London's only lesbian and gay bookshop
Jim McSweeney talks Time Out through the history of the only dedicated lesbian and gay bookstore in the UK
Way back in 1984, a young man from Cork came looking for a bookshop in the leafy backstreets of Bloomsbury. ‘I found it easily enough,’ he recalls. ‘But then I kept walking up and down the street, because I didn’t dare go in. My heart was thumping. Finally I entered the shop and I remember seeing this variety of books. I bought a copy of David Leavitt’s “Family Dancing”, the collection of short stories. And something by Tennessee Williams. Further along the shelf there was something stronger. But I wasn’t ready for that yet. Well, I was coming from Ireland.’
The bookshop was Gay’s the Word on Marchmont Street, to this day the only dedicated lesbian and gay bookstore in the UK. And the young man was Jim McSweeney, manager of the store for the past 19 years. ‘There were no erotic images of women or men in Ireland back in 1984,’ he explains. ‘And, to be honest, the bookshop wasn’t all that sexualised either. It was very much a community bookshop. It still is, in fact.’
Founded in 1979 by members of a gay socialist group, Gay’s the Word has weathered the tides of change for 28 years. The bookshop nearly didn’t open at all. Camden Council was reluctant to grant a lease, and was only persuaded with the help of Ken Livingstone, then a Camden councillor. In 1984, Customs officials raided the shop during the infamous Operation Tiger. Among the books seized were works by Gore Vidal and Allen Ginsberg, Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams (clearly someone at HM Customs found Williams a bit stronger than McSweeney did). In the early 1990s, when gay business interests moved to Soho, there were fears that the bookshop would disappear off the gay map. Then came the twin threat of the chainstores and the internet.
‘I looked at the very first newsletter the bookshop produced in 1980,’ says McSweeney. ‘And it points out where you can get gay books. There were four or five places where gay books were sold then. In the whole of the country! It’s another world. It wasn’t until the ’90s that big mainstream stores looking for new markets opened up gay sections to see if that would sell. Before that, if you wanted gay books, you came to us. Or there was some mail order.’
‘In one sense, as a gay man, I’m delighted that shops have gay sections. It’s important that when young gay people go into a store they can see they’re catered for. I hope the sections are good, rather than just travel and erotica. But at least they’re there. For the small independent bookstore, it’s very difficult. We have a website, and we do mail order, and we hang on in there. But while it’s tough for us, I’m glad the books are out there.’
- Add your comment to this feature