Bookstore in Center City offers refuge for the LGBTQ community

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Giovanni's Room is in the heart of what's known as The Gayborhood in Philadelphia's Center City section.

It was one of the first LGBTQ bookstores in the nation.

And it's been a place of refuge for those to find stories of people like themselves to connect with the community and even to find love.

The store was named for the classic James Baldwin novel, Giovanni's Room, and has been a safe harbor for the LBGTQ communities since 1973.

It was founded just four years after the Stonewall Riots, which served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement around the world. The shop had its beginnings in a tiny storefront on South Street.

The selection of books was so slim that the owners displayed every book they sold in the window.

In 1976, the store moved to its current location at 12th and Pine, but only with the help of its dedicated customers.

"We ended up borrowing $12,000 from our customers for the down payment on this building. This place was a wreck and we had more than 100 people help us renovate. The store was very important to people in those days," said the former owner of Giovanni's Room, Ed Hermance.

So important, that when the gay community was devastated by the AIDS crisis, Giovanni's Room became a place to find important information.

"Through that period lots of people would get diagnosed as HIV positive and the first thing they'd do is come over here because it was just they didn't know what they were gonna do," said Hermance.

The store has been a starting point for people on their road to self-discovery and a place of new beginnings.

"I often hear stories from people about how they met their partner here 15 years ago or how the first time they came into this store was a very important moment in their lives," said Alan Chelak, Manager of Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni's Room.

In 2014, Giovanni's Room became Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni's Room, a non-profit which accepts donations and resells them to raise money for organizations focused on AIDS awareness and resources. Its selection of new books has also expanded.

From its humble beginnings, Chelak said, "Richard has been volunteering here, for how long?" "Forty years. It's fun. There are fun people that work here. I just don't want to sit on my rear end all day," said Richard.

To the unlimited possibilities of a changing world, Giovanni's Room is a cornerstone of a community and a foundation of the future.

"Running the store today, I think it's important that everybody involved kind of recognizes what the previous generation has done for us. In many ways, we are standing on the shoulders of giants," said Chelak.
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