By Sebastian Fortino
PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia is known for the longevity of its many cultural institutions, including museums large and small, churches, squares, parks, and the many historic buildings. But one of these treasures is the nation’s oldest continually operating gay bookstore, Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni’s Room.
Like many businesses, PAT at Giovanni’s Room has had to reshape the way they operate in the last 11 months of the COVID pandemic.
“I am processing what happened this year,” said Alan Chelak, who has served as manager since Philly AIDS Thrift took over Giovanni’s Room in 2014. “We were closed for almost four months. Since we reopened, things have been slower than they were before. But we had a pretty good holiday season. Sales on our website have picked up, and people are ordering books from us through our website which has made a big difference.”
Since it’s founding in 1973 by Tom Wilson Weinberg, Dan Sherbo and Bern Boyle of the Gay Activist Alliance, Giovanni’s Room (as many locals still refer to it) has functioned as an unofficial community and welcome center by local and visiting queer people. Prior to the COVID shutdown, local shoppers would stop in to check out staff picks of favorite volumes, pick up a newly published book, or just drop in to say hello to a favorite employee.
“If you spend time here,” Chelak shared, “you will meet regular customers who tell you how coming into the store was pivotal in their life. Other couples met here while shopping or working. So, the place itself is very important to the community.”
The past decade has not been kind to many LGBTQ bookstores. The Oscar Wilde Bookstore in New York City closed in 2009, same with Lambda Rising in Washington D.C. San Francisco’s A Different Light closed a year later. And yet, LGBTQ-publishing has endured. Topics written by transgender writers, for instance, were almost unheard of in the 1990s as publishers worried about sales, but things have changed, as has society.
Chelak, who is a writer and poet, says there has been something of a renaissance for LGBTQ writers in the last six or seven years. Through their website QueerBooks.com you can support Philadelphia’s local LGBTQ bookstore and receive the latest in queer writing in your mailbox.
“Titles shipping out has been slower, due to the pandemic and now the weather. But I don’t think the writers and the publishers have slowed down,” Chelak continued. “Because more people are using the Internet to buy books.”
For February, both store and website feature a list of books for Black History Month, as well as staff picks which reveal what employees are currently reading. One can check out the Book of the Week, “The Prophets” by Robert Jones, Jr. a novel about two enslaved young men in the plantation-era South, or a latest New Local Release, “Vermilion Pursuit: A Marco Fontana Mystery,” by writer and professor Joseph R. G. DeMarco.
For 2021, Chelak recommends “100 Boyfriends” by Brontez Purnell which just came out in paperback this month. “Gay Bar: Why We Went Out,” by Jeremy Atherton Lin which explores the culture and importance of gay bars while many communities see their venues closing, and Torrey Peters’ novel “Detransition, Baby” which discusses motherhood and family from the perspective of three women across the cis-gender and transgender spectrum.
“In May, we’re excited about local Philly writer Jodi S. Rosenfeld’s ‘Closer to Fine,” which is a novel about a young, Jewish, bisexual woman finding her adult footing in a world full of uncertainties.
One thing that is not an uncertainty, it seems, is the longevity and health of Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni’s Room. To keep their business and brand thriving, Chelak shared they are developing a new podcast to keep in touch with readers who may not be able to contribute to their daily foot traffic.
“This is breaking news, about the podcast,” Chelak shared with PGN. “We haven’t shared this before.”
While they cannot confirm a hard date for the first broadcast, it should be in March or early Spring, and it will build on the curated lists developed by Giovanni’s Room and it’s staff of seven employees. Despite great success with platforms such as Zoom, to host writers such as gay historian and writer of “The Deviant’s War: the Homosexual vs. the United States of America” Eric Cervini, Chelak understands would-be and returning audiences may be tired of such virtual gatherings.
With the COVID shutdown and the political spectrum, the past year has been overwhelming for many. Chelak admits he found it difficult to pick up a book and stick with it. One of the last things he read before the March shutdowns in 2020 was “Real Life” by Brandon Taylor. The sense of ennui he felt brought him to his bookshelf, where he picked up a classic novel many book lovers may have sitting on their shelves unread: “Anna Karenina” by Tolstoy. And, like that classic of Russian literature, Giovanni’s Room continues to be a classic destination for Philadelphia’s LGBTQ+ community.
“When you look at the history of Giovanni’s Room, it’s a history of a community coming together to make a space for themselves. And when you have spaces like that it’s up to the community to keep it going. That’s what keeps us going. Even if customers are unable to come downtown or if they feel unsafe going into retail stores, we are still getting letters of support and purchases online. They want to continue to see the space for everybody.”
Sebastian Fortino is a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, where this story first appeared.