Gay’s The Word: A spotlight on England’s oldest LGBTQ+ bookshop

A look at the iconic bookshop behind Britain's LGBTQ+ rights movement.

HomoCulture Simon Elstad

This article was published on April 5th, 2021

“Peter took great pride in the fact that the shop, despite all its difficulties over the years, has survived and thrived. We owe Peter Dorey a great deal of thanks for his part in setting up our bookshop.”

These were the remarks made by Jim MacSweeney in late February this year as part of glowing tributes in honour of the late Dorey, who died on February 12. Dorey was the founder of the UK’s first gay book store, Gay’s The Word, alongside Ernest Hole and Jonathan Cutbill, in 1979.

He passed on following years of poor health. MacSweeney, the bookstore manager, credited Dorey for setting up a shop that would later become a core part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Much like the Circus of Books in the United States, Gay’s The Word is more than just a bookshop. It is an iconic institution that has been at the heart of Britain’s LGBTQ+ rights movement. Named after the Ivor Novello musical, the store is located at Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury, London is still as relevant as it was 42 years ago. It was a safe place for the LGBTQ+ community during those years when homophobia and discrimination were widespread.

The bookshop continues to champion equality and acceptance for the queer community.

Miners’ strike

Gay’s The Word has been a hub for several organizations, including Lesbian Discussion Group and Trans London, which still hold regular meetings.

However, one of the most notable meet-ups was that of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) during the miners’ strike of 1984-1985. The group would hold fundraising events for striking coal miners at the bookshop’s cafe. Their story is featured in the 2014 film Pride, which won a ‘Queer Palm’ award at the Cannes Film Festival.

The diverse range of books at the shop is telling. Its walls are curated with just about any book you can think of, spanning from fiction, non-fiction, poetry, graphic novels, magazines, erotica, among other genres.

Over the years, it has become a vital community resource, seeing that it was impossible to come across LGBTQ+ literature in mainstream bookshops back then.

The bookshop offers a community space that people visit when they are coming out of the closet. “Gay’s The Word has been an important part of the LGBTQ+ community for many years, and we get visitors from all over the world,” MacSweeney said while honouring the late Dorey. The store’s assistant manager, Uli Lenart, once remarked, “For this bookstore to open in this country, it finally meant that people had the right to access their ideas.”

Police raids

“To be able to come to the bookstore and have a book, or a series of books, available to you that make you feel less fraught, make you feel less alone – I think it’s really a wonderful, important thing.”

Even then, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the iconic bookshop. It has faced many challenges, including police raids and objections from the council. The biggest blow arguably came in 1984 when Customs and Excise officers raided the store. They seized all their American stock and charged the staff and directors for importing “indecent” material.

A Vancouver, Canada gay bookstore, Little Sisters Bookstore, faced a similar situation with Canadian Boarder officials seizing books. The owners took the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and won!

This prompted an outpouring of support from the LGBTQ community and other independent bookshops that raised money for a defence fund. Gay’s The Word eventually won the case and lived to fight another day.

Stiff competition

That notwithstanding, the bookstore has had to weather a few other storms, including rising rents, stiff competition from online retailers like Amazon and declining print book sales. Such issues have threatened the shop’s prosperity, but thanks to the community support, the future still looks bright, at least for now.

For MacSweeney and co., the hope is that Gay’S The Word will continue serving future generations and will live to the tenets of its founders by providing a safe haven to the LGBTQ+ community.

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