Words Roland Glasser
Photography Kirk Truman
“You get a sense that people feel they are in a space of their own.”
A smile plays across Jim MacSweeney’s face as he sits, pensive, clasping a mug of tea in his nook at the rear of the shop. His eyes twinkle as he stares at a point in space just over my shoulder, contemplating visions of the past and future projected on the spines of the books packed tightly on the shelves behind me. Jim has been working here for nearly three decades, two of those as manager. What Jim doesn’t know about Gay’s the Word, the UK’s only remaining dedicated gay and lesbian bookshop, probably isn’t worth knowing.
Gay’s the Word opened in 1979, just 12 years after homosexuality was legalised in the UK. In those days, mainstream bookshops simply didn’t have dedicated sections for gay and lesbian writing. If you were lucky you might have been able to track down a particular book in one of the more niche independent or secondhand bookshops, but it was very hard to get hold of certain titles, particularly non-fiction. Mail order from the USA was often the only option. Gay’s the Word was a lifeline, even though it took a number of years for HM Customs and Excise (who carried out a raid in 1984, seizing hundreds of books) to finally accept that the place was a serious bookshop not a porn peddler.
The long, narrow space contains an astonishing breadth of content. The front part of the shop has a strong fiction section with the usual display of new titles, but keep going, past a slim revolving stand of DVDs (feature films and documentaries), and you’ll find works of non-fiction, poetry, plays, biography, art, erotica, theory, history, fashion and music. An important part of Jim’s job is scouring publishers’ catalogues for anything of “queer interest” (he explains that he uses the term “queer” to cover gay, lesbian, bi and trans, because it’s easier). “There are some novelists who happen to be gay, but the key thing is whether their books have gay themes or protagonists. If so, we’ll consider whether they will be of interest to us. Colm Tóibín is an example. Some of his books are gay, and a whole load of them aren’t. And we will sell less of the ones that aren’t gay because people are coming in here specifically to look for lesbian and gay writing. And obviously we’ll stock novels with gay themes even if the writers are not. Now if it’s poetry, John Ashbery or Mary Oliver, for example, both of whom happen to be gay and lesbian, their work doesn’t deal directly with passion or sexuality or desire, but we’ll stock them because they happen to be queer and they’re poets. We want to have as wide a range as possible, but we need titles that sell. Esoteric books, we might only get one or two copies in, while others like queer theory, will become part of our core stock.”
For many years, the shop was a focal point for gay and lesbian activists and community groups. The rear of the premises, including the very nook where Jim and I are chatting, was where many of them used to meet. There was tea and coffee, a piano for sing-a-longs and a large noticeboard where people posted ads, flyers and leaflets about anything and everything. The piano and coffee bar have long gone to make way for more bookshelves, but several groups still meet at the shop – the Lesbian Discussion Group has been meeting here for over 35 years – and there are regular events, readings and book launches. I am amazed when Jim tells me they can seat 45 people on folding chairs.
Gay’s the Word still plays an important role as a portal for those seeking advice or support, or simply exploring their own queer identity through literature, regardless of age or gender. Jim recounts how a woman recently came in with her 14-year-old daughter: “She sat down in the teen section and looked at the books, and the mum chatted to me and then went off for a coffee, letting her daughter work away. When she came back, her daughter had chosen and her mum paid for the books. And I loved how relaxed she was, and how things have changed. Because it’s so easy to think of difficult times, bricks through the window or homophobic abuse. We get very little of that now.”
I wonder what place there is for Gay’s the Word today, given how easy it is to find many of these titles in large bookshops or online. Jim is adamant: “A lot of the sections in mainstream bookshops aren’t very good, with a few notable exceptions, or else they focus on erotic fiction, more obvious stuff. They are also getting smaller as they run out of space. People come in here because we have an extraordinary range of books pulled in from everywhere. We really know the stuff, and we read. It’s also a non-judgmental space. There’s a community feel. I really like the amount of young women and men we now get coming in since the film Pride, which really made people aware of the history of the place. They ask for recommendations, they talk about books, they ask questions. You might see some of them holding hands, or stealing a quick kiss at the back. And of course we get people from abroad who search us out. You get a sense that people feel they are in a space of their own. Whereas if you’re in a mainstream bookshop, say, and you’re buying a book on coming out, or erotica, or gay spirituality, you might feel uncomfortable as you go up to the counter, but here this is what we do.” Love, indeed. Love of books and love of people. In these uncertain times, Gay’s the Word remains as special and as vital as ever.