09/06/2013 In My Writing
11
Andrew
Sep 06, 2013

Untimely End? Or Mission Accomplished?

I read today about Giovanni’s Room possibly closing. For those who have no idea what that is or why it’s significant, I’d say it’s a Philly thing, but that probably wouldn’t help all that much. Giovanni’s Room is the LGBT bookstore in Philadelphia that was one of the original gay owned/focused bookstores.  Hell it’s even got it’s own historical marker set in front of the store. It started not long after the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and was/is a tremendous resource to the local gay community. In any case the owner, Ed Hermance, has decided to retire. He’s looking for a buyer – and if you read the article, you can see he’s not looking for a lot, if he can find someone who’ll keep the store running.

I remember a few years ago when Lambda Rising closed in D.C. feeling like it was the end of an age, but if Giovanni’s Room closes, it will hit that much closer to home. I didn’t move to Philadelphia (well the suburbs) until I was sixteen, so to say I grew up there isn’t quite accurate. But the ‘gay me’ grew up there. I was living there when I came out.  I had many firsts in my ‘gay life’ happen there and I met my soon to be husband there.

I won’t exaggerate and say I used to make special trips into the city just to go Giovanni’s Room, but if I was down in the ‘Gayborhood’ I would almost always make a side trip just to see what was new.  (Some of those side trips became adventures, when I couldn’t remember what block it was on and because there was no Siri to ask for direction, I had to walk around for ten minutes trying to find something familiar.)

Back in the early ’90s, it, and other bookstores like it, was a source of information on the community and culture. There weren’t many place you could find the gay newspaper, magazines, books, community information, etc, all in one place. Washington’s first gay pride event was sponsored by the Lambda Rising bookstore.

It, like the other LGBT bookstores that have since closed, was a place you could go and be yourself. Instead of looking over your shoulder worrying about who was watching, you could look to see if someone was watching. (Or you could do the checking out if you liked.)

Back when Lamdba Rising closed, there was a debate about the need for LGBT focused bookstores.  In a 2009 Washington Post article, Deacon Maccubbin, founder and owner of Lambda Rising, said when he opened the store it filled an unmet need by carrying LGBT books and magazine the mainstream stores didn’t and to show that there was a market for gay themed literature and magazines. Part of his decision to close the store was that the need was being met in other ways, i.e. mainstream bookstores and online. He said his store had achieved his goal convincing mainstream retailers that there was a market for LGBT literature and writing.  He used the term ‘Missions Accomplished’ and said it was time to move on to new things.

When I consider that Mike and sat down with an event planner at a local hotel today to arrange our wedding reception, I can see the progress he spoke about. I’m reminded of how far we’ve come when I drop off our daughter – who has two fathers – at daycare and I’m treated like every other parent.  Recently someone commented that we – Mike, me, ‘lil q and our dog – are more of a traditional family that they were and they’re straight.  When we get married, our families are flying in from all around the country to attend. They’re coming not because it’s a ‘gay wedding’ but because it’s our wedding and that is what families do – attend family member’s weddings. Can anyone deny how much progress has been made in the past twenty years?

And then I wonder if LGBT focused bookstores are serving the same purpose they did twenty, thirty, forty years ago. How many members of the LGBT community under twenty-five have ever been to Giovanni’s Room or the like? Or better yet, how many people in our community period have been there recently.  How many people get any of their community information from such places let alone the lion’s share? Do LGBT readers look there first for their purchases or do they go to Amazon, B & N, iTunes, etc?

I do, however, think we are poorer for the fact these places are gone. Part of me will always feel the need still exists. That having a place like Lambda Rising or Giovanni’s Room will never be obsolete. Even if other places carry LGBT literature and magazines,, the environment will never be as comfortable as it was/is at Lambda Rising or Giovanni’s Room.

Mainstream places will never be community gathering points, will never be at the forefront of change, or as zealous a champion for our causes.  They won’t be trailblazers and sponsor the first pride (or the next equivalent) event.  They’ll always serve a broader swath of the population and won’t have the same focus as a local, community driven place. We’ll have to share it with everyone else.

