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

What’s painful for any indie bookstore owner to admit, of course, is that Amazon can pretty much always give the book buyer a better deal. “There’s no question about it,” Smith says. “If you come into our bookstore looking at a book that’s $25, but Amazon’s selling it for $20...” There are people, he notes, who are willing and eager to pay the extra few dollars for personal service from a proprietor they know—but they’re just too few and far between.

Hermance is looking to sell the building itself, not just the bookstore business, and the space is valued somewhere in the range of $700,000 and $850,000. He’s not interested in pocketing that loot, he says: “The value is going to go to the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund. I figure that the gay community built and created this store for itself. Thousands of people have worked here or volunteered here or shopped here or supported it in innumerable ways. I think that these buildings belong to the gay community.”

America’s oldest gay bookstore: that’s a weighty distinction. So even if the store has to move, has to change its functionality a little bit, queer and feminist Philadelphians are desperately hoping that a savior comes along soon and makes Hermance an offer he can’t refuse.

Meanwhile, at least six other indie bookstores are still selling new books in Philadelphia:

Joseph Fox Bookshop, Head House Books, Big Blue Marble, Black and Nobel, Penn Book Center and The Color Book Gallery.

In case you were wondering.

Happy holiday shopping.

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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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