Katherine Milon was strolling Philadelphia’s picturesque Pine Street when she saw the awning for Giovanni’s Room. Wait, that’s a gay book, Milon thought. This is a gay bookstore!
Soon after, Milon began volunteering at the venerable queer and feminist bookseller — named for James Baldwin’s classic 1956 novel — becoming co-manager a few years later. In the past five years, Milon has witnessed COVID decimate business, the store’s pivot to e-commerce during the pandemic, the return of foot traffic in 2021, and, just this summer, the 50th anniversary of Giovanni’s Room, which is the oldest continuously operating LGBTQ+ bookstore in the nation. A joyous block party in front of the location heralded Giovanni’s half-century, with live readings, performances, and parties marking the occasion.
For the store, a love of literature and the embrace of the local queer community has staved off a fate that’s befallen similar spaces across the country — only about 50 LGBTQ+ bookstores remain. But the people behind Giovanni’s Room, from the earliest owners to current management, also made decisions that ensured the store’s survival. The store actually closed its doors in 2014 when it could no longer turn a profit. That’s when Philly AIDS Thrift, a local 501c3 that offers donations, proceeds, and microloans to communities affected by HIV, offered to partner up.
“What they proposed at the time was to create an integrated business model where we still order and sell new books, but we also have thrifted goods available in the store and that helps cut back on overhead,” Milon says. “We have a room with all the new books but we have people coming in to buy 29 cent cassette tapes or looking at our thrifted clothing, so there’s a real community feel.”
That type of creative thinking has carried through from Giovanni’s earliest days when it was opened in 1973 by three members of the Gay Activists Alliance, Bernie Boyle, Dan Scherbo, and Tom Wilson Weinberg, who were enamored with the Oscar Wilde bookstore in New York City (which closed in 2009). But running a queer business in the early ’70s was extremely challenging.
“This was during the time when if you’re opening a gay bar or club it was clandestine,” Milon says. “You had to go down alleyways or know someone who could get you in. So this was a gay business where the windows were open and they had the stock in the windows. They let you know who they were and what they were doing.”
The owners had to do battle with censorship and a society that labeled anything about gay life “pornographic.” (How little has changed.)
“We actually got in trouble with the first couple rounds of landlords because they would see the kinds of books sold and suddenly the rent would go up 3,000 percent,” Milon says.
Boyle, Scherbo, and Weinberg would soon sell the business to Pat Hill, a local lesbian activist. Hill encountered her own troubles keeping the business afloat, going on welfare at one point.
There were more ownership changes through the years, but Milon describes the 1990s as Giovanni’s glory days, when gay authors like Leslie Feinberg and Michael Cunningham were churning out hits, and the internet hadn’t yet widely affected consumer culture. Following the hybrid thrift store/bookstore model, things looked up, partly thanks to a team of volunteers who helped staff the store for next to nothing. Then, came COVID. After the lockdowns lifted, “if we had five customers in the store [total], it was a good day.”
Thankfully, foot traffic returned in 2021, improved even more last year, and “2023 has been off the charts,” Milon says. It helps that Giovanni’s Room is more than a bookstore; it remains a locus of queer life in Philadelphia, with in-person readings, an in-person book club, and various other events that keep people coming back and spending money. Queer author bell hooks remains a perennial favorite, and, of course, Baldwin. Contemporary writers like Brandon Taylor, Torrey Peters, Julia Serrano, and Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper books are also big sellers. Milon uses Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues book as an example of the community’s embrace of her store; while the 1993 novel is available for free on Feinberg’s website, people still line up to buy the printed version from Giovanni’s Room.
“This is definitely a store the community has kept alive through sheer love and dedication,” Milon says. “When they moved into the latest building, volunteers built our main staircase, cut the shop windows, cut the door. We are literally the product of the community coming together year after year, decade after decade, to keep us alive.”
Support Giovanni’s Room at queerbooks.com.