Why LGBTQ bookstores, such as Philadelphia’s Giovanni’s Room, are a lifeline for queer teens

June is Pride month, and Giovanni’s Room has been juggling an influx of customers, traveling from around the world and around the block to experience the country’s oldest and longest running LGBTQ bookstore. Among the crowds: three high school gay-straight alliances that spontaneously showed up, “one practically after another.”

“Most of the teens didn’t buy anything, but they were just so happy to be here, running around, saying ‘Look at this! Look at this!’” says Alan Chelak, the store manager at Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room, which is at 12th and Pine Streets. “Many LGBT spaces involve alcohol, and you’re not going to gain access to those spaces until you turn 21. So for that 14- to 17-year-old who’s still coming into themselves, the excitement just boils over when they’re here.”

For decades, the gay bookstore was one of the only public, sober social gathering spaces for LGBTQ people, often serving also as community center, date spot and health resource, says Chelak. It was also one of the only places that out and questioning teens and young adults could acquire titles by LGBTQ authors or featuring LGBTQ characters in main roles.

But amid the rise of big-box retailers and digital booksellers, that connection to the community’s younger demographic seemingly shrunk as LGBTQ stores across the country shuttered — even as LGBTQ publishing continued to expand. There were 34 young-adult books featuring LGBTQ characters and published by mainstream publishers in 2012. That number increased to 79 in 2016, according to data collected by Malinda Lo, author of Ash and A Line in the Dark.

As these stores disappeared, such general booksellers as Amazon and Barnes & Noble shifted their once small, often hidden collection of LGBTQ literature into curated Pride and general YA sections. Local libraries have acquired their own stock, lending free copies in print, as ebooks and audiobooks.

In a culture where youth are historically the last demographic to see LGBTQ inclusion in their media, Lo and Boy Meets Boy writer David Levithan were some of the first to upend what was once considered storytelling taboo. In the decade since their books hit shelves, the LGBTQ teen protagonist has morphed from a subtextual allusion and supporting character to a fully fleshed-out lead whose life, love and loss is explored across 250 pages.

Just last year, Love, Simon — the 2018 film adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s best-selling Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda — became the first film produced by a major Hollywood studio with a gay teen lead.

Despite that progress, a report released this year by the American Library Association found that more than half of frequently challenged and banned library books featured LGBTQ content, with a noticeable number being youth titles. Even as LGBTQ YA fiction authors continue to break down barriers, their books still face hurdles reaching their audience.

That’s where such places as Giovanni’s Room come in.

The full article was first published at The Philadelphia Inquirer on June 25, 2019.

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