June is Pride month, and Giovanni’s Room has been juggling an influx of customers, traveling from around the world and around the block to experience the country’s oldest and longest running LGBTQ bookstore. Among the crowds: three high school gay-straight alliances that spontaneously showed up, “one practically after another.”
“Most of the teens didn’t buy anything, but they were just so happy to be here, running around, saying ‘Look at this! Look at this!’” says Alan Chelak, the store manager at Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room, which is at 12th and Pine Streets. “Many LGBT spaces involve alcohol, and you’re not going to gain access to those spaces until you turn 21. So for that 14- to 17-year-old who’s still coming into themselves, the excitement just boils over when they’re here.”
For decades, the gay bookstore was one of the only public, sober social gathering spaces for LGBTQ people, often serving also as community center, date spot and health resource, says Chelak. It was also one of the only places that out and questioning teens and young adults could acquire titles by LGBTQ authors or featuring LGBTQ characters in main roles.
But amid the rise of big-box retailers and digital booksellers, that connection to the community’s younger demographic seemingly shrunk as LGBTQ stores across the country shuttered — even as LGBTQ publishing continued to expand. There were 34 young-adult books featuring LGBTQ characters and published by mainstream publishers in 2012. That number increased to 79 in 2016, according to data collected by Malinda Lo, author of Ash and A Line in the Dark.
As these stores disappeared, such general booksellers as Amazon and Barnes & Noble shifted their once small, often hidden collection of LGBTQ literature into curated Pride and general YA sections. Local libraries have acquired their own stock, lending free copies in print, as ebooks and audiobooks.
In a culture where youth are historically the last demographic to see LGBTQ inclusion in their media, Lo and Boy Meets Boy writer David Levithan were some of the first to upend what was once considered storytelling taboo. In the decade since their books hit shelves, the LGBTQ teen protagonist has morphed from a subtextual allusion and supporting character to a fully fleshed-out lead whose life, love and loss is explored across 250 pages.
Just last year, Love, Simon — the 2018 film adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s best-selling Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda — became the first film produced by a major Hollywood studio with a gay teen lead.
Despite that progress, a report released this year by the American Library Association found that more than half of frequently challenged and banned library books featured LGBTQ content, with a noticeable number being youth titles. Even as LGBTQ YA fiction authors continue to break down barriers, their books still face hurdles reaching their audience.
That’s where such places as Giovanni’s Room come in.
Timmy Lawrence, an 18-year-old from Philadelphia, mostly uses the library where access to books isn’t just free, it’s a place to feel safe and at home. It also happens to be where a teen reading group first introduced Lawrence to LGBTQ YA fiction — a growing trend in youth reading clubs, including the newly launched YA Book Club at Barnes & Noble.
“I couldn’t access LGBTQ books because they were never in my school libraries, nor did I see them promoted a lot,” Lawrence said. “And I feel like I stayed away from them because before I didn’t want to have the connection to the characters that I knew I would have.”
Wider distribution means teens without access to the handful of remaining gay bookstores can more easily connect to stories that center them. But Lawrence doesn’t always feel comfortable just walking into a store such as Barnes & Noble, especially as a black lesbian, as often they can’t identify with other people shopping there.
Kacen Callender, a Philadelphia-based award-winning author of LGBTQ YA fiction titles Hurricane Child and This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story, also experiences anxiety over being a patron or hosting book events in libraries and general bookstores, for fear of being verbally or physically abused over sexual identity.
“I imagine that the same might be the case for other queer readers, regardless of age, but especially for teens who might be struggling with homophobia at home, or who might be unsure of their identity or feel isolated in their community,” Callender says.
It’s not just physical spaces that can be challenging, according to Lee Wind, director of marketing and programming at the Independent Book Publishers Association. Online retailers such as Amazon are cheaper and deliver items discreetly to a teen’s door, but even something like a review demanding pages with LGBTQ characters be “ripped out” of a book creates a hostile environment not present in an LGBTQ bookstore.
"There's nothing wrong, from Amazon's point of view, with a review like that," Wind said. "But from my perspective, having been a closeted gay boy and having a child that's been raised by two dads, I think there has to be a safer place for people to find books for children and teenagers with LGBT characters and content."
At the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Tacony Branch, children’s librarian Allison Wysong carefully curates LGBTQ YA fiction titles for her section and helps host the library’s monthly LGBTQ Teen Cafe, which will start back again regularly in the fall. Despite a positive attendee response, the group’s still seeing a low turnout, even as Wysong leans on fellow librarians and professional Twitter chats with LGBTQ publishers and authors to make title selections.
Not just the where but the who of selling LGBTQ YA fiction can be vital for teens’ safe access to LGBTQ YA fiction, says Percy Kaylor, a 17-year-old queer teen from Devon who loves to talk about purchases with a sales clerk before making them. “When buying at non-LGBTQ stores and libraries, I sometimes try to avoid discussions because I fear judgment and don’t know if the seller is queer-friendly,” Kaylor says. “I like going [to Giovanni’s Room] because I know that no one is going to judge me for what I read and many of the customers and employees are also queer.”
Nearly 50 years after opening, Giovanni’s Room is still an environment as much about its queer weekend musicals and book clubs as a place for youth to hang out, ask questions, and get recommendations from a database of every LGBTQ book ever published since the 1980s, Chelak says.
As LGBTQ YA fiction publishing continues to grow, he wants Giovanni’s Room to remain a special place for teens whose love of LGBTQ YA fiction helps keep them — and the store — going.
“I frequently see teens, an entire stack of books with them, but they have to pick the three that they’re going to get instead of the 20 that they want to get today,” Chelak says. “I think we’re a place for them, you know? That’s what the store was doing years ago, and we’ve really tried to keep with that mission.”