Gay’s The Word: Celebrating LGBTQ identity and history all year long

Inside the bookshop championing the legacy and spirit of the queer community — even after the parade ends.

Even the air seemed to glitter on the second Sunday in July. Crowds of rainbow-clad celebrators paraded toward Trafalgar Square. Supporters danced with signs, children scrambled for candy, and drag queens burst into spontaneous lip-sync. Fifty years after Parliament decriminalized gay relationships, queer people gathered in London to celebrate their various identities and political victories for one campy, jubilant, sunny afternoon.

And then, the day ended. Men, women, and those in-between wiped off their face paint and went to bed. The next morning, street cleaners brushed the residual glitter into the gutters of Regent Street. Another Pride festival had come and gone.

But on Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, Gay’s The Word bookshop opened at 10 a.m., as it does every week. The shop is an enduring symbol of queer pride and community in London, and one that won’t be going away anytime soon.

Store manager Jim MacSweeney sits across from me in the back room of Gay’s The Word on a cloudy summer afternoon, surrounded on all sides by unshelved novels and post-it notes. He seems at home here; moments earlier, he rang up a customer for fifteen minutes, chatting enthusiastically between each tap on the register.

The spot where MacSweeney sits is a small nook off the long, narrow body of the shop. Every inch of available space is covered in bookshelves, greeting cards or posters. As we speak, customers wander under rainbow flags hung from the ceiling, flipping through books and talking with each other. It is small, but cozy. The color and clutter give a feeling of buried-treasure suspense, as if you might happen upon your next life-changing read if you only look for long enough.

Customers browse for books in Gay’s The Word.

MacSweeney laughs when I ask him to remember how long he’s worked at the shop. “When I first started to work here I thought I would be here for 3 or 4 years. I’ve been here 28. Not sure about why that happened.”

Though he didn’t yet sit behind the desk when Gay’s The Word opened in 1979, MacSweeney remembers the novelty of this “serious bookshop” in Bloomsbury. In a time when LGBT spaces and stores were generally limited to men’s magazines and hole-in-the-wall sex shops, Gay’s The Word’s wide variety of fiction and nonfiction offered something new.

The shop’s original owner, Ernest Hole, opened the store in London after befriending the owner of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York City’s Greenwich Village — the first gay bookshop in the United States. Hole and his friends owned Gay’s The Word collectively, buzzing with the radical political energy of the late 1970s. In the spirit of the women’s liberation movement and lesbian bookshops of the time, they created “a different sort of space” — one that included women and people of color, and today embraces anyone who falls on the queer identity spectrum.

“At the start, when the shop opened, there were lots of meeting groups. The Gay Black Group met here, the Gay Disabled group, a Lesbian Discussion group, “ MacSweeney remembers. It was around this time that he first happened upon the store, first as a customer, then as employee. The place where he now sits was once a cafe-style space for those meet-ups.

It was here, in that political community, that many of the organizers of Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners (LGSM) first met. LGSM was an influential coalition of queer activists in 1980s London, whose story inspired the critically-acclaimed film Pride (2014). In the film, Gay’s The Word is the group’s meeting hub, and the center of their organization.

Image: Wikipedia

Though MacSweeney reminds me that the film is a drama, not a documentary, and that it slightly dramatizes the role of the bookshop, the story is certainly in the spirit of truth. “They met here regularly. And they collected money here all the time,” he says. Perhaps more importantly, Gay’s The Word let them do so.

In 1984, the same year that LGSM was formed, Customs and Excise officers raided Gay’s The Word and confiscated all of the American-published stock in the store. Under the authority of an antiquated obscenity law, the shop’s directors were charged with conspiracy crimes. A huge, and eventually successful, legal fight began.

So while the shop was concerned with “trying to hang in there,” it continued to allow LGSM to promote their famed benefit concert and political cause. Shop owners gathered funds inside while LGSM supporters did the same right outside the door: a mark of political community, true to the store’s founding spirit.

That sense of collective action, inclusivity and, indeed, pride is evident even today. “Here is a space where I hope judgement is suspended,” MacSweeney says. Then he laughs, “Unless you’re being racist or sexist or something objectionable.”

Though the legislation that threatened Gay’s The Word in 1984 has long been nullified, the shop faces a new set of challenges. Though MacSweeney constantly “trolls” through catalogs to find new books that fit the shop’s mission, even today it can be difficult to find queer fiction to highlight.

