Closing cover on 40 years of LGBT book business, Giovanni’s Room owner reminisces

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    The country’s oldest LGBT bookstore is closing. The owner of Giovanni’s Room, at 12th and Pine streets in Philadelphia, said that, after 40 years in business, the Center City shop can’t compete with online retailers. The store will close in May.

    The sale signs are up, and Ed Hermance is making plans for his retirement. “First I’m going to take a nice vacation,” he said.

    Hermance said it’s been an extraordinary ride, but now it’s time to close this Philly institution and move on. This place has lived through a lot.

    He remembers the early years when bigots threw bricks through the windows of the shop specializing in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender work, and drivers shouted slurs from their cars before peeling away.

    “I’m 73, and when I was growing up, there was that just absence of information — there was that universal prejudice that homosexuals were degenerate, despicable, sinful, whatever,” Hermance said. “And for me to earn a living finding materials in these forbidden subjects and then making them available to people — that’s an extraordinary thrill!”

    Times have changed. These days, he said, there’s a lot more LGBT material available to sell. But the store’s sales have been declining since 1992 because online retailers can afford to sell at a deep discount.

    Amazon’s deals have driven his shop out of business, he said.

    “France, Germany, Austria, at least have laws against this kind of pricing. In France, for example, I understand that a retailer can either give a 5 percent discount or free shipping — he can’t do both,” Hermance said. “A store like Giovanni’s Room can compete in that kind of world. But we can’t compete with someone who doesn’t have to make a profit.”

    Standing behind the counter, 27-year-old employee Betsy Katz said she’s sad to see the store close.

    “It serves as a community center that’s focused on the intellectual life of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and other queer individuals,” she said.

    Katz said the closing of Giovanni’s Room represents more than a shuttered bookstore.

    “For me, as a queer woman in Philly, it’s not just about losing the gay aspect, but a feminist book store, where I can find ‘Bitch’ magazine, where I can find and be inspired by strong women before me, and also radical politics,” Katz said. “There are fewer and fewer places in our city that are havens for those of us who are at all alternative to the mainstream.”

    Over the years, people have visited Giovanni’s Room to inquire about books, to hear authors speak and just to enjoy a safe space to relax and ask questions. A few volunteers have met their longtime companions at the store.

    Hermance said he tried to find a new owner for the store, but none of the prospects worked out.

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