"The first time I came to the store, I was too nervous to go in. I ended up walking around the block instead till I built up enough courage to step inside."
Jim MacSweeney is the manager at Gay's The Word, London's only LGBT bookshop, where he has worked for 29 years. The store predates him — it opened here on Marchmont Street in 1979. Perhaps it isn't surprising that Jim was nervous on his first visit. The shop jumps out at you from the street, with its bright frontage and huge windows. This is a place that wants people to notice it.
A buzzing atmosphere
Jim invites us in, and shows us around the store. Books line every bit of available wall, and what a diverse range there is. Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, poetry, young adult, children, magazines, erotic and more. There didn't use to be so much when the shop opened back in the 1970s. That wasn't out of choice — there simply weren't enough gay books to fill an entire shop, so half the place was a cafe instead.
The cafe met its end in 1997, by which time there were too many books to be contained in half the store, but before then it served as the meeting point for plenty of LGBT groups. One of the most notable was the London branch of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, during the miners' strike in the 80s. The group's actions were chronicled in the 2014 film Pride — which considered shooting in the bookshop, but found that it was too tight a squeeze.
Groups do still meet at the shop for events, but Jim tells us that the size of the place can be somewhat prohibitive. "Richard Scott came to talk about Soho, which is the big poetry book at the moment — I couldn't have fitted anymore people in. The buzz was fantastic."
That buzz isn't reserved solely for events. Even on an average Friday morning such as when we visit, there's a positive atmosphere in the air from customers. One guy comes in and, while paying for a book, ask if he can give any extra as a donation to the shop. Jim smiles and tells him that's not necessary, the shop's doing very well at the moment.
However, as Jim points out, the shop's prosperity hasn't always been guaranteed. "We've had various crises at different points. From rent increases, to the growth of gay sections in general bookshops, to Amazon and the growth of online bookselling. We've weathered those and at the moment things are going strong." Jim puts part of the shop's resurgence down to the film Pride, which introduced the store to a whole new generation of LGBT people.
Gay's The Word's biggest setback came quite early on in its existence. "Back in '84 the bookshop was raided by Customs and Excise and they seized all the American stock. They came in expecting a porn shop. Then they prosecuted the staff and directors. We had to fight it. Questions were asked in the House of Commons and in the newspapers. And there was huge support, Liberty came behind us. Independent bookshops around the country had collection boxes and petitions. It was back in the day when gay meant: gay sex, perverted, whatever that is."
With a groundswell of support the shop survived, though it had to face other prejudices as well. "When we opened, there were shutters put up at night to protect the shop from having windows broken." That isn't entirely a thing of the past — just a few weeks before our visit the front door was smashed, though Jim isn't sure if this was a homophobic incident, or just a case of random vandalism.
"People were coming in to buy books in support and they were shocked. If it happened again tomorrow, then I'd be distressed, because then there's a pattern. The last time before that was about four years ago. During the London Riots we had our windows smashed, we were the only bookshop in London that happened to. That was by lads who were giving us a lot of hassle."
When we opened, there were shutters put up at night to protect the shop from having windows broken.
Jim is less afraid of this today however. "New kids coming in — or lads — their masculinity isn't threatened. Life has changed... in the last decade. It's taken a long time. In my time, I'm here 29 years, I've seen huge changes. Which is fantastic."
"We get photographs taken every day, by people walking outside the shop going 'Woah!' In the old days it was more aggresive, these days it's 'Oh wow'. Or they want their pictures taken. It's gone from watch your back, to just being chilled." A few minutes after he says that, we witness an example first hand — people taking pictures on their phones outside, having stumbled upon the shop, with beaming smiles on their faces.
Wanting to be seen
And there is no doubt as to why these people are stopping outside. "The name of the shop, Gay's The Word, it's named after a musical from the 50s, by Ivor Novello. That's a deliberate choice about being very visible, with the big window. You have no doubt as to who we are. And that's the politics of 'this is who we are, this is what we're going to do'."
Jim speaks in hallowed tones of the feeling he gets when he sees new customers explore the shop, the first time they've been allowed to express themselves in a space that's truly their own. The shop is very consciously set up with first-time visitors in mind: "We're always aware of what's visible and what's not, as we try to curate the shop."
He's hinting at the fact that there is plenty of material that's quite adult, from introductions to gay sex to erotic fiction. Not that the shop is trying to hide these, but it's a sign that being gay is about more than sex. This has always been at the shop's core since the beginning. It's for the many people who ask the question, "What sort of queer literature is out there, other than erotic?"
Take the large section of kids books, for example, a lot of which the shop sends to schools. These books range from "just being other", to books with characters with two mums or two dads. "They're just introducing difference." Jim shows off one of his favourites of said books, I'm A Girl, in which a young female anthropomorphic animal who's a bit of a tomboy, reminds those around her that she's a girl and that's alright.
It's about being supportive and celebratory
Not that people only come to terms with 'otherness' at a young age. "One of the things about being LGBT, is being aware of being other. Whether that hits you at 10, 15 or 45... suddenly you read a book and it's like 'aah, that's okay'."
Back in the early days the shop would stock anything by a gay author, whether it had LGBT themes or not. Now that there's such a wide range of stock to choose from, that's not a problem. "You don't want a gay person on page 42. In the same way that we're all central to our own lives, I want [LGBT] characters, books, whatever they are, where that's a central part."
"We don't stock anything that's anti-gay. Like 'Pray to God and your feelings will go away'. It's about being supportive and celebratory. "
Location, location, location
"I overheard two young people talking the other day — they were excited about some book that was on the shelves — and then one said to the other, 'Gosh, there's so much. I thought it would be a man's shop like in Soho.'"
To many minds, Soho would seem like an obvious location for the store, where there's a heavy cluster of gay clubs and shops. However, back in the 70s, Soho wasn't yet very gay. The team looked at a location there, but went with Bloomsbury, which back then was quite run down. "The Brunswick Centre was going to go all the way to the Euston Road. They were going to knock everything down. So rents, were cheap. But it was still central enough and near a tube station — and location is everything."
"We would have had a very different life story if we had been in Soho, once 'the Soho' took off, because you've got all these people coming in. Whether we could afford the rents and rates, as a bookshop. You can always do it if you're selling more sexual material. The markup is huge. You'll never go bust selling dildos... I assume. Books are different."
Pride has a few meanings when it comes to Gay's The Word. There's obviously the way LGBT people live their lives with the freedom to express themselves. There's the film that's provided the business with much prosperity. Then there's the Pride parade.
"[Pride] pulls a whole load of new people into the shop. It's fun. There's lots of questions about Pride, the politics of it. I have seen articles from 1985 when people are complaining that Pride is too commercial. The fact that hundreds of thousands of LGBT people, will be on the streets, on that day, celebrating, is political in itself. And someone has to pay for it, and sometimes it becomes too corporate, but it retains its joy."
"In the old days the photos would be of drag queens and people in leather, and it's now great to see pictures of mums with their pushchairs, or people just looking dead ordinary. The whole range of life is there."
After chatting to Jim we get up to go take some photos. Without our having to ask Jim suggests that he and the team be in the pictures, something that usually takes us a few minutes to convince people to do. However there's no fear here. The group happily peruse the shelves for the sake of the camera, and have some fun with it too. There's an infectious charm about this place and the people that work here.
Jim puts it best. "I've been here a long time, and I've seen it when it was very important, and then when it was somewhat forgotten. It's great to see it back being vibrant and used, by a whole new generation are coming in."