“It’s not always easy finding books,” he says. “You’d be surprised in catalogs, especially for fiction, where they omit that there’s a major love relationship between two men and two women. And you wonder, why has this been hidden?” Even in a culture of relative acceptance, invisibility persists: an indication, perhaps, that Gay’s The Word’s mission is as important as ever.

It was once almost impossible to find and purchase LGBT books, but in the 1990s, mainstream booksellers began to see the queer community as a promising market. The advent of Amazon and other online retailers also threatened small, niche booksellers like Gay’s The Word.

Today it is the last standing LGBT bookstore in the UK. Even the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, the shop’s inspiration in New York City, has had to close its doors.

Gay’s The Word’s Marchmont Street storefront

So why, then, has this shop endured? Though I don’t quite know the answer, looking around the shop I am certainly grateful that it has. As someone who makes a beeline for the “Gay and Lesbian” shelf in any typical bookstore, and who combs the shelves of shops for validation through poetry and fiction, this space is a revelation.

MacSweeney sees wide-eyed, queer bibliophiles like me nearly every day. “People come from all over the world to visit the bookshop,” he says. “Often from countries where [LGBTQ relationships are] illegal. And are often surprised at the amount of books that are out there.”

So despite the advent of online ordering and mainstream representation, Gay’s The Word prevails. There is something remarkable in the experience of browsing, something that goes beyond the merchandise itself.

Working in the shop is about more than the inventory for its employees, as well. MacSweeney is sensitive to the shop’s customers and the many different facets of the queer community they represent. “For me, working here, I think it’s important that it’s a safe, welcoming space. I never know when people come in, where they are in their lives,” he says. “You can have people come in and coming out, at any age.”

Though originally founded to cater to gay men, lesbians and radical feminists, Gay’s The Word has evolved with the movement and community — perhaps another reason for its enduring presence. “Often in general bookshops if they have a gay section, they can go lowest common denominator and it’s gay erotica,” MacSweeney says. “And there’s so much more than that.” The shop’s section on trans issues and identity, for example, has expanded over the last several years. What was once a single shelf is now an entire bay.

MacSweeney smiles as he recalls one example of the evolving queer community. “In the old days, people would come in and say ‘I’ve just come out to my mother and she’s having a break down do you have a book for her?’” he says. “And these days, you see parents come in and say, ‘my son or daughter has just come out and they’re 14, do you have a book for them?’ And that’s very touching. It’s less of a threat.”

And unlike some hubs of gay community, like bars or universities, a bookshop has nearly universal appeal. Anyone, at any stage of life, can appreciate a literary space. Anyone can find a book they want to read. As MacSweeney asserts, “it’s unlike almost anywhere else in London. You see the full age range of people who just happen to be queer.”

“I’m loving the new generation,” MacSweeney adds. “The way language changes, the way they claim this space, their confidence in who they are, their excitement when they come in.”

New people are coming out and joining the LGBTQ+ community all the time, and as they do, they discover Gay’s The Word. The shop’s reviews on Facebook are a flood of positive comments:

“Not just a bookshop, this is a much needed community resource and, for some people, a real life line. Long may it continue,” wrote one customer. And another: “Despite the many dramatic events and social changes this shop has been through, stepping inside is like being in a little LGBTQ haven. . . 10 out of 5!” This is the environment in the shop, and the overwhelming consensus online: a testament to the power of books and tangible community.

Queer expression may be in something of a mainstream vogue, with shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race commanding cult followings and Twitter fame. Yet when the shows conclude and performances end, queer lives go on. Through books, history and conversation, Gay’s The Word celebrates the beauty in that persistent ordinary, and in all the facets of queer experience that may never make it on a screen or into a parade.

“Most lesbian and gay people are so ordinary and dull like anybody else,” MacSweeney says. “And fabulous within that, of course. But it’s the sheer ordinariness that matters. And you get that at Pride — the volume of people who are just people.”

Pride is, of course, a beautiful celebration. It’s a symbol of community and allyship. Stores plaster their display windows with rainbow flags. People dance in the streets. Bookshops move their LGBTQ+ shelf out of the corner and into the front of the store.

But while each year Pride must end, Gay’s The Word continues. It is a meeting space, a community hub and, for me and many others, a site of discovery and validation.

Despite a history of oppression and the contemporary challenges facing independent bookshops, Gay’s The Word remains beloved and important. Its tables are scattered with community announcements and pamphlets. Its cluttered shelves are full and ever-evolving. Like the LGBTQ+ community, it persists with pride.

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