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  • Ru Pearson

Gay’s the Word: A Visit to London’s Only LGBTQ+ Bookstore

© Ru Pearson

Unapologetic, inviting, and open to all. Consider supporting your local queer bookshop this Pride Month.

London feels different during Pride Month. Rainbow flags adorn shopfronts and fly high from apartment windows, parades and protests fill the streets by day, and club nights and parties in the capital’s thriving “gaybourhoods” offer safe spaces for night owls to indulge in the revelries. Mighty Hoopla, not a queer festival per se but one with LGBTQ+ culture at the heart of its ethos, ushered in the month with a menagerie of pop-adjacent performers and Y2K throwback stars, with female and queer artists – so often underrepresented on festival line-ups - making up the majority of the weekend’s program. Perhaps it’s simply an example of the frequency illusion, that uncanny phenomenon where you see something everywhere after seeing it once, but London positively blooms with queer joy in June. I think the sunshine helps, too.

Buoyant with this feeling, and with a sense of purpose not dissimilar to a pilgrimage, I took a trip to the quiet side streets of Bloomsbury this week. With all the history of Soho but a mere fraction of the crowds, this area, just a nine-minute walk from the bustle of Saint Pancras station, is home to a small but mighty hub of LGBTQ+ cultural history. As I meandered past elegant Georgian buildings and through the leafy tranquillity of Cartwright Gardens, I came to a pedestrian crossing painted in the colours of the Trans Pride flag. Unveiled in 2021 to help “trans residents and visitors feel seen and safe,” the crossing leads me directly to my destination. Nestled between a gallery and a corner shop on Marchmont Street stands Gay’s The Word, one of only two dedicated LGBTQ+ bookshops in the UK. A cornerstone in the foundations of London’s queer community, the shop has been serving customers for over forty years.

© Gay’s the Word

Standing on the street, watching as a couple of captivated customers pause to take a photograph of the shop’s front, the first thing I notice is the large window. Stacked from top to bottom with vibrant book recommendations and activism posters, Gay’s The Word practically demands a second look from any passer-by. There is no shame here; this bookshop is unapologetic, inviting, and open to all. In the thirty or so minutes I spent leafing through books covering topics on everything from queer theory and vintage men’s magazines to self-help books and contemporary lesbian fiction, I overheard a multitude of accents and languages in the hushed tone that is always, however inadvertently, mandated within the sacred walls of a bookshop. When one happy customer jovially told the bookseller that they had travelled from Italy to get a taste of what Gay’s The Word dishes up, it became clear to me that people travel from far and wide to visit.

Perhaps this comes down to the fact that Gay’s The Word is more than just a bibliophile’s paradise; the space is also steeped in history. The shop was opened in 1979 by members of a gay socialist group, and it served as a vital information resource for the queer community throughout the coming decades. Sadly, but altogether unsurprisingly, the shop has experienced numerous setbacks during its time. From a raid by HM Customs & Excise in 1984 on the assumption that the shop was selling indecent material, to homophobic vandalism and lengthy closures necessitated by the COVID-19 lockdowns, Gay’s The Word has nevertheless defied the odds and survived.

© Gay’s the Word

Crossing the threshold from street to shop floor, the weight of this history feels palpable. Vintage postcards and activism paraphernalia adorn the walls, and flyers for discussion groups – some of which have been meeting weekly since the shop’s inception – are piled high at the desk. Regular events, such as book launches, signings, and organised panel discussions, instil the shop with a sense of community that, I would argue, is unparalleled by the likes of larger chain bookstores. What is more, Gay’s The Word’s archive is carefully curated to ensure optimum diversity, with personal recommendations, hand-written by the shop’s five dedicated staff members, dotting the shelves.

As a result, independent bookshops like Gay’s The Word offer a consumer experience that cannot be rivalled by the likes of chain bookshops or websites. Unlike online retailers, which algorithmically position publications that are already bestsellers at the top of any webpage, the welcoming atmosphere in Gay’s The Word encourages customers to leisurely peruse what’s on offer. This meditative and methodical act of buying a book in person - picking up a cover that catches your eye, flipping through the pages, and breathing in that intoxicating scent – is totally lost online, where a purchase can be made in just a few, impersonal clicks. I left the shop not just with a new book under my arm and a badge on my lapel, but with the feeling that I was part of something bigger and more beautiful. Leaving the shop, I floated out into the sunny streets of Bloomsbury with an emboldening feeling of warmth and solidarity.

© Ru Pearson

Of course, queer people don’t just “come out” in June; we are here all year round. Providing an oasis for queer booklovers, Gay’s The Word is a remarkable institution that supports and uplifts the LGBTQ+ community in a way that should be commonplace. Within the walls of Gay’s The Word, tolerance is a given. Anyone is welcome; it is a space of pure, unquestioned acceptance. Yet, even in the twenty-first century, this is rare. What is more, it cannot be ignored that, while Pride celebrations grow bigger and bolder with every coming year, the rate of hate crimes against gay and transgender people rose by forty-two and fifty-six percent, respectively, in 2022. Facilitating open conversation, platforming upcoming authors and marginalised perspectives, and providing a sense of community to those most marginalised in society, spaces like Gay’s The Word are therefore as important as ever. So whether you’re searching for guidance on coming out or looking to add another queer history book to your collection this Pride Month, consider a visit to Gay’s The Word. I guarantee you will find what you are looking for.

© Ru Pearson

Here are some book recommendations from Gay's the Word's bestseller list:

'Young Mungo' by Douglas Stewart

"The extraordinary, powerful second novel from the Booker Prize-winning author of Shuggie Bain, Young Mungo is both a vivid portrayal of working-class life and the deeply moving story of the dangerous first love of two young men: Mungo and James." - Gay's The Word

'Night Sky With Exit Wounds' by Ocean Vuong

"An extraordinary debut from a young Vietnamese American, Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a book of poetry unlike any other.

Steeped in war and cultural upheaval and wielding a fresh new language, Vuong writes about the most profound subjects – love and loss, conflict, grief, memory and desire – and attends to them all with lines that feel newly-minted, graceful in their cadences, passionate and hungry in their tender, close attention." - Gay's The Word

'The Secret Lives of Church Ladies', Deesha Philyaw

"An intimate, irresistible collection of stories about the hidden desires of church-going Black women." - Gay's The Word

'Pageboy: A Memoir' by Elliot Page

“Full of behind-the-scenes details and intimate interrogations on sex, love, trauma, and Hollywood, Pageboy is the story of a life pushed to the brink. But at its core, this beautifully written, winding journey of what it means to untangle ourselves from the expectations of others is an ode to stepping into who we truly are with defiance, strength, and joy.” - Gay's The Word

Find Gay's the Word on Instagram and on their website.


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