Words: Thomas Stichbury
A key chapter in the British LGBT+ movement was the opening of Gay’s The Word, the country’s first bookshop dedicated to queer literature.
Nestled on Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, London, the independent store was founded in 1979 by Ernest Hole, who was inspired after a visit to New York’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop, which was devoted entirely to queer authors.
Current owner Jim MacSweeney remembers his anxiety-riddled trip to the bookshop as a young man in the 1980s, while still getting to grips with his sexuality.
“I was quite nervous and there was a street fair that day. I felt everybody would know where I was going,” he recalls.
Gay's The Word was founded by Ernest Hole in Bloomsbury, London in 1979
“As I got to the door, I couldn’t go in, I walked around the block, then managed to go in on the second time of trying.”
Decades on, Jim describes the literary haven as also being a safe space for LGBT+ people.
“For many people, when they walk into the bookshop for the first time, especially one with a name like Gay’s The World, they’re naming themselves,” Jim says.
“You never know what process of coming out and acceptance they’re at.” Assistant manager Uli Lenart, who also reviews books for Attitude, says the shop is often an important bookmark in someone’s journey to acceptance.
A younger Jim MacSweeney pictured at Gay's The Word
“Lots of beautiful things and moments happen on a daily basis,” he says. “Bookshops are about stories, other forms of literature, histories, biographies, but they’re also about the stories that people bring in with them.”
Leafing through the book store’s history, Jim takes us back to the beginning.
“It was named after an Ivor Novello musical and it was important for it to be visible — that’s why a big glass window was put in,” he explains.
“Shutters were put up at night to protect it, but it wasn’t about hiding away, which came from the politics of the people who set it up.”
Gay's The Word as it currently appears at 66 Marchmont St., Bloomsbury
Uli adds: “You have to take a moment to consider their bravery, their resilience. Thinking about the culture of oppression and discrimination going on against gay and lesbian people at that time, for the bookshop to open in the first place was an act of self-possession on the part of our community — such a powerful statement.”
Lingering on those “dark, dark days,” Jim draws attention to one particularly nasty period when, on 10 April, 1984, the shop was raided by Custom and Excise officers. Dubbed Operation Tiger, they seized thousands of pounds worth of stock deemed obscene.
“They assumed it was a porn shop. They took books such as The Joy of Gay Sex and The Joy of Lesbian Sex, but also Christopher Isherwood novels and poetry by Allen Ginsberg.”
Directors and members of staff were charged with conspiracy to import indecent material.
“We had to fight – I say ‘we’, I wasn’t actually [there] at the time,” Jim clarifies. “Customs and Excise threw the book at them and we fought that for two and half years before the charges were dropped.
Staff celebrate outside Gay's The Word after charges of conspiracy to import indecent material brough against them are dropped in 1986
“It was an attack on the community.”
Funds for the legal battle were raised by LGBT+ organisations including the Gay Black Group, the Lesbian Discussion Group and the Lesbian and Gays Support The Miners (LGSM), who all used to hold meetings in the shop.
Indeed, Gay’s The Word made an appearance in the acclaimed 2014 film Pride, which told of how the London-based LGSM joined forces with striking miners in Wales to oppose a common foe: prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
The movie brought a fresh flock of readers to the bookshop and, Jim assures us, they are “still going strong”. Not that they haven’t teetered on the brink of closure.
“I’ve weathered many crises and a few years back wondered if our time had come,” he admits. “Lots of bookshops were closing; the rents going up.”
Luckily, Uli came to the rescue with a community fund-raising incentive.
“People took the shop for granted, then suddenly all this money came in, they were aware they had something special,” says Jim.
Sadly, Gay’s The Word isn’t immune to intolerance and prejudice and, in April last year, its window was smashed. But Jim and Uli refuse to let the incident affect the positivity and optimism of their work.
Jim MacSweeney (right) and Uli Lenart hope to continue the legacy of Gay's The Word for year to come
“Back in the day before social media, if there was spit on the window or graffiti, that would go into you soul,” confesses Jim, “but these days, what I take from it is an outpouring of support from people online.”
They pick up the pieces – literally in some cases – and carry on.
“If every so often the window gets broken, you clean it up, you don’t take it on board, otherwise they win.”