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.