Founded by a group of gay socialists, Gay’s The Word has been a touchstone for the LGBT+ community in London since it first opened its doors in 1979, on Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury.
Like most iconic London locations, the UK’s oldest LGBT+ bookshop attracts its fair share of celebrities – but director Uli Lenart isn’t about to let slip who.
“I’m not going to tell you who they are,” grins Uli with a twinkle in his eye, “because everyone deserves to come into a bookshop and be able to browse without anybody harassing them… including the people who come in here.”
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Uli has spent his fair share of time in the bookshop, having worked there for the last 16 years.
“When you end up working in such a special place you stop searching for something better because you kind of realise you’re already there,” says Uli, adding, “this is a really special place.”
It’s inevitable that such a place attracts a seriously special community, then.
Uli says the support from their customers over lockdown was “extraordinary,” once they got a website up and running.
“Getting books into the hands of readers during lockdown is just as important to us as putting money in a till,” says Uli seriously, for whom reading is not so much a passion as a lifestyle.
As well as helping to run the bookshop, the lifelong literature-lover writes book reviews, coordinates literary events, and even interviews authors.
Uli says Gay’s The Word has been “absolutely crazy busy” since they have been able to re-open.
“It’s been really wonderful to have people coming back through that door again. It’s great to sell online but to have the personal connection and interaction with people – that’s super special, that’s what this shop has always been about.”
Uli says over time familiar faces in the store have become friends, creating “a kind of gay family atmosphere, a queer family atmosphere,” which he says is very unique and special.
The long-running bookshop has been a lifeline for the queer community, particularly through tougher times.
“You’ve got to remember in the late 1970s there was no place for the lesbian, gay and queer community to access literature,” says Uli.
“Mainstream bookshops were resistant to the idea of stocking queer, ie potentially ‘perverse’ literature – so we were kind of at sea without a compass as a community, in terms of our ability to access our own ideas.”
Uli describes how the “template” for the bookshop was the Oscar Wilde memorial bookshop in Manhattan – the first of its kind in the US.
The shop was founded by Craig Rodwell in November 1967, just two years before the Stonewall riots broke out in June 1969.
“We think of Stonewall as being the moment when gay liberation started but the Oscar Wilde memorial bookshop was in existence two years before that,” says Uli.
Gay’s The Word founder Ernest Hole (the “perfect name” for a gay male bookshop owner, laughs Uli) had gone out to New York to find out how Rodwell’s shop was operating, and happened to arrive the day after Stonewall began.
“So there’s a direct correlation between the Oscar Wilde memorial bookshop, the Stonewall riots, and the inspiration behind the founding of this space – which couldn’t be more pride if you stuck a big multicoloured ribbon around it,” says Uli.
He reflects on how much the landscape has changed since those early days.
“Initially – from the conversations I’ve had with Ernest – there was some antipathy, there was some division, there was some homophobic graffiti that went up,” he says, adding, “I think at that point we had to have shutters on the door…”
“It’s difficult to time travel in your mind to the social and cultural temperature of the late 1970s in this country,” says Uli.
He goes on: “Institution-heavy prejudice was endemic in society and that really translated into people’s values and attitude.
“To open this bookshop – and especially with a name which really pronounced its existence – this was about not hiding away, this was about really articulating our presence.
“I think it’s immeasurably brave of those early founders and pioneers who created this space.”
Opening the bookshop was an act of resistance against the widespread culture of homophobia which famously culminated in Section 28.
The British law, introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1988, prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities until 2000 in Scotland, and 2003 in England.
The legislation caused many organisations such as lesbian, gay and bisexual student support groups to close or limit their activities or self-censor.
“Sadly it happened that people were rejected from their families when they came out,” says Uli, but “now we have a huge Young Adult section and young people who are coming in who are super orientated, who know exactly who they are, who are coming in with their families.
“The only concern their families seem to have is they don’t spend more than fifty quid! Not about the sexuality or gender identity of their children. So that shift is quite extraordinary.”
In terms of what Uli recommends to prospective readers, he refuses to be so “reductive” as to pick a favourite, but says there is a growing interest in books which “have representation of different communities and different identities.”
One such book is ‘Detransition Baby’ by Torrey Peters, long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.
“It’s one of the most intelligent and arresting and fearless trans novels I’ve ever read – it’s absolutely brilliant,” says Uli: “We’re selling a lot of that at the moment.”
His two other must-reads are queer Muslim memoir ‘A Dutiful Boy’ by Mohsin Zaidi – who recently visited for a signing – and ‘We Can Do Better Than This’, a collection of 35 voices writing about the future of LGBTQ+ rights in a collection of stories and visions for the future.
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