Secret Philly

How Giovanni’s Room reinvented itself to succeed as the oldest gay bookstore in the country

The shop has been an LGBTQ haven for nearly 50 years.

Giovanni’s Room at 12th and Pine streets

Giovanni’s Room at 12th and Pine streets

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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When Giovanni’s Room opened in 1973, it was only the second LGBTQ bookstore in the country. It came right after New York’s Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, which suffered a drop in sales and closed in 2009.

That left Philly’s queer literature outpost as the oldest in the nation — and it played a pivotal role in the lives of many.

The first time Kelly Rial visited the bookstore at 12th and Pine streets, she looked both ways before stepping inside. At the time, Rial hadn’t yet come out as trans. She wanted to explore her identity, but she didn’t want to get caught.

“I think a lot of people who come in for the first time have the same kind of reaction,” said Rial, now a 70-year-old South Philly resident. “You look around and make sure that nobody sees you walk in.”

For Rial, the bookstore was a haven. At home, her parents sent her to a psychiatrist when they suspected her trans identity. But at Giovanni’s Room, there were gay memoirs and lesbian nonfiction works. There were feminist readings, muscle magazines, and LGBTQ-friendly guides to major cities. It helped her find herself — and eventually come out.

“It’s comfortable,” Rial said. “You feel like you can be out and open and be talking about issues that you can’t talk about in other places.”

Within a few decades, the experience that meant so much to Rial and the rest of the city’s LGBTQ community was in jeopardy. The financial outlook at the popular Gayborhood bookstore was so grim the owner said he’d have to close it permanently.

A few months later, as suddenly as it had disappeared, Giovanni’s Room opened back up.

“Continuing the legacy of the bookstore was really important to us from the very beginning,” said current manager Alan Chelak, who oversaw the reopening in 2014. “And the rest is history.”

With backing from secondhand shop Philly AIDS Thrift, plus a team of staffers and volunteers, Chelak took over the storied bookstore and turned it back into a success. He mixed up the business model and made the selection more inclusive — and actually started turning a profit. The two stories of books are fully stocked again, and the exterior is draped with LGBTQ works of public art.

Keeping the queer, indie bookstores of the world alive can have a major impact. Safe spaces remain as important as ever — with 2021 being the most violent year on record for trans people.

“This is a safe space for anybody,” Chelak said. “When you’re outside, hanging out with the normies, you kind of have to put on an act. But when you’re here, that falls away and you can be your true self.”

Giovanni’s Room joined with Philly AIDS Thrift

Giovanni’s Room joined with Philly AIDS Thrift

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

The LGBTQ ‘information revolution’

When it first launched near 2nd and South, Giovanni’s Room had fewer than 100 titles available for purchase and operated “discreetly” to avoid attracting discrimination, per a 1998 Inquirer report.

At the time, you could have called the bookstore an underdog. Openly queer entrepreneurship was almost nonexistent in Philly outside the gay nightlife scene.

But like most Philly underdogs, the bookstore thrived. Then-owner Ed Hermance told the Inquirer they benefited from a gay “information revolution” — a rush of literature published about LGBTQ life all at once. Sales more than doubled from 1976 to 1979, and their selection grew to more than 2,000 titles with a successful mail-order operation on the side.

“We’re the largest gay bookstore in the world,” Hermance told the Inquirer in 1998. “Our culture is getting stronger, and it’s more comfortable now than ever before.”

Rhinestone heels amongst the staff book picks

Rhinestone heels amongst the staff book picks

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

It wasn’t always easy. To increase the bookstore’s size, the owners moved the shop to 15th and Spruce in 1976. Homophobia from the new landlord forced them out within three years, and they landed at the current 12th and Pine location.

And by 2014, e-commerce had leveled the leg up that Giovanni’s Room once had on the LGBTQ market. Hermance had dropped between $10,000 and $15,000 trying to keep the bookstore afloat, and he was burnt out.

Could someone else save the shop? He was pessimistic.

“Whatever it is that they do, it will have to be something different than what we are doing now,” Hermance told Philly Mag at the time. “It won’t survive if it isn’t different.”

Shot, meet chaser. Under Philly AIDS Thrift, Chelak took over four months later.

Vintage capes, literary classics, and art books

Vintage capes, literary classics, and art books

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Becoming a nonprofit, with secondhand gems

Chelak knew he needed to diversify the store’s selection. There were few titles by trans authors and for trans readers. There were fewer still for two-spirited individuals — the intersection of Indigenous and LGBTQ identities. Before they opened, the nonprofit invested $15,000 to revamp their inventory.

A longtime Philly AIDS Thrift employee, Chelak thought up another addition to the store — one he thought could save it. Secondhand goods.

“So we do have new and used LGBT books here,” he said. “But you can also get records, CDs, DVDs, vintage clothing, all kinds of weird ephemera from literally all over the world. And that’s stuff that folks in the community just give to us.”

Giovanni’s Room now operates like sort of a bookstore-thrift-shop-hybrid. There’s still the two floors of literature — from erotica to trans history. But now they’ve diversified their inventory with no new overhead costs, since all the secondhand sweaters, shoes, postcards and knick-knacks are donated.

Richard Smith, a 41-year volunteer, beyond the counter at Giovanni’s Room

Richard Smith, a 41-year volunteer, beyond the counter at Giovanni’s Room

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

“When I first came here, I’m going, ‘Wait a minute, this is a bookstore, what’s going on here?’” said Rial, who now works at the store two days a week. “But I think that’s what saved this store, because it brought in all kinds of more people.”

In the first year of operation under Philly AIDS Thrift, Giovanni’s Room made a profit of about $1,000. By 2018, Chelak had saved enough to buy the 12th and Pine building. Now, just like at Philly AIDS Thrift, all proceeds have been donated to local orgs that fight HIV/AIDS.

Admittedly, that’s what first brought regular customer Jeffrey Urbano inside. The 30-year-old Center City resident first stumbled into the shop for the selection of thrifted goods. Then he realized what an asset it is.

“There’s a huge community here of people wanting to connect and have different safe havens,” said Urbano, who’s gay. “Just to shop peacefully or find specific items that identify with them, with who they are as a person and their authenticity.”

Want some more? Explore other Secret Philly stories.

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