Gay’s The Word is the oldest surviving LGBTQ bookstore in the UK.
Situated on a quiet street in the Bloomsbury district of London, the small, narrow shop was opened by a group of gay activists in 1979. The founders met through a social group called Gay Icebreakers.
From the moment it opened, Gay’s The Word was always more than just a bookshop. It offered space for people to network, keep informed about events (it’s always stocked a variety of free magazines and allowed people to post messages on community notice boards), and hosted author evenings and other gatherings. Its weekly Lesbian Discussion Group met for 35 years up until the pandemic forced a (temporary) move to Zoom.
In 1984, it became a meeting place for a group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. Co-founded by a young activist, Mark Ashton, the group raised money for pit-workers involved in the country’s infamous miners’ strike of the early 1980s.
The group’s history, including its meetings at Gay’s The Word, was immortalized in the 2014 movie, Pride. Ashton, sadly, was to die in 1987 of AIDS, aged just 26.
Running an LGBTQ-owned bookstore comes with its own unique challenges. In 1984, Gay’s The Word was raided by authorities and thousands of pounds of stock was seized. It was charged with conspiracy to import “indecent” material, with officials being particularly horrified by Edmund White’s self-help guide, The Joy of Gay Sex.
Gay’s the Word is the UK’s oldest LGBTQ+ bookshop, set up in 1979 by a group of gay socialists as a community space.
Being the “G” in our A-Z of #LGBTQLondon, we’re proud to hold photos of @gaystheword‘s launch event in 1979.
📸 Robert Workman Archive pic.twitter.com/8h6BSst7gL
— Bishopsgate Institute (@BishopsgateInst) June 9, 2021
Supporters rallied around and raised £55,000 ($76,300) to help fight the charges (including £3,000 from US writer Gore Vidal, who’d had some of his own work seized). The charges were eventually dropped, but not before the names and addresses of the directors of the store were published in the press.
The store has also been vandalized on several occasions. Each time, the management cleans up the graffiti or repairs the windows and presses on with its work: providing a vital resource and peaceful sanctuary to the many visitors. Shoppers travel from all over the country, inspired to spend some time in a queer space that isn’t a bar or nightclub and which offers a wealth of LGBTQ reading matter.
The store is currently run primarily by Jim MacSweeney and Uli Lenart.
“Back in 1983, I used to attend discussions at Gay’s The Word led by Gay Icrebreakers, a gay socialist group who also ran a helpline and a disco at The Bell,” MacSweeney tells GayCities.
“Those discussions were a formative influence in my development as a gay man and even if I had never come to work here, Gay’s The Word has had a profound impact on my life.
He says he saw a vacancy at the store come up in 1989 and applied. He thought he might stay a few years. He’s now been working at Gay’s The Word for over three decades.
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Lenart says he first got involved with the store, “In 2004 when I was a fresh-faced and very eager 25-year old.
“I was looking for work and just happened to leaf through the resources section at the back of my Time Out diary. And there it was listed in the bookshops’ section: Gay’s the Word. Up to that point I’d never heard of the place, despite being born and raised in London.
“Visibility for the bookshop was a real issue for a while but social media has completely changed that, as did our depiction in the 2014 film Pride about Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners [LGSM]. In May 2017 English Heritage unveiled a blue plaque above Gay’s the Word honoring LGSM activist Mark Ashton which is very special.”
Despite the pandemic and the constant pressure of rising rents in one of the most expensive cities in the world, MacSweeney says Gay’s The Word is in a good place at the moment.
“We were extraordinarily busy in 2019 so when the pandemic hit in March 2020, we were in a good position and closed completely for a few weeks, little imagining that it would stretch into months.
“When the bookshop has been allowed to open, we’ve been very busy but we’ve also worked on creating our first transactional website and that’s really taken off. We’re now sending books all over the country. While the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic has been appalling, they’ve been very supportive of small businesses with grants and other schemes which have been a huge help.”
Lenart says his job is hugely rewarding: “Gay’s the Word is a very special place; it’s palpable in the air the moment you walk in the front door. There is just something real and authentic about it.
“Seeing young people who have a natural, easy embrace of their identity rushing into the bookshop, dizzy with excitement, grabbing books from the shelves…it’s genuinely a very beautiful sight to behold.
“My colleagues are amazing people and I’m blessed to work alongside them. Our American bookseller Erica Gillingham has been with the team for a few years now. I can’t thank her, or Jim, enough for everything they contribute to the shop.”
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MacSweeney says working at Gay’s The Word has been a privilege.
“We carry a superb range of books, carefully curated by a very small team. Choosing our stock and helping make a visit to the bookshop a pleasurable, enlightening, and rewarding experience is a great privilege.
“More than a bookshop, we’ve always been a community space and love talking to our customers. Conversations are often about books but sometimes people are in the first stages of coming out and may just want to talk. It’s very life-affirming.”
Matt Cain [pictured below] is a broadcaster and author. His latest book, The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle, came out recently. He’s a longtime fan of the store.
“Gays the Word is an essential stop on a tour of London for anyone interested in queer culture and history – some would call it a rite of passage or even a pilgrimage,” he told GayCities.
“In the context of a physical scene still dominated by bars, clubs and places to hook up, it stands out as somewhere with a high level of community engagement. The staff are always eager to chat, pass on reading recommendations and hear customers’ stories. And, since the store featured as a key setting in hit film Pride, it’s become an icon of gay history. So – once you’ve bought a book – make sure you take a pic standing outside the famous front!”
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