May 12, 2014

Giovanni’s Room—the nation’s oldest gay bookstore—could have been saved

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GR_historical_marker_photo_with_flagPhiladelphia’s beloved Giovanni’s Room has announced its closure later this month, but that comes as a surprise to the group that have been in talks to purchase the bookstore since January.

As MobyLives reported last week, seventy-three year old owner Ed Hermance has decided to retire and to close the store when he does. Hermance held a press event to announce the closure on April 29th, citing the store’s difficult finances. The store has reportedly lost $10-15,000 already this year, a loss Hermance places largely at the feet of Amazon and online retail.

In the Philadelphia Gay News, Angela Thomas wrote,

Hermance said there is a possibility that Giovanni’s Room could be resurrected in some form, but that ideas would have to change in order for it to be successful.

“Whatever it is that they do, it will have to be something different than what we are doing now. It won’t survive if it isn’t different,” he said.

What Hermance didn’t announce to the press then was that he’d recently ended concrete talks about purchasing the store with a group of dedicated volunteers who’d already taken steps to build that “something different.”

Makella Craelius and her business partner, the filmmaker Puppett, founded Queer Books LLC in February of this year with an eye to buying the store. They hired on two other employees and Craelius began working full time at Giovanni’s Room. They’d been in contract talks with Hermance up until the week of the announcement in Philadelphia Gay News.

According to Craelius, Hermance had signed off on their ambitious plan to buy the store from him as early as February. “As far as we [at Queer Books LLC] understood, we had a verbal agreement of sale,” says Craelius. Notably, that sale was for the store, not the two buildings that house it, for which Hermance is now asking at least $750,000. “He set the price—that never changed. And it had always been for a lease and right of first refusal.” In April, however, “he was out sick for a week, he came back, and he said ‘I need you to buy these buildings.’” But then without warning, Craelius says, “this article came out—we hadn’t even heard that the deal couldn’t go forward. It was a real blow for us.” More importantly, she says, the decision to close the store is “a real disservice to the community.”

The news of the store’s closure brought some heartfelt remembrances from writers like Victoria A. Brownworth on Slate, who wrote

How could this place, this monument to all that has happened for lesbians and gays, bisexuals, trans and queers, be closing its doors forever? … There was the kind of scurrying around and low-toned talking and emails and tweets and all of it as the discussion went far and wide in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community and beyond: Who would buy the place from Ed?

As it happens, no one. There was no one ready to take the helm that Ed has steered for 37 of the store’s 41 years of operation.

Perhaps that long tenure at the store explains, in part, Hermance’s sudden reluctance to sell, at least to the people of Queer Books LLC. Certainly it’s understandable that he might want to sell the buildings and have done with it after nearly forty years, but if the store still means so much to him, as it surely must, why not sell the store to the team working to preserve it and then figure out the building sale afterwards? ”I don’t think he was comfortable with the idea of people taking the name and making it something else,” says Craelius. “He didn’t necessarily know us that well.” After forty years at the helm of such an institution, Hermance could well prefer to close the place rather than see it changed, no matter his claims to be looking for an ambitious buyer.

And, too, there’s a cultural difference that might have given Hermance pause. Craelius and her team held a town hall meeting on May 7th to discuss ways to continue in the spirit of Giovanni’s Room, even without the name or the space. The meeting was well attended, but Craelius says that some of the gathered community expressed a store more accommodating to genderqueer literature or readers of color.

The Queer Books team now plans to forge ahead with a series of pop up stores in different locations, each focusing on different genres, something like the recent Bureau of General Services—Queer Division in Manhattan. “People say ‘oh you don’t need queer bookstores because you can find queer books anywhere,” says Craelius. But as everyone mourning Giovanni’s Room has been quick to note, queer bookstores are a safe space, an events venue, and a place to meet people. As with any bookstore, there’s more to a queer bookstore than just the books and the roof.

The Queer Books team don’t plan on opening up their first venture until after Giovanni’s Room has closed, but they have a slate of events scheduled and you can find out more on their site here.

That crew seems determined to do great things in Philadelphia and for the queer community generally, and no doubt they’ll find an excellent home soon. But Hermance’s tenure at his legendary store could so easily have ended on a high note instead of this strange departure he’s chosen. “It was the first place we went when we moved to Philadelphia,” says Craelius. “We’re very frustrated.”

 

Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.

MobyLives