Uli Lenart gives an insider’s perspective on the UK’s first and last surviving dedicated lesbian and gay bookshop.
BY ULI LENART
FROM THE VAULTS
I’ve worked as a bookseller and manager at Gay’s The Word bookshop for just over 11 years, so I feel a deep sense of connection to the little place. In fact we are the same age, 37, although the bookshop is a few months older.
I never forget the date that Gay’s the Word was raided by Customs and Excise, 10 April 1984, the date of my fifth birthday. Even before I was really conscious of the world there was a bookshop in it standing up for my right to be who I wanted, to read what I wanted to. Now I help tend this place, to help preserve it for those who need it today and in the future.
Gay’s the Word is one of the most special and kind-hearted LGBT+ community institutions you could imagine. Providing much needed support and literature to our community is a genuine privilege. One moment I could be sending out a pack of pro-diversity children’s books to a school library and the next I could be hosting a book event about an epic lesbian revenge crime thriller, like I did last night.
In my time I’ve taken phone calls from people so closeted and anxious about their sexuality that they have literally been speaking to me hidden inside a cupboard so as not to be overheard. I’ve closed the bookshop in the middle of the day to make a cup of tea and sit down with guys so terrified that they might have contracted HIV that weekend they can barely talk.
But Gay’s the Word, for me, is primarily a place of joy and affirmation. I’ve seen countless people, many from countries around the world where their very right to exist free of persecution is denied them, break down in tears when they’ve walked in for the first time and found themselves surrounded by so many books that affirm and reflect their experience. The day will never come when that doesn’t get me in my heart.
Sure, the wages aren’t great, but it is a grassroots lesbian and gay enterprise that exists for the benefit of our community, and any small profits that we do make get ploughed back into the business. Besides, getting to chat for an hour alone with Ali Smith or messaging with Sarah Waters about what we are both reading are riches money simply can’t buy.
I’ve seen young lesbians worried about how their families will take the news return a month later hand in hand with their proud fathers. I’ve talked about queer life in the 40s and 50s with many of our incredible LGBT elders. I’ve seen them coming into the bookshop carrying the weight of books that they want to donate to the second-hand section because they sense their end is coming. And I’ve cried when I’ve heard that it has. So, while “on paper” the bookshop is an intellectual and literary outlet, more than anything else, I experience it is an emotional space. Yes, the people who come in the shop are customers, but they are more than that. They are friends. They are family.
The lesbian discussion group, hosted every Wednesday from 8pm to 9pm, has been running continuously almost every week for 35 years. When I think about that I find it extraordinary. I can recall all the women who met at the bookshop who made a point of coming in on their wedding days to have a picture taken of them dressed up in all their finery in the place where they first set eyes on each other.
I won’t mention her name because she would be uncomfortable with the credit, but an ally of the bookshop recently got married and on her and her now wife’s special day she asked all her guests not to bring flowers but to make a donation to Gay’s the Word. That money will help keep the lights on and get the rent paid so the TransLondon support group have a venue for their monthly meetings and that young non-binary genderqueer kids can come, browse the trans section and school me in the politics of non-identification. The bookshop is a living symbol of the spirit of LGBT+ community.
I could go on. I know the bookshop could be better, could be more demonstrably representative. They are so few quality and reasonably priced books on bisexuality, for example; it is a struggle to in any way cater comprehensively to that market.
Visibility is a hugely important issue. There is a whole bay of gay male erotic fiction but just a shelf and a half of one-handed-reading for lesbians and bi women. And I am one of two men who run the shop on a daily basis, although there are a number of woman involved at Directorial and voluntary levels. But I think, all in all, for two people doing the work of four, we do a good job fostering an excellent range of literature and creating an inclusive space. With the new amazing website nearing completion (we’ve had to be very patient waiting for this as someone is delivering it as a goodwill project at cost price), the future for the shop looks bright.
Stocking and reading and loving books on lesbian and bi and trans themes has made me a richer and more various human being. It has made me a more contentious, better-rounded gay man. The sort of gay guy that would want to do an internship at DIVA magazine in my holiday time, for example, because of all the LGBT press we stock at the bookshop, DIVA is one of the publications that I feel most connected with because my affinity with the politics of inclusivity is not dictated by my anatomy or the gendered orientation of my desires, but by my mind and my heart. Guess that’s another thing I am grateful to the bookshop for.
Gay’s the Word bookshop won’t exist if people don’t use it. So even if it is just one book or DVD a year, come down to quirky Marchmont Street in beautiful Bloomsbury and support the bookshop. It will support you right back. I promise.
Gay’s the Word
66, Marchmont Street
London WC1N 1AB
Russell Square Tube.
0207 278 7654
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