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Attitude Pride Awards: Celebrating Gay’s the Word, the UK’s first LGBT bookshop

The independent shop has been a staple of the UK gay scene since 1979.

By Steve Brown

A key chapter in the UK’s LGBT+ movement was the opening of Gay’s the Word, the country’s first bookshop dedicated to queer literature – and Attitude has honoured the efforts made by the store in the form of an Attitude Pride Award.

Nestled on Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, London, Gay’s the Word 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 LGBT+ authors.

Current owner Jim MacSweeney remembers his anxiety-riddled trip to Gay’s the Word as a young man in the 80s still getting to grips with his sexuality.

“I was quite nervous and there happened to be a street fair that day – I felt that everybody would know where I was going,” he recalls.

“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.”

Assistant manager Uli Lenart, who is also reviews books for Attitude each month, joined Jim for our chat and says the shop is often an important bookmark in someone’s journey to acceptance.

“Lots of beautiful things and moments happen on a daily basis,” he reflects. “Bookshops are about stories, other forms of literature, histories, biographies, but they’re also about the stories that people bring in with them when they visit.”

Jim goes on to draw attention to one particularly nasty twist in the tale when, on 10 April, 1984, Gay’s the Word was raided by Her Majesty’s Custom and Excise officers.

Dubbed ‘Operation Tiger,’ they seized thousands of pounds worth of stock that were deemed obscene by the British government.

“They assumed it was a porn shop,” he smirks. “They took books like ‘The Joy of Gay Sex’ and ‘The Joy of Lesbian Sex’, but also Christopher Isherwood novels and Allen Ginsberg poetry.”

The bookshop’s board of directors and staff members were charged with conspiracy to import indecent material.

The 2014 movie Pride brought a fresh flock of book-readers to the store and, Jim assures, 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 book shops were closing left, right and centre, and the rents were going up.”

However, 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.

The small bookshop has gone through years and years of trouble and even this year, one of the window’s was smashed but they refuse to let the incident shatter the positivity and optimism of their work.

Hear about the incredible history of Gay’s the Word below:

Read more about the Attitude Pride Award winners in our new August issue, 19 July.