Almost exactly forty one years ago, a small group of gay socialist activists opened the doors on the Gay’s the Word bookshop in Marchmont Street in central London. It was an act of defiant optimism which remains in situ today – there is not an LGBT author in Britain, to say the least, who does not look forward to the day when they can find their work on the shelves there. It is, if I say so myself, a badge of pride. Gay’s the Word had its immediate origins, of course, in a small, peripatetic collection of lesbian and gay literature which was carried around various venues and to various events by the bookshop’s founder, Ernest Hole. For a time, Hole also sold books via a mail order service. One such event to which Hole carried his portable shop was the Gay Times Festival held at the Drill Hall in Chenies Street in Bloomsbury in January and February 1978. It was that event, Hole recalled later, which prompted him to think about a more permanent space. The Gay Times Festival, incidentally, had been organised by the theatre group Gay Sweatshop and featured performances of their play As Time Goes By, workshops, discussion groups, and so on.
In a very real sense, Gay’s the Word was part of a tradition of radical bookselling which has long roots in the socialist, feminist, anti-war, secularist, and environmentalist movements in the UK. When I was researching Labour Country, for example, I found numerous market stalls and bookshops established by the early branches of the Independent Labour Party – and the Communist Party – all over the valleys. They sold the sorts of literature that simply could not be found in newsagents or in bookshops, or which was intended to speak to a specific audience that fell through the gaps in the popular market. Much the same emerged when I was researching A Little Gay History of Wales, with alternative bookshops such as 108 in Cardiff and Neges in Swansea, providing access not only to gay and lesbian and feminist literature, but a range of handy, politically radical material. For scholars of these things, this was hardly a revelation, of course, but it certainly reminds us that the tradition of alternative media is hardly limited to the postmodern age of memes and questionable ‘news’ items online. Those without power – and this certainly applied to the labour movement of the 1890s and 1900s – must make their own voices heard. Somehow.
But there is another lineage to the creation of Gay’s the Word: an international one. Ernest Hole had spent part of 1968-1969 living in New York City, where he had befriended Craig Rodwell (1940-1993), the founder of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore. Opened at 291 Mercer Street on 18 November 1967, and relocated to Christopher Street in 1973, this was the first LGBT bookstore in the United States of America and was intended, in Rodwell’s words, to transform the homophile movement from ‘sitting in an office’ into something that was public facing and street-level, ‘out dealing with the people’ and being visible. There were eight shelves in that early iteration of the bookstore, thinly populated with literature from gay and lesbian authors, and monthly rent a mere $115. Soon, Rodwell’s commitment to visibility and presence, to the creation of an out-LGBT movement, led to the store being used as much as a community organising space as a place to buy books. Photographs from around the time Ernest Hole was spending his time at the Oscar Wilde show shelves populated with the works of writers such as Gore Vidal and James Colton (the nom-de-plum of Joseph Hansen), throw-away toothbrushes for ‘overnight lovers’, pin badges, magazines, and handmade greetings cards.
Hole leant on this tradition – as did many of the early LGBT bookshop creators in cities like Montreal – to create Gay’s the Word, which opened its doors on 17 January 1979. Just as the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore had pioneered in the United States, so Gay’s the Word did in the UK – you can see some marvellous images of the early days on the shop’s Flickr page. In 1985, it was even able to envisage opening a branch at the GLC-funded London Lesbian and Gay Centre! Within a few months of its original opening in 1979, though, Gay’s the Word was advertising itself in various of the lesbian and gay journals and magazines across the English-speaking world. One of the earliest adverts was placed in the classifieds of the Toronto-based Body Politic in May 1979. It’s not exactly the most exciting advertisement of all and sat, perhaps unfortunately, under an advertabout ‘lasting longer’, it does show that an international audience, as well as a domestic one, was part of the bookshop’s original thought process. The advert read as follows:
GAY’S THE WORD BOOKSHOP, 66 Marchmont St, London, WC1, England…, Gay, feminist books, new/second-hand; information, refreshments. Tues-Sat 11:30-7:30.
