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June 08, 2023

Giovanni's Room, America's longest-running LGBTQ bookstore, celebrates 50 years with a block party

The shop, which was purchased by Philly AIDS Thrift in 2014, will host Queerapalooza on Saturday with live musicians and lots of dancing

Arts & Culture Pride
Giovanni's Room Anniversary Provided Image/Kory Aversa

Giovanni's Room will celebrate its 50th anniversary with Queerapalooza, an outdoor block party, on Saturday, June 10.

Amid the lights and sounds of its roaring nightlife, Philadelphia's Gayborhood is home to some of the oldest and most beloved LGBTQ institutions in the country. Among them is Giovanni's Room, the longest-running LGBTQ bookstore in America.

The store operates out of two buildings at the corner of 12th and Pine streets and is easily identifiable by two Pride flags wafting above its entrance. Its interior is lined with bookshelves, winding hallways and narrow staircases, leading visitors to new and used LGBTQ books, thrifted clothing racks, old LGBTQ magazines and newspapers and small knickknacks.

Founded in the summer of 1973, Giovanni's Room will celebrate its 50th anniversary with Queerapalooza, a 12-5 p.m. block party on Saturday, June 10. The event is free and open to the public, featuring DJs, drag queens, live musicians and a vendor market highlighting queer-owned businesses. As always, the store will be open for guests to browse its book collection.

Philly AIDS Thrift purchased the bookstore in 2014 and renamed it Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni's Room. The nonprofit thought up the idea for a 50th anniversary block party similar to the one it throws each year to celebrate its own anniversary on Fifth Street.

While the store's official anniversary is not until August, which will be commemorated with a ceremony honoring the store's original founders, organizers wanted to host the block party during Pride Month. 

"Every year, we sort of look at each other and ask if people are going to be visiting the store during Pride," said Katharine Milon, co-manager of Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni's Room. "It's a party. Maybe they'll come in and wave a flag and say hi, but who really comes to a bookstore during Pride? We did a wonderful amount of business on Sunday (during the festival). We had tons of people in the store, sitting outside and talking about what they wanted to buy. It really cannot be underestimated how much of our success comes down to the support of the city of Philadelphia and its growing queer community." 

Giovanni's Room LegacyProvided Image/Kory Aversa

Giovanni's Room, opened by Bernie Boyle, Tom Wilson-Weinberg and Dan Sherbo in 1973, is the longest-running LGBTQ bookstore in the country. It was purchased by Philly AIDS Thrift in 2014 to save it from closing.

Though Giovanni's Room is the longest-running LGBTQ bookstore in the country, it was not the first. In 1967, activist Craig Rodwell opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York City. By 1973, after the Stonewall Riots kickstarted the modern queer liberation movement and the city held its first Pride celebration, a trio of activists were inspired by the shop and wanted to open their own in Philadelphia. 

Dan Sherbo was a coordinator for The Gay Alternative magazine, a periodical born out of the movement. Along with Bernie Boyle and Tom Wilson Weinberg, the activists opened Giovanni's Room at a storefront on Second and South streets, which became the headquarters of the magazine and hosted meetings for the Gay Activists Alliance, Philadelphia Gay News reported. 

During those early years, Giovanni's Room had less than 100 titles. Where other gay-owned businesses, like nightclubs, would hide from the public and paint over their windows so people couldn't peer inside, Giovanni's Room displayed its books on shelves facing out at the street, welcoming people to see what the store had to offer, Milon said. 

Two years later, the original owners sold the business to Pat Hill, who gave Giovanni's Room a lesbian and feminist perspective. Milon noted that Hill has spoken extensively about what it was like to be at the forefront of the gay liberation movement, creating spaces for people to meet and form communities. 

Ed Hermance, who operated Giovanni's Room and guided it through its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s alongside Arleen Olshan, eventually put the store on the market after burning through thousands of dollars trying to keep it afloat as online shopping and e-book sales began overtaking independent shops. 

The store planned to close its doors before Alan Chelak, manager at Philly AIDS Thrift, saw the listing and contacted the organization's co-founder, Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou. Philly AIDS Thrift has since owned and operated the bookstore at 345 S. 12th St., hosting a monthly book club, author readings and special events for LGBTQ readers.

Kallas-Saritsoglou said the nonprofit organization wanted to preserve the legacy that was created by the original owners of Giovanni's Room while also inserting the mission and focus of Philly AIDS Thrift into its business model. 

While the store still purchases and sells thousands of new LGBTQ titles each year, the selection is accompanied by used and thrifted books too. Visitors may even spot a few copies of James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room," the classic 1956 novel that serves as the shop's namesake. 

"There is just such a sense of affection towards the store and all it has offered for generations of people living in and around the Gayborhood," said Milon. "We often get customers coming in who say that they spent their teenage years in the store or they've been visiting since the '70s and '80s and now they live somewhere else but they make the effort to come visit. The neighborhood has made such an extraordinary effort to show us their support, which has helped us to stay open as long as we have." 

Giovanni's Room BooksProvided Image/Kory Aversa

Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni's Room sells a collection of used and new LGBTQ titles, clothing, old magazines, records and small gift items.

As Giovanni's Room looks to its future, its managers have made a concerted effort to welcome transgender youth, particularly as trans people have become the subject of hundreds of pieces of legislation in the United States. Milon said that staff members have an open dialogue about pronouns and gender performance and are happy to educate themselves and their visitors who show up to browse or shop. 

"It's really important to us," Milon said. "One of the things we do, and I think it's really simple, is that we fly the trans pride flag right outside our door. We have two flags flying, one of which is the rainbow flag. It's a very simple gesture, but I now see people write poems about it that we publish and sell in the store, or they talk about the importance of that acknowledgment from the longest-running bookstore in the country." 

For those who are unable to attend Queerapalooza, Giovanni's Room is open to the public daily from 11 a.m.-8 p.m., closing one hour early at 7 p.m. on Sundays. Guests can also browse the bookstore's full collection of more than 7,000 LGBTQ titles online