And while the ultimate goal of acceptance is to be treated the same as everyone else, it still feels nice to have a little slice of something that is all our own.  Maybe it’s because I ‘grew up’ when there was a need for such things that I feel the loss more keenly.  Maybe it’s because I don’t think, ‘bigger is better.’ That just because Amazon has low prices, that it’s good for the community.  [And I’ve nothing against Amazon, in fact quite opposite. Jeff Bezos gave millions of dollars of his own money to support gay marriage in Washington State.]

But in the end, these are businesses not non-profits. They can only survive if they make money. Independent sellers of all stripes are struggling, not just LGBT ones.  Those of us who lament their passing must look in the mirror and ask, ‘Did I do enough to support them to keep them going?’ If most are like me, the answer will be no.

To answer my own questions, I don’t agree that it’s ‘Mission Accomplished.’ If Giovanni’s Room goes the way of the other independent LGBT bookstores that have closed, it will be an untimely end, because we who knew better, didn’t do enough to keep them going.

11 Comments

  1. Nephylim says:

    I read your post with a growing sense of dread. I think that, not just in the LGBT community but generally, these little meeting places are dying and community it dying with it. These are the places where revolutions are started, where young people (and not so young people) gathered in corners or huddled over coffee and plotted. They talked, exchanged information and sent glances over their shoulders as they discussed their issues and their solution. There’s nothing like social isolation to quash a rebellion, and the ease of access to information the internet provides, doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to substitute for these kinds of meeting places. I wonder how movements like Stonewall would have fared if the founders had never actually met each other.

    • Nephylim says:

      Sorry. I forgot to add that I don’t think the fight is over. Just because you are able to plan your wedding in the open doesn’t mean that it’s easy for young gay people to come out and have freedom to explore their sexuality, and until LGBT books are being displayed in the windows and recommended sections of bookstores, as long as they are kept in the dark corners at the back, LGBT literature will never actually be ‘in the mainstream’ We’re making huge steps in the right direction but we’re not there yet.

      • Agreed, all I meant to say was that when I saw the quote from Lambda Rising’s owner about ‘Mission Accomplished’ I started calculating the pros and cons. Sure there has been real progress, but as you say, we’re not there yet. By way of analogy – we have an African American President – the pinnacle of politics in this country – does that mean racism is over? Not by a long shot, but it does show that progress is being made. But again, I totally agree, it ain’t over yet, sister. One thing I didn’t say, that has bugged me for a few years. The owner of Lambda Rising refused to sell the business because – basicially – it was his and he didn’t want anyone else to take it, change it and make it other than what he wanted. That to me was incredibly selfish and short sighted. The only way for that business or that type of business to succeed depended on the goodwill and name recognition. No one has created a replacement. I suspect because without the goodwill and name recognition, there isn’t a viable business model. This is something Giovanni’s Room’s owner recognizes and is willing to sell the business – along with the name and goodwill – in an effort to keep it and it’s good work going. I wish that had happened in DC.

    • Nephy,

      I think you are right and what you said at the end says it better than I could. What would have happened if there had been no Stonewall? Not only wouldn’t they have met, they wouldn’t have been arrested and there would have been no riots. In short there would have been no flash point. With Lambda Rising, the original event from which DC’s Capital Pride has evolved was a block party in front of the store. No store – not logical place to hold it, etc. I miss these places too. I miss that I might never get to take ‘lil q – who loves her books – to a small books store to let her walk through the aisle and stop when a pretty cover catches her eye, or watch her sit on the floor and look through the book. I think the internet is great in so many ways, but where it stifles human interactions, that part is a definite negative side effect.

  2. Hey Andy, that was a really interesting and informative post, made all the more enjoyable by the the little snippets of info about your past. I agree it’s a great shame that these individual little bookstores are closing down, not only do they do sterling work for the LGBT community but are usually REALLY good bookstores, and you don’t feel that you are causing a nuisance by asking questions. Of course, many people would say that there isn’t the need for them anymore, mainly due to the thing I’m typing this message on…the electronic age my friend….but surely there must be some entrepreneurs in the Philly area who are sympathetic to the LGBT cause, and would be prepared to take it on now the owner wishes to retire??

