The Future of Gay Bookstores

As San Francisco's longtime gay bookstore A Different Light closes its doors, Philly's Giovanni's Room reflects on a new era for independents

Ed Hermance (photos courtesy of Giovanni's Room)

Ed Hermance has been recommending books and greeting customers at Philly’s longtime gay bookstore Giovanni’s Room since 1973. But when A Different Light announced this week that it would close its doors for good after 32 years in San Francisco, the longtime owner voiced his concern about the future of his own independent shop at 12th and Pine Street.

“The closing of A Different Light in San Francisco raises the question about the future of Giovanni’s Room,” says Hermance.

Giovanni’s Room is now considered the oldest-operating LGBT bookstore in the country after so many sister stores shut their doors – including Oscar Wilde Books in New York and Lambda Rising in Washington D.C.

“There is no substitute for a physical store,” says Hermance.

But could the issue be a bit more complex than simply online competition? Could it be that as more younger gays and lesbians find more mainstream acceptance, they are less likely to immerse themselves in exclusively LGBT culture? If so, the whole notion of a gay bookshop is being turned on its ear.

But a quick trip around Philly on a Friday night points to a very diverse gay life. At monthly circuit parties, a younger generation of gays and lesbians mingle. These same folks can be found at dive bars around town and indie music venues from Fishtown to South Philly. But when it comes to a “gay bookstore,” are more people heading to the web now? Or are they not heading anywhere at all, opting instead, to take a more mainstream route when it comes to getting the information they want?

With so many options, it’s easy to be finicky.

Hermance says a shop like Giovanni’s Room is more than just a retailer. “A physical store is also a community center,” he says. “For many people, the LGBT bookstore was their original ‘safe space,’ a place in which one might begin to come out to oneself.”

Some of the folks at the bookstore today are volunteers. Hermance says the experience gives community members of all ages meaningful roles and work to do. He also hosts events – more than 50 author readings each year. He also helps to support local LGBT charities and organizations by selling raffle tickets and giving gift certificates.

And while an air of uncertainty has been creeping into this crowded shop for many years now, the latest announcement about another gay bookshop closing has Hermance worried. That might explain the bulking up of the shop’s online database and the merchandising of eBooks. Rest assured – he’s also planning more events.

“These events enrich both the local community members and those writing for them,” says Hermance. “The reading groups meeting in the store contribute to the vitality of the community, too.”