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How a LGBTQ bookstore in Philadelphia reinvented itself and thrived

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The oldest LGBTQ bookstore in the U.S. is Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia. The one-of-a-kind shop for queer and trans literature was almost lost forever in 2014, when the owner was forced to close because of financial problems. Michaela Winberg of member station WHYY shares how the bookstore survived and why it's not just a place for books anymore.

MICHAELA WINBERG, BYLINE: The first time Kelly Rial visited Giovanni's Room, she looked both ways before stepping inside. It was the '70s, and she hadn't yet come out as trans. Rial wanted to explore her identity, but she couldn't risk getting caught.

KELLY RIAL: I think a lot of people who come in, and they talk about when they first came in, have the same kind of reaction. Like, they - you know, it's like you look around and make sure that nobody sees you walk in.

WINBERG: For Rial, who's 70 now, the bookstore was a haven. There were gay memoirs and lesbian nonfiction works. There were feminist readings, muscle magazines and LGBTQ-friendly guides to major cities. It helped her find herself and eventually come out.

RIAL: It's comfortable, and you feel like you can be out and open and be talking about issues that you can't talk in other places.

WINBERG: But within a few decades of opening, the financial outlook for Giovanni's Room was grim. The owner blamed the rise of big online bookstores. By 2014, he'd lost so much money every year that he had to close the shop. He told reporters he didn't think a new owner could make the store profitable again unless they did something drastically different.

(CROSSTALK)

WINBERG: So that's what they did.

ALAN CHELAK: Continuing the legacy of the bookstore was really important to us from the very beginning. And, yeah, the rest is history, as they say.

WINBERG: That's the current manager of Giovanni's Room, Alan Chelak. He oversaw the reopening in September 2014. Chelak works for the local nonprofit secondhand store Philly AIDS Thrift. That's the organization that swooped in, bought the bookstore and made some big changes. First, he knew he needed to diversify the bookstore's selection.

CHELAK: There weren't many titles by trans authors or for trans folks. I think we all believe that no matter who you are or what your background is, you should be able to walk into the store and find a book about a person like you, by a person like you.

WINBERG: Then Chelak thought up another addition to the store, one he thought could bring in a lot more revenue - selling secondhand goods.

CHELAK: You can also get records, CDs, DVDs, vintage clothing, all kinds of weird ephemera from literally all over the world. And that's stuff that folks in the community just give to us.

WINBERG: That thrift store side hustle revived Giovanni's Room. It helped the shop outlive the only other LGBTQ bookstore that came before it, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York City, which closed in 2009. Under Chelak's management, Giovanni's Room turned a profit for the first time in years. Within four years, they had saved enough to buy the building outright.

CHELAK: And that secures the legacy of this place for the next generation.

WINBERG: Customers are glad to see the store is still up and running.

RIAL: I think it's important because it supports the community.

WINBERG: That's Kelly Rial again. Now she works at Giovanni's Room two days a week.

RIAL: We have people that are still in the closet because they can't come out for whatever reason, and they come in and just feel very comfortable here, and it's a very safe place for people to come.

WINBERG: For NPR News, I'm Michaela Winberg in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "FACELESS ARTIST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.