    • Bev,

      One does hope someone in Philly will take this on and carry it forward. Sadly the Mom and Pop book stores are dying out. We moved to our home in 2006 and there was this nice little shop in town. It wasn’t a ‘superstore’ like Barnes and Noble, but it had the major titles and you could order whatever else you wanted. They managed to hang on a couple years because of the huge sales they generated from Harry Potter – they’d have midnight release parties or day of parties for the kids and they managed to sell a lot of books. But when the last book was published, they didn’t make it much longer. I miss them. I think the real issue is eBooks. How do retailers address that? Even in the best of times, a bookseller wasn’t a hand over fist money maker. So with eBooks taking away a large chunk of paperback sales, what do they replace that with? And that doesn’t address the erosion of sales from Amazon and the like selling paperbacks on line either. So they got hit coming and going.

      But places like Giovanni’s room have a different purpose as well. They provide a service to the LGBT community that I don’t think can be replicated ‘on-line’ so the lose is more keenly felt that the terrible sting of losing the local book seller.

      • When I think of the amount of times we took my son (he’s now 22) into our local book shop….we could be in there for anything up to an hour while he looked through everything he liked the cover of, and yes, our shop also did the ‘Harry Potter’ nights…..and unfortunately the ‘Twilight’ nights and other girly ones…whose name is SO memorable I’ve completely forgotten them, but these book shops mean so much more to the LBGT community than we hets could ever understand…surely something can be done?? I hope so for the young kids in those areas anyway. x

  3. I like to believe there is still a need. I still thrill when I walk into the store. I remember years ago walking into Giovanni’s Room and running into a coworker…and her girlfriend. She was afraid to come out at work but seeing me there, knowing she was not alone at work seemed to make her relax. Maybe, I like others, have found it to easy to order from Amazon rather than trek into town and search for a parking space but Giovanni’s Room (like Lambda Rising) will always have a special place in my heart. I hope it stays open. And while there are other bookstores, there are few others where every book reflects some part of me and others like me, where are experiences are documented, valued and celebrated.

    • I agree Larry. I figured you’d have your own personal feeling about the place too. I miss Lambda Rising, but being honest, it’s not like I did all that much to keep it afloat. I’d buy this or that from it, but barely a morsel of what I’d buy elsewhere. Now I regret my lack of patronage – though in reading the things again from LR’s closing, I realize it wasn’t about dollars and cent – because there were people who would have bought the business. But I really hope someone steps up and buys it. Maybe you and I ought to consider becoming owner/authors and keep it going? 🙂

  4. Daddy Dave K says:

    I think the conclusion that civil rights and LGBT rights are not “mission accomplished” is absolutely correct. I haven’t thoroughly studied the polling data but it seems that demographics may mean the goal is in sight. By that I mean, most young people, those under age 30 could care less about sexual orientation or color of skin. So the current ongoing problems with prejudice may hopefully be a lot rarer in the future. At least that’s my hope and I’m sticking to it!

    Andy’s personal situation is emblematic of the progress made in the 40 some years since Stonewall, but there are still thousands who suffer second class status under the laws of their jurisdictions. Even here in the US and even after DOMA was struck down.

    • Dave,

      I think you are right that for the under 30 population this and other bias issues seem so less prevalent. Part of that is that my generation was the first to live entirely under the civil rights act and the end of segregation. That said, things had only really started to change when I was a teenager. It took years before schools and communities started to get more diverse.

      But there are other factors that I see that will play into this. For one people tend to get more conservative as they get older. Be it because they have kids, a house, more skin in the game to lose, whatever. Or maybe it’s because they’ve had negative life experiences that shift them away from being more open minded. Now that trend might not hold true for the coming generations who’ve only know to be more open and accepting and that’s how their parents are – that’s something for others wiser than I do weigh in on. But the end result is, even if things are better, they’re not ‘mission accomplished’ and I don’t know that they ever will be. You can’t stamp out intolerance entirely so in my mind there will always be a need for places like these.