GAY’S THE WORD
The UK’s most famous LGBT+ bookshop is celebrating its 40th anniversary having negotiated a fair share of plot twists over the years
The UK’s LGBT+ bookshop turns 40
Books often offer an escape from the real world, a temporary time out from whatever issues or problems you may be dealing with. In many ways, Gay’s The Word bookshop provides that same sense of escapism for LGBT+ people. Situated on Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, London, the literary haven is free of the judgment and prejudice members of the community may face elsewhere.
Founded by Ernest Hole in 1979, the UK’s first bookshop devoted to queer literature celebrates its 40th anniversary on 17 January. To mark the milestone, we asked manager Jim MacSweeney, who has worked there for more than 30 years, to leaf through its rich history, from its role in the legacy of LGBT+ rights to his future hopes, in an insightful, funny and touching interview with his assistant ( and our book reviewer) Uli Lenart.
Uli: So, Gay’s The Word is marking its 40th anniversary. What does that mean to you and the LGBT+ community? Jim:
I feel great satisfaction and pride that we’ve hit 40. It started off on very little money, where people came together and put 100 quid here, 200 quid there, and any money made has gone back into the shop. Most lesbian and gay bookshops around the world have closed, so for Gay’s The Word to still be here and thriving, not just surviving, is extraordinary.
Do you see this as an occasion for the UK and, indeed, global LGBT+ community to celebrate?
In the past decade, we’ve seen mainstream shops such as Barnes & Noble and Borders in the US, and Waterstones here, open gay sections. Then, with the rise of online book- selling, it felt there was a point, “Well, why would you go to a bookshop when you can order online, or download?” But people aren’t coming in to “support” us, there is no feeling of “we should”, they come in because they enjoy the experience. They come into a place that’s very special, an LGBT+ space that is safe and welcoming. A young couple on a date came in last month and their joy was palpable as they looked around. They were a bit bashful but their eyes opened as they could see what was there in front of them. It’s their bookshop. Wherever else they may be “other” they’re not “other” here. I also remember an American, long hair, shaved one side, coming up with some books. As they went to pay, they burst into tears: “You don’t understand, I come from a small town, to be here in this space is so moving,” they said. They were here for half an hour, talking about their experiences and some of the shit they’ve put up with, and how here they felt at one. When you leave the bookshop, you go back into the world strengthened.
It sounds as if seeing new generations discover and cherish the bookshop is renewing for you?
Completely. It’s never been just about selling books. You want to empower people, have them discover their literature, books that are for them. It changes how you negotiate the world, to know that people have gone before you, that you’re not the only one like this. We see the very best of the LGBT+ community; parents come in buying books for their 16 year old who has just come out, or coming in with their 16 year old and letting them choose the books.
I think we’re also here to help people and refer them to sources of support when they do face challenges. There’s a lot of advocacy work.
There’s lots of listening. I’m also moved by young people when they’re dealing with their sexuality. I’m from a different generation but the guts and confidence they have… There was a young woman, probably 14, talking about how she was challenging something in the Girl Guides regarding space for lesbians. I shook her hand. You go, girl!
When you leave the bookshop, you go back into the world strengthened
Can you remember the first time you visited Gay’s The Word?
I came to England from Ireland in 1982/ 83, I was 22 and hadn’t dealt with my sexuality. I got to the door and couldn’t go in because I thought everyone would “know” so I walked round the block and went in the second time. Then I started coming to Icebreakers, a gay socialist discussion group, and friends who I met there continue to be among my closest.
Tell us about your friend and former manager Paud Heggarty. You took over from him in 1997.
He was intelligent, had strong views and didn’t suffer fools — I got away with a lot [ laughs]. He was very kind as well. Last year [ 2018] a bag of gay badges from the 1980s was found in a South London attic, they belonged to Paud, who died in 2000, and are now framed in store ( above). The story went viral on Twitter and there were lots of comments from people remembering him. For me, he is the shop. A baton is passed and you try to run with it. When we were going through bad times, it was important to me that I didn’t drop it. I would have felt guilty. We came through, whatever happened, I can breathe, I didn’t drop the baton.
Why was Gay’s The Word set up in the first place?
A guy called Ernest Hole had been in New York in the late 1960s. He became friendly with Craig Rodwell, who set up the Oscar Wilde Memorial bookshop, the first of the modern gay bookshops. Ernest wanted to do the same thing when he came back to London. It was also a meeting space from the start for the Gay Black Group, the Irish Gay Network, the Lesbian Discussion Group, and Icebreakers, which young gay socialists such as [ activist] Mark Ashton used to come along to. Subsequently, we got Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners in 1984 [ documented in 2014 film Pride]. Lots of the early gay Prides were organised from the bookshop, too. It was a hive of activism.
And it was a community resource in a pre- internet age.
That’s what I was getting at — I can’t believe you’ve stolen my words [ laughs]! We had noticeboards at the back for flat shares, personal ads, notices on different groups who were meeting. There would even be ads for people wanting to marry to stay in the country, or for people in the armed forces, all of which was illegal, so you’d have to ask at the desk and you would then be given that information.
The raid was an attack on what we were reading, what we were allowed to read
What are the biggest challenges Gay’s The Word has had to face over the years?
The biggest was the raid in 1984 when Customs and Excise took away lots of the American stock, charging the directors and staff [ with conspiracy to import indecent material]. They probably assumed it was a porn shop. It was an attack on what we were reading, what we were allowed to read. Some of the books that were seized included The Joy of Gay Sex and The Joy of Lesbian Sex, [ even though] the straight equivalent was available.
Do you believe part of the reason the shop was raided was the climate of endemic and institutionalised homophobic prejudice at the time?
Yes. They went with the charges, we had to fight it for two years and lots of money had to be raised. The community was outraged because wherever else they expected to be raided, they didn’t expect Gay’s The Word.
It takes resilience and fortitude to look after and safeguard this place from the very occasional harassment that happens. Have you ever reflected on the extraordinary strength of character that you have?
Gosh! You’ve knocked me for six… I would regard myself as a quiet, gentle introverted person but sometimes you have to hold this space if there is an attack from outside. Most of the time, if you’re getting hassle, they don’t come in, you’ve just got to take a deep breath, try to diffuse the situation. When a window gets broken, it’s an irritation. These days, with social media, you get such an extraordinary response, you feel really held. That’s what I remember rather than the dickheads who committed the act. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as brave or anything [ like that].
What are your hopes for the future of the bookshop?
New people are discovering us, and I hope it continues to go from strength to strength, rather than being yesterday’s man. More of the same, please.
READING FROM THE SAME PAGE: Jim MacSweeney, right, and Uli Lenart