Giovanni's Room and the uphill struggle of brick & mortar bookstores

You’re about to buy books as holiday gifts this month. Before you get them from a national retailer, consider the story of Giovanni’s Room.

By Bill Chenevert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 14 | Posted Dec. 4, 2013

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Photo by J.R. Blackwell

Ed Hermance sits on the second floor of his beloved Giovanni’s Room in a washed-out green-and-orange armchair. It’s mid-September, just a couple weeks after the decades-old gay bookstore’s patrons received an email whose subject line left knots in their stomachs: “Giovanni’s Room is for sale—a Press Release.”

No, no, no—this can’t be. How? Why? Oh, sure, if they’d thought about it at all, they’d probably guessed that the good old brick-and-mortar store at 12th and Pine might be having some struggles because, well, it’s 2013, and people don’t love books as much as they love the Internet. But that doesn’t mean the historic shop will go away—right? Surely, people—other people—won’t let that happen. Will they?

The lights haven’t been turned off, the doors haven’t been once-and-for-all-locked. (Yet.) There’s still plenty of good reading to be browsed and bought: fiction, literary classics, magazines for men and women. Memoirs, histories, pop-culture titles about Orange is the New Black and Doctor Who.

But Hermance is ready to retire. And can you blame him? The 73-year-old’s been the owner of Giovanni’s Room, the nation’s longest-operating gay bookstore (founded in ’73), since purchasing it in 1976 with then-business partner Arleen Olshan. He’s seen it all—including the invention of the Web, smartphones, tablets and the meteoric rise of Amazon. These four horsemen of the apocalypse have been galloping straight at bookstores for some years now, and right now, they feel like airborne bricks on the brink of smashing through the windows at 345 S. 12th Street.

“The store is in financial trouble,” Hermance says. Moments later, he offers a related thought: “Amazon is destroying the American book industry.”

Sure, that’s the perspective of an old-school bookshop owner. Readers who can now buy books—both the paper-and-ink kind and the digital kind—from the comfort of their armchairs don’t necessarily see it so simply. But a lot of readers love bookstores, too, and Hermance wants them to understand what they’re trading in exchange for convenience.

Sitting in Giovanni’s Room this day, he doesn’t feel like reminiscing about the early days, isn’t in the mood to spin yarns about all those visits from, and long-standing relationships with, authors like Edmund White, E. Lynn Harris, Rita Mae Brown, Armistead Maupin—or even the store’s namesake novelist, James Baldwin. No, right now he’s pretty angry. He’s feeling like it’s too late to turn the store around into a profitable business again, whether it’s got thousands of Facebook friends or not. From where he sits, there’s only so much one man, with the help of a small handful of staffers and volunteers, can do to turn the tides of a culture that doesn’t even seem to want to sit down and read books the way it used to. Kindles, tablets, blogs—memes, reality TV, Tumblrs—Hermance worries that the simple act of reading a book that you hold in your hands is seriously endangered.

“Who knows what percentage of their time would have been spent reading books,” he asks the cosmos, “if they weren’t fooling with Facebook all the time?” They, of course, are Gen Xs, Ys and Zs. But they are even baby boomers, too. We’re obsessed, all of us, with reading short bits of text. There are tweens out there today who think of themselves as people who read a lot, when what they read a lot of are status updates and BuzzFeed lists.

All of these technological advances that seem so commonplace have barely been in our lives for a decade now. And we’ve all had the uneasy feeling on occasion, reading what our loved ones have to say on Facebook, that the nature of social-media conversation is making us dumber by the minute. Hermance doesn’t think it’s even open for debate: “You cannot develop an argument in a Facebook post—it’s just impossible. And if people don’t exercise that faculty of having a proposition and presenting evidence—if people aren’t used to thinking that way, to seeing it done in books—there’s a serious intellectual decline in front of us.”

So often, he says, shoppers stroll through the store looking for a specific author and a title, ask if the store has it in stock—and if it’s not there, they’re not interested in having the store order it for them. Not when they can stroll right back out again and order it on Amazon. It’s a scenario Hermance sees play out daily. It’s not that Giovanni’s Room can’t get them the book in a few days, and it’s not that Giovanni’s Room doesn’t have an easy-to-remember web store of its own (queerbooks.com). It’s simply that, with Amazon so ubiquitous, would-be customers don’t bat an eye at the idea that they can get whatever they want, as cheap as they want, without having to give up any convenience at all.

