We stand for something special,” says Jim MacSweeney, manager of the UK’s last remaining LGBT bookshop, Gay’s The Word.
Inspired by the emergence and growth of lesbian and gay bookstores in America, a small group of people from socialist group Gay Icebreakers founded the shop in 1979.
Initial reluctance from Camden Council to grant a lease was overcome with help from Ken Livingstone, then a Camden councillor.
The bookshop holds an important place in the gay community and holds events, readings and signings by emerging and well-known writers. Even the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jake Arnott and Neil Bartlett have dropped-in.
The popular Lesbian Discussion Group has been running for 30 years, and a monthly Trans Discussion Group, the LGBT Bookgroup and a Gay Men’s Writing Group remain popular.
The shop nearly closed three years ago, suffering in the face of the public’s preference to buy books on the web.
“In the old days bookshops like us had all the knowledge and that’s why people would come to us,” says MacSweeney. “Now people can do the research themselves online and get books they used to come to us for.”
Suffering financially, the shop put out a plea for help. Support came flooding in, with people offering to sponsor a shelf, offer support and donate money.
“The support we got was amazing,” smiles MacSweeney, saying the bookshop is now back on a more even financial footing. “People miss independent bookshops and for us that is a good thing. We offer something the Internet can’t – advice, conversation and our events.”
It’s only in recent times that mainstream bookshops created LGBT sections but MacSweeney doesn’t see this as a threat: “It gives gay books greater visibility and offers access for more people, as not everyone can get to us.”
The popularity of the shop is reflected in the range of its clientele. “We have all ages coming in from 18 to 95, and from all over the world,” he adds. “We endeavor to be friendly and accessible – we don’t know where people are on their journeys – they may have just come out, and we are sensitive to this, we want cater for everyone.”
It’s this caring, friendly face for which Gay’s The Word has become renowned. “The other day I had two parents come in to buy books for their children who had recently come out. They were able to ask for advice they couldn’t have found as easily elsewhere.”
Standing out and proud isn’t without its risks, however. Sometimes the staff suffer homophobic abuse, and during last year’s riots the shop was vandalised. “I don’t look back and remember the idiots who did it,” says MacSweeney, positively. “I just think about the incredible kindness. People sent messages and came to see us to ask if we were okay. One couple even gave us a bunch of flowers.
“It wasn’t just the gay community who cared. It was the local people who never would have thought something like that would happen, it was life affirming.”
MacSweeney is confident about the future. “This is a good time for us,” he says. “We are a beacon, we curate the most comprehensive selection of LGBT books into one space, and you can’t get that anywhere else.”
Gay’s The Word
66 Marchmont Street, WC1N 1AB
Nearest Tube: Tottenham Court Road