Born in 1973, Giovanni's Room, the nation's oldest continually operating LGBT books venue, is going to be sold. Ed Hermance, who has owned and operated Giovanni's Room (named after a 1956 novel by James Baldwin) since 1976, announced his retirement Thursday.
Hermance, 73, declined to comment. In his news release, he called running Giovanni's Room "the job of a lifetime" and said, "I can't imagine having had another job that would have engaged my skills and interests as much as Giovanni's Room has. But it is time to find a successor, if there is to be one." Hermance said he was hoping for a buyer who wanted to carry on the store's legacy business. Such a buyer would have a rich base of 48,000 titles.
That business, and the store's importance to the LGBT community and the city at large, was on many minds Thursday. Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way Community Center, said, "It's always been a treasure. Ed and all his volunteers have kept culture alive and have saved lives with the work they've done."
Originally located at 232 South St., Giovanni's Room was founded by Dan Sherbo, Billy Boyle, and Tom Wilson Weinberg, and opened in August 1973.
Weinberg, still a Philadelphia resident, recalled the $85-a-month rent. "At the time, we had trouble finding a Realtor who would rent a gay space," he said. "We had a big plateglass window, and we were afraid there would be vandalism, but there never was."
Hermance met the artist Arleen Olshan at a gay and lesbian community center, and they took over the store in 1976, moving it to 1426 Spruce St. and then in 1979 moving it to 345 S. 12th St., near Pine Street. Olshan left the business in 1986, but remains active as a volunteer.
"I think it's too soon to say definitively that it will close, but I know it could be hard for Ed to find a buyer who will carry on the business," Weinberg said. "But the community feels very close to it. It's a for-profit business, but it has the feeling of a community center."
Giovanni's Room became a hub of community activity, including readings by hundreds of prominent writers such as Edmund White, Rita Mae Brown, E. Lynn Harris, and Colm Tóibín, and celebrities such as the Olympian Greg Louganis. Bartlett remembers that "I went to hear Edmund White read, one of the many internationally known writers who wanted to come read there, and there began a long connection that would never have happened except for Giovanni's Room."
Other prominent LGBT venues have closed in recent years, such New York City's Oscar Wilde Books (the very first such store, closed in March 2009), Washington's Lambda Rising (December 2010), and San Francisco's A Different Light (December 2011). LGBT readers are going where media culture leads - which, more and more, is online. (In an interview Thursday with the Philadelphia Gay News, Hermance, who plans to step down in the winter, was quoted as saying, "Amazon is destroying the book industry, and because of them, it looks pretty grim to me.") In addition, general-interest bookstores have been expanding their offerings of LGBT titles. What was once "niche" is niche no longer.
Sad news in a store that just celebrated its 40th birthday, for the dedicated corps of volunteers that helped run Giovanni's Room and its many community events.
Bartlett says, "It would leave a terrible gap if Giovanni's Room were to close. We'd have to step back and consider how we could fill it." It's a moment of reflection and change for the city, and for many who in Giovanni's Room found a room of their own.