Last spring, things were looking bleak for Giovanni's Room, the country's oldest LGBTQ bookshop. Although a number of iconic general bookstores around the country have successfully changed hands, including Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., and Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., it wasn't certain that the four-decades-old Philadelphia bookstore would join their ranks. When owner Ed Hermance closed the store on May 1, 2014, he said that he had a potential purchaser and hoped the store would reopen soon.
What a difference a year makes. A few months after the closing, Philly AIDS Thrift (PAT), a 10-year-old nonprofit organization that runs a hip thrift store in Philadelphia, signed a two-year lease to operate the bookstore; Hermance owns the building.
In October, the bookstore held its grand reopening. It has a slightly different name—Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni's Room—a new look that combines thrift store items with books, and a slightly different mission. Through its main thrift store and now Giovanni's Room, PAT raises funds for area HIV/AIDS organizations. Since its founding a decade ago, PAT has donated $1 million.
"We're still dedicated to the legacy of Giovanni's Room," says store manager Alan Chelak, who emphasizes that new LGBTQ titles continue to be central to the store. "Our goal is to carry the newest and most interesting LGBT books being released. Of course, there are classics we always try to have on hand: James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room—obviously— Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw."
PAT added used books to Giovanni's Room, including children's titles and comics, as well as rare books, secondhand clothing, accessories, vinyl, CDs, and furniture. To make space for more items, PAT added an additional room by turning a stairwell that had been used by employees only, and a space at the top of the stairs, into an art gallery. The group also commissioned in-store murals from local artist Bryan Martinez.
"The response," Chelak says, "has been overwhelmingly positive." The changes have brought in a younger crowd, whom he regards as "important to the continued existence of the store." The addition of nonbook items has also given PAT at Giovanni's Room more of the feel of a well-curated and general interest new/used/ rare bookstore with pop culture merchandise. Under the new configuration, books make up 60% of the retail selling space and account for the largest portion of sales.
To help PAT get the store up and running, Hermance worked with the organization over the summer. "I consider Ed to be a mentor and a dear friend," Chelak says. "[He] is always available to answer any questions anyone at the store may have, and we see him a couple times a month." Skip Strickler, who began working at Giovanni's Room in 1979, volunteers a couple of times a week. Richard Smith, who volunteered at the store for nearly 30 years, continues to donate his time. They're among 38 volunteers that keep PAT at Giovanni's Room open, along with Chelak, the only full-time staffer, and four part-timers.
"By bringing the store under our nonprofit umbrella, we have expanded the mission in a way that makes sense for everyone involved," Chelak says. "Not only do we get to continue to provide a safe place for LGBT people to find books, but now all the proceeds of this store go to support HIV service organizations in the Philly region."
With the physical retail space up and running, PAT plans to focus on the store's queerbooks.com website. "There are a lot of potential customers out there who do not want to shop at Amazon for their books, but aren't aware of other choices," Chelak says. "We'd like to become that LGBT alternative to Amazon."
In addition, PAT plans to emphasize the historical role Giovanni's Room has played in Philadelphia as a gay center. It will participate in this summer's 50th-anniversary commemoration of the city's public demonstrations in support of gay liberation, which took place in 1965 at Independence Hall. The store is also planning an annual birthday celebration for James Baldwin in August and will add displays devoted to the famous authors who have passed through its doors.