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The Literary Club

Gays The Word: London’s Safe Space For Queer Bookworms

Recently, I went on a trip to London, and amongst the many tourist spots I had planned, there was one location I knew I wanted to visit. As a queer girl obsessed with books, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit London’s LGBTQ+ bookstore Gays The Word. And so, on a cloudy Wednesday morning, I dragged my mum onto the tube with only one destination in mind.

Upon arrival I immediately felt welcomed. The shop is vibrant and stocked full of amazing reads catered to the LGBTQ+ community. The staff are friendly and enthusiastic, and were even kind enough to agree to speak to me about the shop.

Erica Gillingham is a staff member at the store. She is a writer and poet with a PHD in lesbian love stories in young adult literature. Gillingham works alongside Jim MacSweeney and Uli Lenart to keep the store running day to day, and was a pleasure to speak to about the store.

I sat down with Erica on the 25th August to have an informal chat about the stores history, atmosphere, and the events it hosts.

Gays the word: the shops history

Gays the word is the UK’s oldest LGBTQ+ bookshop. It was founded in January 1979, and has stayed in the same location on Marchmont Street in London ever since. According to Erica, this is what she thinks makes the store so unique. Over time it has seen so many changes in the gay rights movement and gay liberation as a whole.

The store has also had many changes over the years it’s been open. What used to be half bookshop and half cafe and office space is now a venue dedicated solely to keeping the walls covered in books. The amount of queer books being published is constantly increasing, and Erica explained to me how the store reflects this.

“We have to be even more selective than we used to be because there’s so many queer books out there, and we want to stock the best that really serves our community and the customers who come through the door.”

The store, originally founded by gay socialists, has always had an ethos of putting profit back into running the store. This is one of the many reasons why this store is praised by queer people. There’s clearly love behind it, and you can tell that from the moment you step through the door.

gays the word

Day to day shop life

I visited Gays The Word on a Wednesday morning when the shop first opened. I was immediately greeted by a friendly face behind the counter, and when I mentioned speaking to a staff member, Erica was enthusiastic and kind. Despite only being in the shop for about half an hour, it was bustling by the time I left.

There were customers of many ages, some alone, some with family. I even saw some buying the same books I was. To see such a warm atmosphere full of queer individuals who love literature made my heart swell. Erica herself expressed how much diversity she sees in customers when speaking to me:

I love working here, because you just never know who you’re gonna meet and who’s gonna walk through the door.” 

The store sees people alone, in groups, with their partners, or even with family members. Gillingham explained how she’d seen families buying picture books, people who were in the process of coming out to themselves, and those who’d been out for decades. The store is truly a safe space for many queer people.

Unmissable events

One of the most intriguing aspects of the store is the events they put on. Pre-COVID, the store had many in person promotional events with authors. A noteworthy one Erica told me about was the book launch for ‘We Have Always Been Here’ by Samra Habib. A conversation between Habib and Maryyam Bibi Din garnered a large audience, and was described as an ‘amazing discussion about what it’s like to be Queer and Muslim in the western world’ by Gillingham.

”…It was just so nice to see a community that is lesser represented in books but also in discussions be able to have a space to talk about their experiences with religion and sexuality.”

Samra Habib and Maryyam Bibi Din

Samra Habib and Maryyam Bibi Din at the launch of Habibs novel We Have Always Been Here

However, the store had to adapt their events to the recent pandemic. Although this definitely posed a challenge, Erica described to me some online events that stood out to her.

Malinda Lo was interviewed by the store about her newest novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club. The store also arranged an online book launch for Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth.

Independent businesses have famously struggled due to the limitations that have come with the past year. Gays The Word is a great example of adaptation, and keeping the spirit of reading alive through it all.

How queer literature is changing

An increase in queer literature being published means an increase in the range of representation. Erica cited the Young Adult genre as a trailblazer for representation, as she believes that it’s often where underrepresented identities are being published first.

Due to this, the Young Adult section of the shop (which I happened to purchase some books from) has grown rapidly. This has also brought in more young readers, further contributing to the customer diversity the store has. Erica also mentioned a growth in areas surrounding graphic novels and comics.

Gays the word

“it’s interesting to see how things evolve…we have our gay fiction, lesbian fiction, history, biography, but to see new areas of literature is really exciting and fun.”

Staff recommendation

Now, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask Erica for some book recommendations. And she pulled through with a range to choose from, in both the fiction and non fiction genres.

Here are Erica Gillinghams top picks from the store right now:

Last Night at the Telegraph Club – Malinda Lo

100 Boyfriends – Brontez Purnell    
(This book was printed by Cipher Press, a relatively new queer press in the UK!)

The Pink Line – Mark Gevisser

No Modernism Without Lesbians – Diana Souhami

And for some personal recommendations of Young Adult books with queer representation, be sure to check out my previous article listing some!

If you’re a London resident, or find yourself visiting, I highly recommend this store to anyone. Not only is their selection of books varied and interesting, but the atmosphere in the store is warm and inviting. It truly feels like a place created for the LGBTQ+ community to feel safe and welcomed, and is much more than a bookshop.

Visit at:

66 Marchmont St, London, WC1N 1AB

The stores online presence:

Website     Instagram     Facebook     Twitter

The staff’s social media

Erica Gillingham:  Instagram   Twitter
Uli Lenart:   Instagram   Twitter 

A special thank you to Erica Gillingham and the rest of the staff at Gays The Word for their accommodation and kindness during my visit.

About the author

www.rockandart.co.uk & www.rockyarte.com | + posts

20 year old Film & Television student from the North East of England. Passionate about inclusive storytelling through a range of mediums.
My pronouns are she/her

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