Wednesday, June 30, 2010

LGBT Business Owner of the Year: Ed Hermance / Giovanni's Room

Just last week I heard about a this competition for LGBT Business Owner of the Year and figured it would be a no-brainer to make the case for my friend, Ed Hermance, owner of Giovanni's Room: the world's oldest LGBTQ bookstore. The deadline was today, June 30th and I'm happy to say we got it together and mailed in this afternoon. What follows is the text I wrote on Ed's behalf, followed by his bio and the two required letters of support from prominent supporters of the nomination. Keep your fingers crossed!

Philadelphia’s Giovanni’s Room is arguably the most successful LGBT bookstore in existence. Founded in the wake of the Stonewall Rebellion, when American communities seemed to be sprouting new Gay and Feminist bookstores by the week, Giovanni’s Room continues to thrive in 2010 as the country’s longest standing retail business serving the out & proud LGBT Community at its bricks-and-mortar bookshop and worldwide through Owner Ed Hermance acquired the business in 1976 in partnership with Arleen Olshan and has been sole proprietor since 1986.

Giovanni’s Room has doubled in size three times over its original 1973 storefront location. Today the business completely occupies a connecting pair of 2- & 3-storey buildings in the heart of Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood.” With shelves holding more than 7,000 books and a database of over 48,000 LGBT titles, Giovanni's Room stocks literally thousands more LGBT titles than the biggest of the general interest mega-bookstores.

While other prominent LGBT bookstores have sadly closed up shop in recent years, Giovanni’s Room continues to grow in significance: an enduring retail enterprise based on an increasingly rare LGBT-focused business model. The basic paradigm underlying this store’s operations is informed by the same spirit that compelled the formation and management of all gay and feminist bookstores that came to be in the late 1960s/early ‘70s. That basic, high-profile, purpose-driven, community-focused independent bookstore prototype was, in fact, the first business model ever adopted for common use by any number of LGBT-identified retail businesses.

Rather than maximizing profits, however, the largely intuitive business plan that still drives Giovanni’s Room is notably predicated on creating markets, which was not an option but a necessity in the 1970s. Few people had even dreamed of marketing to a self-identified LGBT consumer base. In the sense of an “arena where an identifiable group of buyers & sellers consciously seek contact with each other for the purpose of openly exchanging goods and services,” an LGBT market simply did not exist ‘above ground.’ There were no legitimate classes or categories of business operating by, for and in the common interest of Out LGBT people: no self-identified LGBT businesspeople and certainly no official associations of Out LGBT professionals anywhere.

In very real ways, the Out & Proud commercial markets and LGBT professional entities we now take for granted are rooted in the now-anachronistic gay and feminist bookstore movement, the best of which is represented today in the still-going concern known as Giovanni’s Room. If only by its own standards the store’s success can be measured not merely in its longevity or profitability, but more so in the effective role it has played in the very creation and legitimization of today’s lucrative LGBT markets. Consider history…

Giovanni’s Room was among the first commercial enterprises that dared give voice in the marketplace to “the love that dare not speak its name.” When mainstream bookstores, venues, publishers and distributors declined to risk openly promoting talented but little known LGBT “niche” writers to their general interest customers, Giovanni’s Room gave the most deserving among them top-shelf attention. The store promoted their LGBT-themed works through their own critical reviews in the store’s catalogue, through advertising and hosting in-store readings/autograph parties that fueled many a writer’s rise to fame, at times resulting in their ultimate cross-over to a mainstream audience. Many of today’s most successful LGBT writers are quick to acknowledge their debt to Hermance and Giovanni’s Room for assertively marketing their early works.

Older, established writers have also gained new audiences for their work through the leadership efforts of Giovanni’s Room. Authors, editors and publishers of scholarly and scientific works exploring LGBTQ topics; political, religious and self-help books, including those dealing with coming out, relationship and family issues; journals, periodicals, entertainment and news magazines; performing artists and filmmakers: all these and still others owe the management and customers of stalwart LGBT bookstores like Giovanni’s Room a debt of gratitude for creating the markets that made and sustain their careers.

