Alan Chelak: The poet running Giovanni’s Room

These are interesting days. Many of us are self sequestering, seemingly isolated. Still, while forced into solitary confinement, people are finding ways to create community, slow down and get back to basics. Last week DJ D Nice hosted a 10-hour online live-streamed party attended by everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Bernie Sanders. My Aunt Josie and cousin Robin said they danced for hours. Several neighbors of mine came out to chat from our front steps, with at least six to eight feet between us. A friend invited me to a “quartantini” cocktail party on Zoom, and I had so much fun that I later invited a number of my cousins and other family members to use Zoom for a group chat, which turned into a virtual brunch the next day. I binge-watched Derry Girls until 5 a.m. with my mother and started my spring cleaning early. People have been restarting hobbies they’d stopped long ago. Friends of mine have been doing jigsaw puzzles for the first time in ages, and happiest of all, a lot of us, myself included, are taking the time to crack open a real-life, turn the paper pages, book. If you don’t have a large library at home, don’t fret. Our beloved Giovanni’s Room bookstore is not open for walk-ins but is still selling books online. You can go to and order an assortment of LGBT themed books. I called this week to find out a little about the historic bookstore and get some recommendations from store manager, Alan Chelak. 

Giovanni’s Room is the oldest LGBTQ bookstore in the country. Can you tell me a little of the history?

It was founded in 1973, just four years after the Stonewall Riots and was one of the first LGBTQ bookstores in the nation. The original location was on South Street, and it had so few books that every piece of inventory they had was displayed in the store window! Then the landlord found out what types of books they were selling and increased the rent by something like 300 percent. It moved one more time before settling into the present location at 12th and Pine. This was the place people came to for information during the AIDS crisis and was a haven for a lot of people who were just coming out. 

I found a bio of you that stated, “last of the freelance hackers // greatest sword fighter in the world. Alan Chelak was born in 1984, and he hasn’t died yet,” which I loved, but can you fill in your bio just a little bit more? 

I was born in Galway, Ireland. Ireland in the 1980s wasn’t very prosperous, so my parents emigrated us — me, my brother, mom and dad — to the U.S. in 1990. They were pursuing the American dream. My dad got a job flipping burgers at White Castle and worked his way up the corporate ranks. My mom also worked once we reached a certain age, and they both worked their butts off to make it here. I grew up in Bucks County and spent a lot of time traveling around the country after I graduated from high school. In 2008, I decided to pull my act together and came back to Philly. I enrolled in Bucks County Community College and started volunteering at Philly AIDS Thrift (PAT). I later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania and studied English with a concentration on poetics. I worked at Barnes and Noble in Rittenhouse Square for many years, and I’ve been running Giovanni’s Room since 2014 when former owner Ed Hermance announced that it was going to close. It was a shock to the community, but luckily over at PAT, we realized that we might be able to help. We met with Ed and found a way to take over the business and keep the legacy going while incorporating our model as a nonprofit. The fine folks at PAT were kind enough to offer me the position of manager, and I’ve been privileged to have been here since the beginning. 

What are some of the highs and lows you’ve experienced traveling the U.S.?

It was right before the recession hit, and I got to experience San Francisco before it started changing after the tech boom; that was amazing. The lowest point was in Missouri when I fell off of a truck! That was not fun.

Were you hitch-hiking?

[Laughs] Um, yeah, let’s go with that.

Who or what did you want to be when you grew up?

Growing up, this changed a lot. Two things I remember specifically are when I was in elementary school, I wanted to become a doctor. Then, when I was in middle school, I wanted to be a comedian!

And now you are a writer, among other things.

I’d say I consider myself an artist/poet. I’ve published several collections of poetry. My main focus is in what’s called “conceptual poetry.” I’m interested in how the internet has changed our language and the way we think about words and the idea of what a book is, what a poem is. I dabble in all that, but it’s not exactly what’s going to pay the bills. 

So I came across the book, “Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart” is that yours? 

That’s me. It’s a number of CAPTCHAs rearranged to make poetry. …For the book, I took screenshots of the words and built a database of about 10,000 words and used them to compose poems. 

Cool! Who’s your favorite poet?

The answer to this question is always changing, but right now, I’m reading anything by Ocean Vuong that I can get my hands on.

I know back in the day, Giovanni’s Room had to contend with bricks thrown through windows and other such things. I assume it’s not that extreme anymore, but are there still things you deal with, especially as the atmosphere has gotten tense lately?

Nothing serious, thankfully. We do get someone who calls regularly and asks if we have a bible. Since we get donations, we often do. So when someone here says, “Yes, we do,” the person yells into the phone, “Well, then you should read it!” and hangs up. Some volunteers who aren’t expecting it can be taken aback sometimes, but it’s certainly not on par with what the store used to have to deal with.  

I was surprised to read in an interview you did with KYW, wherein you said LGBTQ books make up more than half of the 11 most banned books in the United States, according to the American Library Association.

More often than not, it has to do with certain school districts who decide to ban certain books, and usually, it’s LGBTQ content that some administrator has decided is not safe for young minds. But overall, it’s not a big problem. I regularly see books that, as a kid, I would have never dreamed were out there and accessible. It brings me hope that no matter how you identify, there’s a story out there for you. 

