The owner of the nation’s oldest gay bookstore appears to be writing its final chapter, confirming Tuesday that he plans to close the financially troubled shop next month.
Giovanni’s Room, founded in 1973, has been losing money “for a long time” due in part to competition from online discount booksellers, owner Ed Hermance said.
Supporters describe the shop as a resource, safe haven and longtime gathering place for the gay community.
“There’s a very strong emotional connection between our customers and this store,” Hermance said.
Hermance, 73, has been looking for a buyer since August, but has not been able to seal a deal for the business or the small building it occupies. He would not disclose asking prices.
An email to customers notes the prospective closing date is May 17, but Hermance said in an interview Tuesday that it could be any time before the end of that month.
“I’ve never done this before,” he said.
Giovanni’s Room is named for the 1956 James Baldwin novel about a young man in postwar Paris struggling with his sexual identity. It’s believed to be the nation’s oldest independent bookstore specializing in titles written by and for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. New York’s Oscar Wilde bookstore had previously held the title until it closed in 2009.
Giovanni’s Room had two locations in Philadelphia before moving to its current site in the city’s affectionately named Gayborhood section.
Hermance and his business partner borrowed money to buy a two-story brick rowhouse at 345 South 12th Street in 1979 after discovering landlords weren’t eager to have a gay bookstore for a tenant.
Seven years later, they bought the rowhouse next door and expanded the shop. Volunteers put in countless hours over the years to help out, Hermance said.
The bookstore has hosted readings by prominent LGBT authors including Dorothy Allison, Armistead Maupin and Rita Mae Brown. During the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Hermance said, the shop was the first place some people came after being diagnosed — to find information and for emotional support.
But since the heyday of Giovanni’s Room in the late 1980s and early 1990s, “it’s been a long, slow, steady decline,” he said.
Skip Strickler, the store’s only full-time employee, has worked there for 35 years. He said he’s anticipated the closing for a while now, and described it as “a dignified exit.”
Longtime customer Mark Segal, who publishes the Philadelphia Gay News, said the shop has been “a wonderful gift” to the LGBT community and that he admires Hermance’s perseverance.
“It has been difficult, and we appreciate every effort he’s made to keep it open,” Segal said.
Since the Gay News first published word of the store’s closing on Monday, there’s been an outpouring of support on social media, and customers have stopped by and called to express their condolences.
Hermance said he even received an email Tuesday from someone interested in buying the shop. He expressed skepticism, but didn’t entirely rule it out.
“There may be a white knight,” he said. “Who knows?”