Gay’s the Word is the only dedicated gay and lesbian bookshop in the UK. We’ve been here since 1979, so we’re now 36 years old. During that time other gay and lesbian bookshops have come and gone, but we’re the only ones to have survived to 2015. Our stock range is slightly wider than when we first opened – we have a trans section, for example, and we try to stock as many books on bisexuality and even asexuality as we can access.
The shop was born out of the left-wing, queer and civil rights movements of the 1970s. The founder was a man with a quite brilliant name – Ernest Hole. He’d worked alongside Craig Rodwell, a lover of Harvey Milk, in the Oscar Wilde Memorial bookshop in Manhattan, the world’s first gay and lesbian bookshop, now sadly closed. He brought the idea of opening a similar shop back across the Atlantic when he returned to the UK. With an organisation called Gay Ice Breakers, a gay socialist group active in the 70s, he and the other founders pulled together the money to realise this vision of an independent gay and lesbian bookshop that would not only stock books but also function as a community resource.
To understand how important that was we have to cast our minds back to the social and cultural realities faced by queer people in the 1970s, and what attitudes were like towards men and women who fell in love with people of their own sex. Conventional bookshops wouldn’t stock any books with a queer thematic, and so the community had to take responsibility for its own education and intellectual exploration. Initially, the Borough of Camden, where we’re based, were unresponsive to the lease application – partly, I think, because Ernest Hole’s name made them suspect the application wasn’t sincere. The young Labour Councillor, Ken Livingstone, who went on to become Mayor of London, got behind the campaign and really pushed the application forward to secure the premises, which we’ve been in ever since.
One of the most refreshing things about being included in the 2014 film Pride, which tells the story of lesbian and gay support of the miners during the strikes of the 1980s, is that it’s really helped to renew popular consciousness about the existence, history and purpose of the bookshop. Pride is an amazing film with a strong ethic about solidarity, friendship and working together. It’s had a tangible effect on getting young people to visit the shop, a demographic we’ve always struggled with.
There are different trajectories of prejudice amongst different age groups in British society but I am optimistic that increased enlightenment about the fluidity of both sexual and gender identity is filtering down to young people. I am not sure we could quite call it a trend, but young adult LGBT literature has been particularly popular in the shop recently. There’s been a lot of investment by publishers in supporting queer writing, which is really important. Authors like James Dawson, for example, author of All of the Above, does amazing work for young people. The Dark Light by Julia Bell and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli are also popular with our customers. In the Sapphic department, we never stop selling the novel Ash by Malinda Lo.
The book that I am most in love with at the moment is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s been longlisted for the Booker prize and I am very hopeful it will move beyond longlist stage. It’s one of the most extraordinary, visionary contemporary American novels I’ve ever read. It’s not an easy read – it’s quite bruising and challenging in terms of its themes – but it’s the most rewarding reading experience. The Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett is also exceptional. I also enjoyed the Alan Cumming’s autobiography Not My Father’s Son. I’m a John Waters fan so when I think of my favourite books I think back to certain very memorable and beautifully disturbing, sexy scenes in his book Carsick.
The future is never certain. There are now fewer than a 1000 independent bookshops in the UK, and we’re proud to be one of the survivors. We’d love to be here for at least another 20 years. A trend we’ve seen in London is the closure of lots of lesbian and gay venues – places like the Black Cap, First Out Café, Joiners’ Arms, Nelson’s Head. Venue after venue has been closing down. There are multiple reasons – rising rents, dating apps, gentrification. Thanks entirely to the dedication of the people who work here, the emotional connectivity people have with reading, and the support of the community, we’ve been blessed with longevity. But rising rents are affecting us too, and times are tough for independent businesses all over the country. We have had numerous periods when the bookshop has struggled to survive. We exist to exist, to provide the service we do. If rents for independents continue to soar who knows what the future will look like.
We’re not a charity, we’re a commercial business, but I also think we’re a kind-hearted institution. The ideals with which the shop was set up – the vision of it being a community space – are still alive today. In addition to our book events, in the evening there are numerous community groups that use the space, such as a lesbian discussion group which has been running for 30 years, a trans support group, a writing group, books groups and so on. It’s part of our identity as a shop. It’s an immense privilege to have been its custodian for such a long period of time, and to work here. To see a father come in with his 13 year old daughter who’s questioning her sexuality, to be in a position to help them by getting some reading material for both of them and plugging them into agencies who can give longer-term support – that really is a privilege and a blessing.
We spoke to Uli Lenart, Events and Publicity Manager at Gay’s the Word.
Gay’s the Word is at 66 Marchmont Street, London, WC1N 1AB – a two minute walk from Russell Square Tube Station.
Telephone: 0207 2787654. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/gaystheword