I understand that the store makes it a practice to have quite a large selection of brand new books in addition to the donated books. 

Yes, it was one of the things Ed was really passionate about; we all are. I’d say about 50 percent of our sales are new LGBT books. I love researching new titles and seeing what new books would work best in our store. When they come in, it feels like Christmas morning! And in the past 10 years, there seems to have been a resurgence in people wanting to buy actual books instead of just using online platforms. People are tired of having to get a new Kindle or E-reader every 12 months to keep up with the technology. 

The store still means so much to so many people.

Yes, we get a lot of tourists, especially in the summer. I’ve had people from all over say that they came to Philly just to visit the shop. We had one woman from Columbia who specifically came to us because she’d come out to her mother, who was very religious. She asked someone to help her find a book about affirming Christian beliefs to take home — something that showed the positive relationships other religious parents had created with their LGBT children. Months later, we received a letter from her. Her mother had read the book and was willing to start a conversation.

When I first came out, before the internet, you could go to G-Room and if you needed any help finding resources, there was a big binder behind the counter. The employees could help you find all sorts of information about different community groups and resources — places that you couldn’t find in the yellow pages because back then, no one would dare list a gay bowling league or LGBT friendly practice. It’s nice to know that Giovanni’s Room is still holding such a space in the community.

Yes, it comes with the territory. We have people who come through the doors, and it’s the first time they’ve ever gone into an LGBTQ space, and by doing so, they’re acknowledging something inside of themselves. It can be a big moment, and often they have questions or are looking for very specific books or information. 

What was your coming out process?

Oh, I don’t know. [Laughing] Is this going to be printed? I guess it’s a fairly common story; there was a boy, we liked each other but then he freaked and told everybody. I was about 14, and it wasn’t a pleasant time. My parents were supportive, but it sucked that I didn’t get to come out on my one terms. 

I interviewed someone recently who is doing a film on Joe Beam, who I met at Giovanni’s years ago. Any notable or celebrity encounters for you?

A few, but we try to keep cool. Anderson Cooper came in, and Maria Bello did a book reading here. I’m not big on celebrities, though I’d love to get John Waters into the store. But I don’t know if I could stay composed if he walked in! 

Do you collect anything?

Books! Specifically grimoires, which are books on magic. Not “Ta da!” Penn and Teller kind of magic, more like the occult and alchemy books. I don’t believe in it, but the books are hard to come by and are often beautifully made and illustrated.

What was your favorite childhood snack or candy?

I was a peculiar child and didn’t like candy or sweets, still don’t, and so when given a choice at the shop, I would always pick fruits instead. I remember when I was growing up in Ireland, kiwis were a really big deal because they really were not readily available there until the 1980s, so a kiwi always feels like a special treat.

A fun fact about your partner?

He’s allergic to kiwis. 

That’s funny. What is the best thing about being a grown-up?

Owning a dog — it’s a quality of life thing. Having pets just makes life better.

Last live performance you attended?

I went to see The Breeders. I love them, and it was an incredible show. 

What is the strangest place where inspiration has struck you?  

This one time, my partner and I were in this junkyard where we weren’t supposed to be, and we got chased by some dogs, and that’s when I knew I loved him. Does that count?

I’d say it does! Most unusual job?

Once I had a job where I sold specially designed bathtubs over the telephone. It only lasted a week, and I only sold one tub.

My hidden talent is…

I have a mental map of every book at Giovanni’s. If someone is looking for something, I can tell them exactly where in the store they’ll find it. 

What types of events regularly happen when we’re not all on lockdown?

We have a lot of community events like book readings, live podcasts, comedy shows, author talks and even a musical. We’re open to pretty much anything. But even though the storefront isn’t open, you can still get books through our website, and they will be shipped directly to you. We’re excited about that. 

That’s great. What are some recommendations?

Some of the books being featured this month are “Real Life” by Brandon Taylor. It was named one of the most anticipated books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more. “Trans Space Octopus Congregation” from Lambda Literary Award-winning author Bogi Takacs offers plenty of thrills for readers of LGBTQ-focused speculative literature. “They/Them/Their” from Eris Young provides advice for nonbinary people and shows how friends and family can support them. Paul Lisicky has a beautiful book out called, “Later: My Life at the Edge of the World” about Provincetown in the early 1990s, and local writer Nikki Harmon’s new book, “Neither Here Nor There” about a “rebellious black gay nerd” has a really interesting sci-fi element to it. 

Oh, Nikki’s an old friend. I interviewed her about her last book. I guess I know what I’ll be ordering! 

Excellent. And hopefully, we’ll see you in the store soon. We’re very lucky that the entire staff is being paid during this closure. But we’d love to get back to work as soon as it’s safe. Right now, we’re planning on opening April 3 until we hear otherwise. But April or not, we’ll be back serving the community at some point and hope the community will be there for us. And I almost forgot! We’re having a writing contest! Send us your best poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and we’re going to choose several entries to compile an anthology of writing, bringing the community together in one book. It’s $10 to enter, and the money goes to help people living with HIV/AIDS. The grand prize winner will get a gift certificate for $100 to the store. You can get all the details on the website. A perfect way to make use of your time!

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