Recalling workdays at an essential community resource—one that needs your help.
It was 1993 and I was at loose ends. I’d just graduated from a program in comparative literature, and now armed with an utterly useless master’s degree, I puttered around the house in my pajamas. I was going through a girl phase (being bisexual, I have my moods), and was reading a lot of books.
Those two interests converged at Giovanni’s Room, a bookstore that also served as a gathering place for the gay community. Lonely and kind of nerdy, I started to linger around the store’s magazine section, and bought what would now be considered a ridiculously outré necklace: three enormous rainbow rings, each the size of a silver dollar, on a thick silver chain.
I’d left my social life behind in Texas, so I applied for a job at Giovanni’s, the only place that seemed to fit me. The interview was unbelievably stressful. In a poorly lit section of the store’s basement—later to be my base of operations—I sat surrounded by exacting men who pummeled me with questions about my favorite books and future plans. I confessed I was bisexual, which stunned the assembly, and said my favorite book was Middlemarch , which I instantly regretted. How straight! I should’ve said something by Dorothy Allison or at least Kathy Acker.
I wanted that job so badly. I said I’d be a good little lesbian forever more, and work there the rest of my life. So notwithstanding my femme-y appearance, I was hired, and quickly became part of an endeavor that was more important than I could have anticipated.
That store meant a lot to me for a long time; it still does. I’ve been distressed to hear of its troubles in the past year or two—first a neighborhood battle over street construction, and now money issues due to structural problems. One of the store’s walls is falling down—a stone wall, heh—and because the bookstore is in a historic area, the wall has to be fixed in that super Ben Franklin-y way, where the people in period costumes come from City Tavern and install each brick. It’s going to cost $50,000, which in today’s economy for a queer and feminist bookstore, is a small fortune. It could threaten the store’s livelihood.
That would be tragic. Working there made me understand why the store was so essential. It wasn’t there just to cater to people who were out and proud. I’d often be behind the cash register and spot someone looking in the window trying to summon the courage to come inside. If they did, and finally had the nerve to approach me at the cash register, I’d try to work my face into an expression that said, without words: You are loved. I’m sure it only made me look like I’d just peed myself, but the sentiment is the essence of why a place like Giovanni’s Room is crucial. It welcomes those who are despised by society merely because of who they love.
One of my co-workers was just the kind of person the store shelters. Having grown up in Pennsylvania farm country in an ultrareligious family, she found herself attracted to girls—something that was absolutely off-limits in her community. When she admitted her feelings, her family excommunicated her. Now she was a supervisor at the country’s oldest LGBT/feminist bookstore, living publicly as a lesbian. The store felt like home to her—the kind of home she’d been denied.
One of my tasks was to order “adult” magazines for the store and to send them to mail-order customers. I was naive at the time; I’d never seen “shemale” photos before. I was fascinated and, being bi, a little confused (“anything that moves,” indeed). But I soon learned that ordering porn wasn’t merely about salacious curiosity. There were so many people in different parts of the country who had no outlet for their desires—people who, unlike my co-worker, couldn’t break away. So they placed orders in whispers over the phone, grateful that someone in Philadelphia—me, in those days—could help them find a measure of who they were.
Things have changed since the early ’90s, when I wore that silly necklace and people didn’t have Internet access. But the store isn’t any less vital today, and we must try to support it as it goes through this difficult time. You don’t have to be LGBTQ or any other letter to buy books in person or at the online store (queerbooks.com); the stock includes a wide variety of items that would appeal to anyone—gay or straight. You could also call and offer a donation or some of your time to volunteer.
If you do go by, don’t be freaked out if the young cashier gives you a goopy look while you’re checking out. He didn’t just pee himself—he’s making you feel loved. That, after all, is what he’s there for. And we need him. ■