The importance of Gay’s the Word, the first place I’ll be going after lockdown

London's pioneering LGBTQ bookshop offered far more than just books, argues Colin Crummy.

Gay's The Word

What are you going to do when lockdown is over? Maybe an indulgent afternoon pint in the local pub, or ordering a coffee from a professional. I know what I’m doing. As soon as I can, I’m going to Gay’s the Word, London’s only LGBTQ bookshop.

I have panic-bought enough books to see me through the current moment and well beyond, so I really don't need to visit a bookstore any time soon. But I miss all the other stuff a bookshop does. And Gay’s the Word does quite a lot for one little place. Founded in 1979 by a group of gay socialists - the marvellously titled Gay Icebreakers - the Bloomsbury shop has always operated as a meeting place and community resource as well as a bookstore.

Gay’s the Word started out as a space for queer literature which other bookshops were too scared or homophobic to stock. It has been a place of solidarity ever since, and not just for for the LGBTQ community. In 1984 the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group met at Gay’s the Word to raise funds for strikers.

The shop has always been a safe space in hostile times. It has faced threats of its own too, subjected to Customs raids (also in 1984, on grounds of importing indecent material like Edmund White’s self help guide The Joy of Gay Sex) and more besides. There have been bricks through the window, burglaries and, in 2007, a cash crisis from rising rents and online competition that threatened the future of the shop. Throughout it all, Gay’s the Word has never closed - until now.

'All queer life is here'

Gay’s the Word shut temporarily in mid March, bringing a halt to bookselling and the numerous community activities that go on on the tiny shop floor. Weekly gatherings such as the Lesbian Discussion Group, which has been meeting here every Wednesday evening for more than 35 years, have had to resort to Zoom.

Currently, 66 Marchmont Street is quieter than its ever been. Long, narrow and quaintly carpeted, the ground floor shop is usually a place of hush, a space from which you can shut the door on the world outside. Which isn't to say it's not lively.

Because all queer life is here, from the noticeboard by the front door, which overspills with adverts for women’s writing retreats to gay therapy and drag shows. On the shop floor there are bookcases dedicated to queer history, lesbian lit and new wave poetry, and a teeny tiny exhibition of LGBTQ button badges from the 80s (personal favourite: ‘We are the people our parents warned us about’). Front of house, the tightly curated fiction section is where you’ll find Tales of the City or discover that Oranges are Not the Only Fruit.

Gay's The Word
Gay's The Word

Many, such as Sarah Waters, say that Gay’s the Word played a formative role in their development as LGBTQ writers. The playwright and director Rikki Beadle Blair discovered his potential as a young, queer black man when he first visited the shop aged 17 in 1979. ‘This was a space where our achievements were there in this library,’ he said on the occasion of GTW’s 40th birthday last year, ‘and anything was possible.’

Queer people find themselves at Gay’s the Word, but not only in the books but on the shelves. I have been coming to the shop ever since I moved to London 15 years ago. In that time, earwigging on conversations as much as lingering over the latest Ali Smith, I’ve come to understand that what goes between the pages is only half the story.  

 Recently, I listened in on a typical Gay’s the Word encounter. It was between Jim, the shop manager who has worked there for over 30 years, and this young, queer kid on a mission. They had a zine to sell, which they pulled out from a rainbow badge adorned rucksack with jittery hands, and placed unto the counter. I listened – couldn't watch, too nervous for them – as Jim gently led them through the process of stocking their work. A deal was struck, the kid’s day made and their zine proudly Snapchatted on the shelves of Gay’s the Word.

'In this present moment, we all recognise that need to be with our people'

Gay’s the Word is about the business of community. You can come sell your zine, the thing you’ve loved and laboured over, with the hope that someone will connect with it. Now it’s here – you’re here! – with people who get it and get you. As the journalist and writer Neil McKenna put it: ‘Gay’s the Word is a bookshop run by us for us, an undiluted living archive of queer thought and imagination. Like a friend who always stands by our side and encourages us on, there is a reason why the bookshop is regularly described as a haven, as a sanctuary.’

These public queer spaces are disappearing from our cities globally. Over the last decade an unprecedented number of LGBTQ bar and clubs have closed, and iconic gay bookshops such as City Lights in San Francisco and Les Mots à La Bouche in Paris face similar uncertainty from gentrification. Little wonder, then, that Gay’s the Word is so valued. It’s helped that Pride, the 2014 film which dramatized the queer alliance with striking miners, gave fresh exposure to the shop. Social media and a surge of young queer writing have also bought Gay’s the Word new financial stability with which to weather the current storm.

For now, like the two other LGBTQ bookshops in the UK, Glasgow’s Category is Books and The Portal Bookshop in York, Gay’s the Word exists solely in the online space. While this is some comfort, it is no substitute for the power of standing in the physical queer space with those who understand us best. In this present moment, we all recognise that need to be with our people. It makes us feel, in the word of gay disco icon Sylvester, mighty real. At Gay’s the Word, that’s always been the story. Let’s hope we can get back there, and to each other, soon.

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