Hermance’s former business partner, Arleen Olshan notes that
“the bookstore also specializes in feminist books and books relevant to youth - young children as well as tweens and teens. In addition, one of the aims of the store has been to be a comprehensive collection of material that has been helpful to scholars and students - we are mentioned in many doctoral dissertations.”

Giovanni’s Room was also a leader in the 1970s and 80s efforts to expand LGBT markets globally by way of its international wholesale business. Always a strong proponent of free speech and expression, Giovanni’s Room alone stepped up to help stock the shelves of newly opening LGBT bookstores in Europe, Australia and New Zealand with lesbian and gay materials at a time when American distributers dared not risk challenging archaic and repressive import laws on the books of our country’s supposedly enlightened allies and partners in free-trade.

Those perceived risks were substantiated in several highly publicized seizures of shipments from Giovanni’s Room at ports of entry in England and even in Canada when foreign printed materials of LGBT content were still legally banned. Hermance and his fellow booksellers abroad fought those seizures each time, waging long and costly legal challenges, eventually prevailing in court, sweeping away those international market barriers once and for all. Of all American businesses and people who may have been able to help bring those challenges to censorship around the world, Giovanni’s Room alone showed the courage and commitment to free expression and international exchange when it counted, which helped ensure the foundation of today’s global LGBT markets.

Other challenges Giovanni’s Room faced through the years stemmed from homophobic reactions to the store’s unapologetic, high-profile LGBTQ identity. Fortunately such actions and threats have abated for the most part, but through the 1980s and into the ‘90 they included instances of:
• eviction from the previous rented store space when the building ownership changed hands and its new owners refused to rent to LGBT occupants (before Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Act outlawed such discrimination in 1983);
• violence in the form of anonymous, window-smashing overnight attacks against the store’s building, purchased in 1979 to avert any further homophobic evictions;
• homophobic pickets, organized by local reactionary radio announcers who called on their listeners to come out and demonstrate in front of the store, and;
• verbal threats of violence/anonymous expressions of hatred delivered by phone and mail.

Ironically, success spawned ever-growing challenges to Giovanni’s Room by way of increasingly competitive, sometimes ruthless conditions in the very markets that the store helped to create. The overall LGBT market grew to a level of maturity in the 1990s, becoming not only commercially viable but quite lucrative as well, drawing the interest of large corporations who always put profits first, not that there’s anything wrong with that! Our community institutions however are known to have become the unwitting targets of extreme predatory marketing strategies by mega/chain/discount stores driven by lust for profit achieved through the virtual monopolization of market share.

These retail monsters mercilessly undercut all independent booksellers, destroying most in the process, siphoning away cost-conscious customers with their volume based discounts on front-list titles (a handful of books that comprises their entire LGBT inventories at any given time). Such tactics are impossible for small independents like Giovanni’s Room to match especially in a tightening economy where consumers have less and less available to spend on “nonessential items,” including books.

The recession is widespread, of course: extending also into the global markets that Giovanni’s Room had opened for exchange of LGBT materials. There is more and bitter irony in the fact that the store’s once promising venture into the export business was effectively displaced by the large American and British distributors who moved in on it once the risks of shipping LGBT materials overseas were relieved, thanks, of course, to the hard fought efforts of Giovanni’s Room. Hermance has risen graciously to all these challenges, implementing sometimes-difficult changes in the store’s practices to keep the business viable. But the greatest challenges the store has faced rose just this past year, including an issue with the store’s 130-year-old building fa├žade, found to be unstable by city inspectors: safety mandated immediate demolition of the wall and its reconstruction, raising the need for an infusion of a whopping $50,000 into store coffers in order to pay for it.

