Owner of Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia calling it quits
by Angela Thomas -
Philadelphia Gay News
After 37 years at the helm of Giovanni's Room in downtown Philadelphia, owner Ed Hermance is retiring, leaving both the nation's oldest LGBT bookstore and its building up for sale.
Hermance, 73, has owned the independently run store, nestled on the corner of Pine and 12th streets, since 1976. It first opened in 1973.
The Powelton Village, Philadelphia, resident plans to step down this winter and is exploring options for keeping the business running under a new owner, but he will have to sell to a different buyer if there is not sufficient support for continuing Giovanni's Room.
'I know it's possible for independent bookstores to thrive in the current environment. I don't know if someone has the resources and the passion to continue the store,' he said. 'If someone wanted to rent the space for a different kind of bookstore and no one wanted to continue Giovanni's Room, I'd be pleased to rent it to them, thinking that it would be in their interest to help all the people who have depended on us.'
Hermance is handling the sale personally and said he will have asking prices determined later this month.
'We have inventory that is worth something and we also owe for books. It would also depend on some degree on who bought it,' he said about the sale price. 'I think Giovanni's Room has a lot of goodwill in it, so I wouldn't be embarrassed to take $100,000 for the business. I am not asking for a lot, I would just like to have enough for a stick of gum.'
A potential owner would inherit Giovanni's Room's inventory of more than 48,000 books. The store also offers more than five million books online, as well as 3.5 million e-books.
PROFITS TO BE DONATED
If the business continues as an LGBT bookstore, it would be up to the new owner whether to keep the three staffers or hire new employees.
Hermance noted there are several buying options that a potential owner could look into.
'If a new owner is interested in buying the business but not the buildings, they could rent from me and move it to some place cheaper,' he said. 'Or, they could buy the business and the buildings. If somebody could do that, it might be the smart thing. The neighborhood is booming.'
Hermance will give profits from the building sale or rental to LGBT grant-making agency Delaware Valley Legacy Fund.
'The value of the buildings, whether I am renting or selling them, is going to the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund,' he said. 'I feel like I would like them to have it. This property was bought and paid for by the LGBT community so it is important for me for that to give back to the community.'
Hermance said Giovanni's Room needs someone at the helm with a keen business sense.
'Everybody wants to work in a bookstore and own one, but wanting and doing are different things,' he said.
Hermance, along with Arleen Olshan, took over the business three years after its 1973 opening. Since Olshan's departure in 1986, Hermance has been solely at the helm of the store.
FINDING HIS CALLING
But his journey into the world of literature started out in front of a chalkboard.
'I had been a college teacher for seven years and, when I was 28, I dropped out because I was working on my Ph.D. and teaching at the same time; being Gay in the academic world in those times was impossible,' he said. 'You would be fired immediately if anybody knew you were Gay.'
He taught part-time at San Francisco State University and went on to teach in Europe before he moved back to the states and settled in Philadelphia to manage a food co-op.
Hermance started working at the University of Pennsylvania's library and also served as treasurer of LGBT magazine Gay Alternative. He later became treasurer of the predecessor of the William Way LGBT Community Center, a venture that allowed him to meet Olshan.
Hermance said Giovanni's Room encompassed all of his roles from his previous positions.
'The academic part came with the book part, the bookkeeping part helped with the retail part, and of course there was the Gay part,' he said. 'That I could do those things at the same time and make a living doing it was refreshing.'
TARGETED BY BIGOTS
The bookstore, which originally was located on South Street, moved to the 1400 block of Spruce Street from 1976 to 1979. During that time, the store was removed enough from the public eye that there were few anti-LGBT incidents.
However, after moving to the current location at 345 S. 12th St. in 1979, the visibility did lead to more opposition - which subsided more than a decade ago.
'Every once in a while, people would throw bricks in the windows in the early morning. Cars would be stopped at the traffic light and people would scream 'faggot.' There was a neighborhood kid who threw a cherry bomb in the window and that was the most anti-Gay act,' Hermance said. 'We haven't had a broken window for any hostile reason in 15 years. People from other neighborhoods, they kind of respect that the rules they play by in their neighborhoods don't necessarily go with those in Center City.'
During Hermance's first three years as owner, Giovanni's Room was 100% volunteer-run. The store hit its highest number of employees - four full-timers and four part-timers - in 1992. It now has three paid employees and volunteer labor drives about 40 percent of the operations.
A COMMUNITY HUB
In the past four decades, the store has been a constant hub for LGBT and ally authors.
Among his personal favorites, Hermance said, were a reading of Stone Butch Blues by author Leslie Feinberg, appearances by Edmund White, and an autograph signing with Olympic diver Greg Louganis - the line for which extended out the door and all the way to 11th and Spruce streets.
'There are really a lot of remarkable things happening in this space for free,' he said. 'I am struck by the fact that there are almost very few authors who will attract a mixed crowd. I know that is true everywhere in life, it's not just a queer thing, but it is kind of sad that we are not more curious about people who are not like ourselves. But in some ways that makes the events here even more spectacular. For example, when Ed White comes here, we can get eight people to come talk to him and it is fabulous and intimate.'
AMAZON TO BLAME?
With the book industry itself becoming less intimate, Hermance said independent bookstores face an uphill battle against larger retailers like Amazon.com.
'If people will buy from LGBT bookstores, that is great. The problem is the default and people won't give us a chance,' he said. 'They can't believe Giovanni's Room is online. They just cannot imagine an independent bookstore is that kind of resource. Amazon is destroying the book industry and because of them, it looks pretty grim to me. A college student is trying to figure out how much they can spend on textbooks and they look up on Amazon and see it is $25 cheaper than us - what are they supposed to do? When Amazon gives away free shipping when you buy $25 worth of books, for us that would be suicidal because for shipping, it is shockingly expensive.'
Last year, Giovanni's Room had revenue of $280,000 but Hermance, who has not taken a salary in seven years, said the store has been losing money.
The store has to pay out more than $18,000 annually in city and real-estate taxes, as well as for business insurance.
NEW DIRECTION NEEDED
Hermance said he thinks the business has the potential to thrive with new ideas and ingenuity.
'Maybe part of the solution is moving to less-expensive premises,' he said. 'For a while, someone was thinking of opening a coffee service here and it would be great. I personally didn't want to run a café or ask employees to also play barista. I didn't want to put my money into that for someone else's business, but for a new owner, that might be an attractive deal for them. There are opportunities, but I think a new owner would need to have a fresh perspective, probably a younger perspective,' he said. 'I can't take the store any further. Somebody needs to take it in a new direction.'
Several years ago, the store had to replace an exterior wall that was in danger of collapse.
The community raised more than $50,000 for the project, an effort that Hermance said still resonates with him.
'The community loves this store. It is unbelievable the attachment people have to it. When we asked the community for the $50,000 to pay for the wall, they handed it over one by one. There is an emotional bond to this store, and that is why we are here and so many other bookstores are not.'
Reprinted by permission from Philadelphia Gay News (www.epgn.com).
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