“’Oh, I’ll go online,’ they say.” But Hermance isn’t stupid: “I know they’re going to Amazon and not to queerbooks.com. They won’t take the time to compare. People think we can’t meet their needs.”

That’s a shame. Because brick-and-mortar bookstores meet other needs, beyond simply selling books, that customers won’t be able to get once Amazon is their only remaining choice.


There was a time when walking into a gay bookstore could be an honest-to-goodness transformative experience. When being gay was dangerous, frightening and a legitimate cause for fear, the act of walking into a safe space and being greeted by a friendly face, someone happy to talk about gay politics and erotic pleasure, was revelatory.

In fact, just being in the space was part of the whole experience. As Edmund White told the Philadelphia Gay News’ Robert DeGiacomo back in 2003: “It’s a non-alcoholic place for cruising—that’s very important... There are so few places to meet other gay people than bars. I think people who are looking for bookworms are not immediately obvious in a bar.”

Over the years, Hermance has received letters from closeted and isolated college students thanking him for helping to connect them to other student groups. He’s helped frightened mothers find books that would assuage their fear of their daughter’s coming out. He’s taken phone calls from battered women who were told by a friend, “Call Giovanni’s Room—they’ll know what to do.” And he does. Hermance joyfully connects customers to services in the city, and he knows that part of why his shop is so important is that it’s helped men and women make connections they would have never made otherwise, to content and to other humans. Even in the digital age.

Richard Smith’s been volunteering at Giovanni’s Room for almost 30 years. The 81-year-old was a teacher—of French and math, mostly—until a decade ago, and doesn’t want to imagine his life without Giovanni’s Room. He doesn’t like the “boob tube,” or sports; he loves books and music and can’t bear a life of retirement without something to do. He’s been around almost as long as Skip, the store’s other main volunteer; between the three men, they total more than 100 years of service to the community.

“I’ve stopped people from saying Giovanni’s Room is closing,” Smith says. “There are still things in the works that might work. If it closes, I will be very upset.”

There are possibilities on the table—some offers of takeovers from California, New York, and of course in Philly. Hermance isn’t just looking for an escape clause, though: He wants his baby to be taken over by the right person, who’ll do the right thing by his customers, volunteers and employees—and “his” publishers, too. The thing is, he’s found it a challenge to be optimistic. “My impression is,” he says, “if the store’s to stay in this location, another activity needs to be taking place—for instance, a cafe. I don’t think that a new owner could increase the [book] sales to the point of making a living out of it.”

Amazon, he says, isn’t just his nemesis. “It’s ruining all kinds of people,” he says, “not just Giovanni’s Room and gay bookstores, but all little stores. They undersell everybody, basically losing money until there’s no competition.”

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 14 of 14
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1. Mel said... on Dec 4, 2013 at 12:37PM

“Good story. Also, Hakim's Bookstore is another independent.”

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2. Ed Hermance said... on Dec 4, 2013 at 03:09PM

“Thanks very much for the story! One correction: Skip Strickler has not been a volunteer all these years but a full-time member of the staff. The store wouldn't work without him.”

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3. anonymous said... on Dec 4, 2013 at 03:39PM

“Wonderful article--thanks for articulating the aspect of community building that often gets lost in the dollar and comparisons. & don't forget Headhouse Books on Second off South--another marvelously intoxicating Book-filled refuge from the storm. Read on!”

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4. Bill Chenevert said... on Dec 4, 2013 at 04:26PM

“Thanks Ed! Happy holidays!”

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5. Anonymous said... on Dec 4, 2013 at 09:21PM

“I remember when Leary's Book Store closed and with it a legacy of titillating tales of discovered Lincoln Letters and signed Mark Twain first edition. But these were used books and as such appeal to a niche audience. I fear that the tide has been moving out for years and a latte and a Biscotti will not reverse the current, including for new texts. It's not so much Amazon. Don't forget the awesome power of personal desktop publishing which bypasses paper, ink and stocking fees. Radio died and no one speaks Babylonian anymore. Sadly this is the future for the hard bound book store, but there is always something that takes the place of a vacuum.”

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6. Steven Capsuto said... on Dec 4, 2013 at 09:56PM

“Giovanni's Room has been such a Philly institution... It's one of the things I've really missed about the city since I moved away. Here's hoping it will be able to continue serving Center City in the future.”