The high regard in which the LGBT literary, scholarly and bookselling worlds hold Giovanni’s Room, along with the largely unsung contributions the store has made to the professional world of LGBT business and commerce in general, tell only part of the complex and layered story that is Giovanni’s Room. The store’s support for local LGBT community organizations, activities and events in Philadelphia is duly considered a foregone conclusion: something taken for granted by community activists, organizers, fundraisers, artists and performers. In this respect Giovanni’s Room still fulfills a traditional role that LGBT bookstores had long assumed: that of community center by proxy. LGBT stores had filled many community needs in the days before actual Center facilities came to exist and may still provide services that are beyond the capacity of LGBT Community Centers, which have by now opened in most of our larger urban areas, including Philadelphia. Hermance still permits use of store space after business hours for reading groups and organizing efforts.

Art exhibits, author appearances, readings and book signings, continue to happen there, as do performances and poetry readings including the monthly “Holler!” open mic night. In addition to providing a safe and relaxed atmosphere for patrons to browse the stock, the store has several community bulletin boards and literature racks where flyers, brochures, and other free materials are made available to help LGBT people find resources to serve them in all areas of life, from job-seeking and leisure activities to housing and health care options. Staff members and volunteers are often called upon to provide telephone peer counseling, referrals and informational services equivalent in many ways to a community center’s LGBTQ hotline.

A high-profile LGBT street presence - still rare in most neighborhoods - has become the norm for Giovanni’s Room through their store window displays. Crossing the store's threshold has been an extraordinary symbolic and emotional experience for thousands of LGBT people just coming to terms with their sexual orientation or gender identity. Once inside they invariably find safe space, a welcoming environment and a friendly knowledgeable staff on hand to offer help if needed. In similar fashion the store holds special interest for out-of-town visitors who find a full range of LGBT literature including imported books not likely to be available elsewhere in the United States. Giovanni's Room is the traditional place from which LGBT tourists and foreign visitors begin their visit to Philadelphia. Its “heart-of-the-Gayborhood” location is also centrally located in this historic city: within easy walking distance of the theatre district, major hotels, the finest restaurants, world-class shopping and, of course, the most intriguing sites in the colonial/historic section of the city as well. The store provides city maps, guides, and knowledgeable friendly advice to travelers, free of charge. On occasion, LGBT community activists are known to set up tables outside the store, raising awareness around LGBT civil rights, health and political issues/actions including HIV/AIDS awareness, voter registration and fundraising.

Heshie Zinman, a respected community organizer and fundraiser on HIV/AIDS issues says,
“As well as being an important conduit for LGBT/HIV event promotions and ticket sales Giovanni's Room also provides a critical service to the community by making information about HIV/AIDS Prevention, Treatment and Care available to all those affected by HIV/AIDS.”
Since the tragic passing of beloved former staff member and promising young writer Joseph Beam (ed. In The Life: A Black Gay Anthology) brought home the harsh realities of the epidemic to Giovanni’s Room, everyone closely associated with the store has shared far too many such times of anguish wrought by HIV/AIDS. But times of hope and triumph have been shared in the store as well, fostering a sense of what can only be described as “family,” which remains strong today. In the broader community, too, support for the store was found to still be strong when it was put to the test this year, though customers may have drifted away, taking for granted, perhaps, that the store would always be there, with or without their patronage. Unfortunately, circumstances beyond the store’s control, including a steady decline in the number of periodicals in print, have meant a conspicuous loss in the most dependable revenue generators the store had.

Yet, as word got out that the future of Giovanni’s Room may be in jeopardy if $50,000 is not found this year, an impromptu team of friends, including former store owners, employees and volunteers, began to meet with Hermance on their own time to devise strategies for raising that formidable sum, while also raising awareness -- reminding the world of the special place the store holds in our community, our history and our lives.

