More than a bookstore

Giovanni's Room -- the gay bookstore, not the James Baldwin novel -- really did change my life.

I was 22 and had just arrived in Philly from Syracuse, NY. The Bicentennial was over, so was my brief career in the closet, and nothing exemplified freedom like the gay literary oasis of Giovanni's.

In a Spruce Street brownstone where the Kimmel Center now stands, just a few doors down from the Allegro disco, the modest, shelved space was a place for gay people to peruse, in convivial comfort, books by, for and about us.

The liberation movement of the late '60s and early '70s and the demographic wave of 20-something baby boomers were creating a new market for gay fiction and non-fiction. Giovanni's is where I bought Andrew Holleran's glorious novel "Dancer from the Dance," where I discovered Edmund White, Paul Monette and Alan Hollinghurst, and where I heard poets read new work.

In the terrifying  '80s, the store -- by then at 12th and Pine -- was where I could pick up the New York, Boston and DC gay papers, which offered essential  and what felt like potentially lifesaving coverage of the AIDS crisis.

Well into the '90s and beyond, Giovanni's was a regular stop-and-shop for me and countless other LGBT folks, a cross between a reading room and a community center, a place to dawdle away a rainy, moody afternoon and leave with a book or two under one's arm.

Everything's different now, particularly when it comes to artifacts like the printed word and bricks-and-mortar retailers. Many landmark gay bookstores have closed, and Giovanni's is for sale; Ed Hermance, the genial Southern bibliophile who has presided over the place almost since the beginning, hopes to find a buyer who will keep it open.

I promise myself to patronize the place.

And then I remember that April was the last time I bought a book at Giovanni's.


--Kevin Riordan