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7. Arleen Olshan said... on Dec 5, 2013 at 12:10AM

“Wonderful article-thank you. My years with Giovanni's were completely fulfilling in that we were building community and making a safe space for so many. As a result the publishing industry exploded with literature that was once held back or not available at all. There were literally hundreds of gay,lesbian and feminist bookstores in the U.S., Canada and abroad. So many have not survived. I do hope Ed will find the right person or people to take over the shop and have it fill the needs of the contemporary queer community. And thank you Ed, for keeping Giovanni's so well for so long.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Dec 5, 2013 at 08:14AM

“Don't forget The Spiral Bookcase in Manayunk! I know it slips people's minds that our neighborhood is part of Philadelphia too.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Dec 5, 2013 at 09:44AM

“We're in an adjustment. Don't know how it'll play out. I love browsing in a good bookstore, too. I'm not sure I've ever bought a book in English on line except for a couple of hard-to-find out-of-print ones.

On the other hand, I studied French and try to keep up... and have been ordering books in French from Amazon France for ten years now. Hermance's French counterparts are trying to get Amazon shut down (or at least its impact on their business curtailed), but that would make their products completely unavailable to me except when I'm actually in Europe (or Quebec). The "the Internet is evil" argument is simplistic and false. My horizons would be narrower if it weren't there. Just like the "Borders is evil" argument was simplistic and false 20 years ago when they started opening big-box bookstores in suburban areas that had nothing like that. (And now Borders is gone too.)

Ironic, by the way, that I read this article on line from a link in an e-mail, not in the paper....”

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10. Randall said... on Dec 5, 2013 at 11:31AM

“I'm from SC and used to mail order from Giovanni's Room fairly frequently in the mid eighties. They were also so kind and very helpful. And in '82 they produced an astounding catalog of their gay male holdings at the time. I still have that catalog and cherish it for its own beauty and knowledge. My fingers are crossed that things will work out.”

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11. FrankD said... on Dec 5, 2013 at 12:17PM

“Great article, Bill; thanks for writing it. But there's one additional issue that I think you hinted at without stating explicitly: that as the community makes social and political strides, as we become more assimilated and see more gay characters and people in popular media, the need for specifically gay books has declined.

I've happily paid more for books at Joseph Fox and Big Blue Marble, but unlike when I came out 25 years ago, I don't read that many gay books these days. Back then, there were few other places to turn to see our lives reflected and validated; I now find my reading interests increasingly veering to other themes.”

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12. Ed Hermance, Giovanni's Room said... on Dec 5, 2013 at 01:46PM

“Dear French Reader,
The French bookstores are not trying to shut Amazon. Rather their government, like those in at least Germany, Austria, Australia and I think in other continental European countries, do not allow Amazon to practice predatory pricing, the object of which is to put its competition out of business. How is it possible for Amazon not to make a profit year after year? Its investors believe it will complete its monopoly then charge whatever it thinks it can get. Amazon already holds the throats of American publishers firmly in its grasp. That grip will only tighten as Amazon's competitors are driven out of business.
Maybe you know the gay store in Paris, Les Mots a la bouche in the Marais. For years we were their supplier of US gay and lesbian books. They, like bookstores elsewhere in Europe, are doing fine. Maybe you can shift some of your business to them.”

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13. Muscato said... on Dec 21, 2013 at 10:24AM

“A late reader of this article, but a grateful customer of Giovanni's Room - what a mecca, a genuine life-saver, it was and remains. I first met Quentin Crisp there, bought my first Ethan Mordden books there (not to mention Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Armistead Maupin, and eponymous Baldwin novel and so much more), and surrepitiously scanned (then bought!) issues of Blueboy and In Touch. What a wonderful business, and what admirable people working to continue its legacy.”

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14. Larry Lingle said... on Jan 26, 2014 at 01:32PM

“My best wishes go out to Giovanni's Room but unfortunately the tide of history is washing away such institutions. I speak with considerable experience having been in that business myself for 31 years (1973-2004) during which I had at various times gay bookstores in Dallas, Houston and Austin, Texas, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and for seven years (1996-2003) owned the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York. My last store, in Houston, also had a large coffee/snack bar as well. And ultimately I went bankrupt. Needless to say I am now retired and living in public housing. But like Ed, i do have my memories, mostly good ones.”

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