As one of the last original Out Gay leaders still in business Ed has devoted over 40 years his life to opening doors and laying foundations for the LGBTQ business community through his groundbreaking efforts with Giovanni’s Room. Since first becoming involved with the store Ed has worked full-time alongside employees and volunteers, sharing in the operation and benefits of the store. We who love him proudly nominate Ed Hermance as Business Owner of the Year – an honor appropriate in 2010 of all years.

For having reached the age in life when retirement may be an attractive option and with printed books threatening to become virtually obsolete, Hermance’s days as a bookstore owner may be numbered, much to our dismay. Ed is frank in his feeling that,
“the LGBTQ community created the store to meet their needs, which are changing all the time, as are the products that Giovanni's Room can offer. The shrinkage of available products, including the uncertain future of printed books makes the future of the store uncertain.”
If the store does not survive much longer he pledges to “return its assets to the community through the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund (a local LGBT foundation).” But the ad hoc volunteer fundraising group is by no means resigned to that eventuality. The group includes some who had risen to the task before, devoting time, talent and muscle to the painstaking creation of an enduring and beautiful space to house ‘our’ store over 30 years ago. Through our recent and ongoing efforts we have been able to pay down the wall reconstruction bill by more than $42,000 so far. That amount has been raised in donations to the Wall Fund, made by individuals primarily in gifts ranging from $5 to $50.

A $5,000 grant will be awarded to the winner of this year's competition for Business Owner of the Year. If Ed wins it he will, of course, apply it entirely to the Wall Fund, helping to complete the fundraising campaign to cover the store’s reconstruction expense.

Biographical Statement: Ed Hermance
Born in Houston, Texas, in 1940, Ed Hermance graduated Dartmouth College (’62, BA, philosophy) and Indiana University, Bloomington (’65, MA, comparative literature). His teaching credits include Auburn University (Alabama), Indiana State University, and Tuebingen University (Germany) where he taught English at the same time as the future Pope Benedict XVI was also teaching there. Fearing that he might never escape the closet as long as he remained a teacher, Ed abandoned academia and joined a hippie commune in the mountains of Southern Colorado, still a going concern with a long history of distinguished perennial guests, including Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and John Corso.

Ed moved to Philadelphia in 1971 to manage Ecology Food Co-op, a natural foods outlet. There he learned how to run a retail business and to manage a largely volunteer staff. In 1973 he met one of the early owners of Giovanni's Room, who introduced him to the collective behind The Gay Alternative magazine for which he soon became treasurer. Consequently, he was appointed treasurer of another organization that would soon open the doors of Philadelphia’s LGBT Community Center. At a Community Center retreat in 1976, he and fellow board member Arleen Olshan agreed to form a partnership to purchase Giovanni's Room. He has since devoted his life to expanding the store’s services as widely as possible. Ed’s interest in foreign languages and European countries led to close relations with European LGBT bookstores. Supplying books and African-made movies to the embattled LGBT community in Uganda this year continues a long engagement overseas.

Selected Publications List

Colletta, Jen: Community rallies behind Giovanni’s Room Philadelphia Gay News (PGN) 07/30/2009

Iorio, Karen: It All Started With a Letter, Gay and lesbian alums have Ed Hermance ’62 to thank for the spark that led to their own alumni organization, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine (DAM), Nov/Dec 2009

Drake, Scott: Giovanni's Room kicks up fundraising efforts, PGN 10/08/2009

Cardwell, Thom: What It Looks Like From Here: An Evening with Christopher Rice to Support Giovanni’s Room, QUEERtimes Weekly, vol.3 #35, 01/22/2010

Colletta, Jen: Historical marker sought for bookstore, PGN 02/11/2010

Schechner, Karen: Community Support for Giovanni's Room Continues, Bookselling this Week (American Booksellers Association) 06/17/2010

Dunham, Kelli: Our Stores, Our Lives: LGBT Bookstores find a way to survive in hard times, Curve Magazine, Vol 20 #5, June 2010

Letters of Support for Ed Hermance as Business Owner of the Year