother had read the book, and the mother was now willing to start a conversation.
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“These spaces are so important because it creates those connections, and it is available to everyone,” he says. If a book can change someone’s life, Giovanni’s Room has impacted innumerable lives. Because Giovanni’s Room has touched so many people throughout its history, countless community members have rallied to protect it, even as so many other LGBT bookstores have died out.
When the previous manager announced that he was retiring, Chelak knew that the community would need to use an innovative approach to save this radical institution. While Giovanni’s Room was originally a for-profit bookstore, Philly AIDS Thrift—a nonprofit organization—now splits the space between a bookstore and a thrift store.
Philly AIDS Thrift is bringing changes that help the building and the bookstore survive, too. Profits from clothing sales and online purchases go to support patients with HIV/AIDS, and the book-turned-thrift store invites new avenues of community collaboration.
Chelak explains, “We’re trying something different here than what I have seen in other bookstores. We, Philly AIDS Thrift, are a nonprofit. When we took over management for Giovanni’s Room, the bookstore was able to accept donations. Now, the community helps curate this space with what they give us. We have books from people’s basements and garages. Books that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s something really special.”
The bookstore industry may be floundering, but America’s LGBT bookstores will remain in good hands so long as readers heed Chelak’s last piece of advice: “If you want to do something good, you have to work with your community. And before you work with your community, you have to find that community. It is never a one-person project because you can never do it alone. After all, communities built places like Giovanni’s, and only communities can preserve them.”