In the age of Amazon, the gay (and generally, the independently owned) bookstore has become all but extinct, but Philadelphia’s Giovanni’s Room has been kept alive by its proprietor Ed Hermance and former business partner Arleen Olshan, with blood, sweat, and tears.
“Most Philadelphians are unaware that Giovanni’s is the second-oldest gay-and-lesbian bookstore in the country, behind only New York’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop, launched in 1967. Through six owners, three locations and countless volunteers, Giovanni’s has come to represent far more to the city’s gay community than a bibliophilic rainbow flag. ‘Growing up in the city, it was one of the first places where I found people like me and a sense of community,’ says Gloria Casarez, 36, the Mayor’s Office liaison to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. Giovanni’s has 12,000 titles in its active inventory. It holds 50 readings a year. It serves as an information clearinghouse, a crisis center, even a research library. ‘We’ve graduated many Ph.D’s,’ Olshan, 63, says proudly. At its current site since 1979, the bookstore is carved out of an 1880 building designed as a mom-and-pop store with living quarters. Hermance and Olshan bought it for $50,000, borrowing the down payment from their customers.”
As for Hermance, who worries about who his successor might be: “The hero has simple needs. He still lives in the Powelton Village house he bought 32 years ago for $7,000. The furniture is all second hand, except for a 10-year-old dining room table. He lives on Social Security and an inheritance from his mother, he says. He owns one suit, last worn in 1975 for a job interview.”
Giovanni’s Room [official site]
Phila. gay bookstore Giovanni’s Room marks 35 years [inquirer]