When GILDA, Diane and I pulled into Philadelphia, a city I’d visited regularly in the 1980s, it was like coming home. (Fortunately this was weeks ahead of the Democratic National Convention!)
We stayed in a lovely B & B, The Alexander Inn, on Spruce St; just around the corner from the store where I was reading: Giovanni’s Room, the oldest LGBT bookstore in the US!
This part of the book tour continued the theme of the past linking up with the present. When I was in college I went to a wedding—Johnetta and Tom—the first I’d ever attended (most kids in my ‘hood were having babies not weddings!) I call them my ‘faux’ cousins because we aren’t actually related but our families were so close when I was a kid I didn’t realize we weren’t cousins until I was out of high school! But family is family whether biological or logical as Armistead Maupin says.
Drinking margaritas together one could see a slight family resemblance.
Writing my play, Waiting for Giovanni, about James Baldwin I wrestled with his novel, Giovanni’s Room, spending five years reading and re-reading everything about Baldwin and the book. Then in production the cast, co-creator & director, Harry Waters Jr and I spent another year with the name Giovanni on our lips every day.
The experience was a reaffirmation of the power of Baldwin’s work and how theatre creates community. This feeling rose again as I stepped into the bookstore for the first time in maybe 30 years and felt the spirit of Baldwin and all the writers who’d passed through. It was a place that I had often visited with poets, Cheryl Clarke, the late Essex Hemphill and the late editor/activist Joe Beam.
In the early 1980s Cheryl and I traveled to Philadelphia regularly and Giovanni’s Room was like a home base. It felt the same now except so many of the brothers have left us. When you say ‘the late’ before someone’s name it sounds like they forgot to set the alarm and arrived after the program started. But the reality is startling! Essex and Joe were pillars in the establishment of community for black gay men before HIV invaded. Fortunately their legacy is fulfilled in the work of writers like Marvin K. White, Kevin Simmonds and others.
As I read in the store I felt the energy of all those who’d passed through the doors, who’d come to read or to be read to. Philadelphia is, of course, mindful of its direct connection to the founding of the US…not going into the politics of that right now! So history seems to rise up from the cobble stones as we walk around and snap pictures of the commemorative plaques that pop up all over the place: William Still 1821-1902, agent on the Underground Railroad. And the street sign celebrating lesbian activist – Barbara Gittings Way!
Chris Bartlett took us on a tour of the imposing William Way LGBT Community Center where he’s the executive director. Deep in the heart of the elegant 1840s building are the lending library and the archives; two elements of life LGBT I never imagined could exist when I was in my 20s and struggling to find out where the lesbians were hanging out. Like Independence Hall (where the Constitution was constructed) the amazing Way LGBT Center is evidence of the power of community and the health we all gain from having institutions that support our past and our future.
Giovanni’s Room is just such an institution which suffered like other stores from the behemoth called Amazon. I’m grateful that the Philly AIDS Thrift stepped up to save the space by establishing their clothing shop within the book store! After an incredibly warm welcome from the staff I felt the 30 year absence melt away. I read THE GILDA STORIES not just to the room full of readers, including one of the former store owners, Arlene Oshan! But to the spirits of those who’d gone before. The plaque outside commemorating the store’s history is tribute to LGBT history and to all the brothers and sisters who loved each other enough to make their mark and cut a path for others. It’s a path lined with books, ‘faux cousins,’ and Community Centers, all of which help us understand who we are and where we’re going.
Jewelle Gomez is a writer and activist and the author of the double Lambda Award-winning novel, THE GILDA STORIES from City Lights, now with the new 25th Anniversary edition. Find out more about Jewelle Gomez HERE.