Saturday, September 07, 2013

That Was Then, Now It's Closing

We all mourn the demise of an independent book shop, knowing that some community is losing an element that makes the place more civilized. Every time a store closes, someone mentions Amazon and its power to set prices, not pay local taxes because it does not exist anywhere, and generally crush the competition.

Sometimes, however, a shop goes out of business because times have changed while the store has not.

Such is the case of Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is one of the oldest bookstores serving the gay community (which includes all sub-genres of homosexuality such as lesbians, bisexuals, transgender et al.), but that is the problem. The community once served is not as marginalized as it was when the shop relocated in 1976. Almost forty years later, it is slated to close.

Relative to the over-all book-buying public of Philadelphia, the place was serving a small community. The niche market was large enough to support the shop when that was all there was, but when other options came available, the business went into a decline.

Owner Ed Hermance has waxed nostalgic over the heady days when the AIDS epidemic was first recognized, a time when causes and cures were largely unknown and rumour was substituted for knowledge. His shop served a critical function back then, by providing literature and information that was factual. No one else bothered with it because it was relevant to a community that was under-served, except by Mr. Hermance.

These days, information about AIDS is available online, direct from multiple sources.

The niche book seller lost a piece of his niche, but had nothing else with which to fill the gap.

The niche is not hunkered down trying to hide in the shadows, either. People have more support in the community at large than they once did, and coming out to your friends does not require a poetry reading at an indie bookshop that caters to a specific subset of the population.

Giovanni's Room once served a purpose, but the purpose has been lost to a changing attitude that has seen openly gay politicians win public office while their constituents yawn at the announcement of sexual orientation. Grand, so, but can you get the trash picked up and lower our taxes and bring jobs to the place? is what matters to voters these days.

It is always sad to see a small shop close up, no longer there to provide the personal service or recommendations that make a local book store such a pleasure, in a way that Amazon can never match. But in a way, it is a victory for acceptance of a small population that was once on the fringes of society. The need for a shop catering specifically to gay people, where they can feel comfortable, is no longer as necessary as it was in 1973.

That's progress. It's a good thing, in one way. Acceptance has made Giovanni's Room redundant, with the niche it once filled no longer existing in a size large enough to support an entire bookstore. For those who enjoyed the store and considered it their local shop, where they knew people and could find friendly faces when they walked through the door, it isn't such a great day at all.

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