Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Bookstore's End: How 'Evil' Are You?

Giovanni's Room, the oldest U.S. LGBT bookstore in America, if not the world, will soon close. And it's our fault.

Giovanni's Room in June 2012
Think about it. We buy books on Amazon.com. I self-published my last two books with them. It proved to be the easiest and most profitable format for self-publishing authors like myself. Expanding our culpability, we use the arrogant Google, whose motto has quite obviously re-punctuated from "Don't be evil," to "Don't. Be evil!" Google the term "Google buses" to catch up on this ongoing San Francisco controversy. Feel guilty? Use Bing.com instead (even though it pales in comparison).

Our smart phones and Apple computers are manufactured by near-slaves in China who will die from the toxins made with these products. I wrote all my novels on Apple computers. I am right now blogging on a Google platform.

We're evil by association. And the last great American gay bookstore is our latest sacrifice.

Yet, generous people like Ed Hermance, owner of Giovanni's Room, held their noses and sometimes included my books among their inventory. At the now long-gone A Different Light bookstores, my first novel PINS was sold, more than 500 copies at the San Francisco store alone. 

And yet, my "popularity" was measured in rankings on Amazon.com. In summer 2000, when my first novel was among the top ten bestselling gay fiction titles, when I met CEO Jeff Bezos, I eagerly thanked him for helping to make my book successful. Even the Lambda Literary Foundation accepted a $25,000 grant from the corporation.

Because, in part, we're all evil; that is, we make concessions that have long-term unintended effects. And if you agree with the rather obvious realizations from independent bookstore owners, the financial shift toward online purchases caused the demise of A Different Light, Giovanni's Room, and other indie stores.
In an email release dated  April 29, owner Ed Hermance wrote:
I regret to announce that our beautiful store is closing before the end of May. Among Philadelphia's earliest LGBT institutions, Giovanni's Room has served many thousands of people not only in this region but across the nation and around the world. Many of those people have expressed support for the store this past year, after the announcement that the store was for sale. A number of people were interested in taking over the operation, though they knew the store has not made a profit in a number of years. In the end, though, I did not think that any of the offers were realistic.

Friendly staffers at Giovanni's Room in 2012 (with my book on the shelf)
It has been a wonderful life for me. It has been wonderful to work for people who love this store so much. I want to thank the hundreds of people who have worked in the store, both the salaried and the volunteers. Above all, I'd like to thank Skip Strickler, the dean of the staff, and Richard Smith, the dean of the volunteers. Each has worked in the store for more than thirty-five years.

I thank the thousands of customers, who have been our reason for being. I know we have helped a huge number of people in untold ways, and they have successfully helped the store when it was threatened.

The prospective closing date is Saturday, May 17, 2014. Everything in the store will be on sale at 25% off beginning Wednesday, April 30, 11:30 am--except for the books by the many authors who will be reading in the store before May 17.

Giovanni's Room sign featuring my reading in 2012
The last time I read at Giovanni's Room, in June 2012, was to promote Every Time I Think of You, which days later would win my first Lambda Literary Award in nearby New York City. Although I drew much fewer visitors than did Felice Picano the next night, the generosity of the staff and owners to shelf my new book, and copies of my other books, by consignment, engendered a great feeling of belonging, or worth, for my work.
I'd spent the previous week trekking all over Philadelphia, for research on the sequel, Message of Love. I knew that I would include a chapter or scene with Reid and Everett shopping there, because of course they would have done that, back in the early 1980s. 
That's what I did, in a way.
In reality, I purchased books via mail order forms (in, to paraphrase Cyndi Lauper's song "She Bop" '...the pages of a Blueboy Magazine).
 As an impoverished Dance major at Ohio State, with less than $100 in my bank account, I somehow managed to bypass food purchases to send a check for a bundle of gay novels a few times a year. Even then, in the back of my mind, some connection with gay literature, and that specific store, was being made. I still have those books.
So it was only natural to pay homage to Giovanni's Room in my new novel.

Here's an excerpt from Message of Love
-->Chapter 23,  November, 1981, where boyfriends Everett, a Penn State student and paraplegic, and Reid, a Forestry major at Temple, visit Giovanni's Room:

The red brick townhouse had two cement steps, so I opened the door, then backed Everett’s chair up and into the bookstore. The clerk at Giovanni’s Room approached, asking if we needed any help.
“We’re fine,” I said, as Everett turned and took the place in. It looked like a home converted into a store, like many in the historic neighborhood. A few of the aisles were a little tight, so I brought him a few books he couldn’t reach.
“Check this out.” He handed me a large paperback with large curling letters on the cover.
The Joy of Gay Sex?” I whispered.
“I figure we could get a few pointers.”
“‘An intimate guide for gay men to the pleasure of a gay lifestyle.’ Does it include decorating tips?” I joked as I flipped through it, opening it to page with a drawing of two guys going at it in an entirely unfamiliar position. The chapter heading read ‘Fisting.’
“Woah.” I handed the book back to him.
“Prude.” He perused it as if it were a textbook.
“Do you have any complaints?” I muttered.
“No, it’s just, you know, we do have… challenges.”
“Yeah, but–”
“It’s what I want for my birthday.”
“Your birthday’s in February.”
“Okay then; an early Christmas present.”
“Besides, I have a feeling you’re going to enjoy this as much as I will.”
The eager clerk appeared before us. “You gentlemen need any help? I can get you something from upstairs.”
“He needs a little Gay 101,” Everett said as he handed the clerk the sex book. “And I need an owner’s manual.”
He also ended up buying himself a small stack of books, magazines and a videotape that he said was “a surprise.”

Later on in the novel, Giovanni's Room becomes a vital resource for Everett, who diligently scours local newspapers for information about the spreading health crisis among gay men. At that time, it was only through stores like Giovanni's Room that gay people could find a variety of periodicals, books and information about their endangered culture.

Felice Picano at Giovanni's Room, June 2012
Although the above fictional scene isn't lengthy, my heartfelt connection to gay bookstores like Giovanni's Room is. On the night of my first reading there, in December 2000, I read from my first novel, PINS. Several members of the Philadelphia wrestling club attended, a light soft snow fell, a glowing Advocate review of PINS had just been published, and it was my birthday. I'll never be able to express the thrill of that night, and the joy I felt.

I can express the conflicted guilt of somehow indirectly being a part of its demise, because I chose to do business with the "evil" corporation that is in many ways responsible for such a change. The only way I could offer an apology, a eulogy of sorts, was to include it, ironically, in a book published via its killer.

For at least the next few weeks, hopefully you can order my books through Giovanni's Room. That's the least we can do to not be evil.

UPDATE: Rolling Stone did a lovely feature on the bookstore's closing day, May 17 (although the comments online are a horroshow of hatred and bile, which quite clearly prove the need for bookstores like Giovanni's Room.)

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