Refreshments refers to the attempt, in the early days, to run a café alongside the books – one way of balancing out the relatively modest offerings on the shelves. I’ve cut out the telephone number, there, by the way, but forty plus years on, they still have the same one. The advert appeared again in June 1979, with little variation. Gay’s the Word were not the only London-based organisation to advertise this way, of course; others did so too, including Gay Switchboard. But Switchboard was five years old, Gay’s the Word a mere five months. The relationship with Body Politic lasted until the magazine’s final issue in February 1987, although outside of these couple of months in 1979 there were no other adverts placed. There didn’t need to be: the bookshop was the subject of travel pieces, news articles, and loving reviews. In that last issue of Body Politic, Gay’s the Word was called
not just a good bookstore – for a relatively shy individual like myself, it is also the best place in London to meet interesting people for conversation. Everyone who takes tea or coffee sits within the same cheery alcove.
Apparently, said the author, Richard Summerbell, it had a similar vibe to the Little Sister’s Bookstore in Vancouver which had opened in 1983. Summerbell, who had previously been president of the LGBT society at the University of British Columbia and the host of ‘Coming Out’, Canada’s first LGBT radio show broadcast out of Vancouver, was well placed to make such an observation. Nor was this the only pen portrait of the period. In the early 1980s, it was the turn of the Canadian writer and leading scholar of Walt Whitman, Robert K. Martin (1941-2014). Writing in a ‘London Diary’ for the Christopher Street magazine, Martin observed that
The bookstore, called (a bit cutely) Gay’s the Word, is run by a charming and knowledgeable man called John, who gave up a more conventional career as a banker to take over this active shop on Marchmont Street, in the heart of Bloomsbury (one can almost hear Lytton Strachey’s voice). It is beginning to attract a large and varied public, and the night that I’m thre the relatively small premises are pleasantly full. There is an excellent choice of both new and used books, and a good selection of periodicals.
In his discussion of Gay’s the Word’s successes and challenges, Martin pre-empted what was to be the defining challenge in the first ten years: availability of material and importation of literature from the United States, France, and elsewhere. As he wrote,
A great many successful gay titles are simply unavailable in the United Kingdom. The bookstore tries to compensate for this by ordering directly from the publishers, but it is a difficult and time-consuming process. It also frequently involves problems with Her Majesty’s customs inspectors.
Before I get on to that part of the story, though, it’s important to look at something else which happened in 1979 and not only involved Gay’s the Word but directly echoed the work of Craig Rodwell. 1979 marked the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and was commemorated across the world in what was, at that point, the zenith of the gay pride movement. Even cities which did not normally have pride events or marches (and would not again for a number of years), such as Liverpool, Edinburgh, Leamington Spa, and Hereford, took part. In London, of course, pride was already well-established but that year, as Ernest Hole recalled, Gay’s the Word led the march. There was, in fact, more to it than that. Not only were a number of the cultural events hosted at Gay’s the Word, such as the singers Paul South (whose music had featured in CHE’s landmark 1976 film, David is a Homosexual) and Mark Bunyan, the shop was home to the Gay Pride Week information desk – the public face of the festival. Rodwell, of course, was the primary mover in the creation of the first gay pride march in the United States, which took place in New York City in 1970 on what was then called Christopher Street Liberation Day.
These international echoes are by no means coincidental. They are a central part of gay liberation activism, a theme usefully explored in Geoffrey Woods’ book Homintern (2016). All too often, when undertaking scholarship on LGBT activism, it is easy to fall into the trap of only looking at one’s national context but that was never the full story, and with increasing digitisation of LGBT archives this aspect of the past can be readily restored. And there’s a lot to be restored. One of the HM Customs stings on Gay’s the Word’s (would-be) stock in the mid-1980s, for instance, resulted in the confiscation of copies of the Parisian magazine Gai Pied – it certainly was not the fact it was printed by the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League that caused the officers to act. Nor was it the involvement of Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre in writing for the magazine, either. Perhaps it’s time to return to that particular theme of Gay’s the Word versus HM Customs and Excise.
On 10 April 1984, a month into the miners’ strike, officers from HM Customs and Excise raided the flat of Gay’s the Word director Glenn McKee. They took tapes, diaries, and books. That was at nine o’clock in the morning. A few hours later, the police arrived at the bookshop. Ejecting the customers then present, customs officials began seizing books. Amongst the titles taken were Armisted Maupin’s Tales of the City, Lenny Giteck’s Cruise to Win, Tena Clark’s memoir of the American South Southern Discomfort, and Emily Sisley and Bertha Harris’s The Joy of Lesbian Sex. The confiscated books were American imports, mostly obtained from the Giovanni’s Room bookstore in Philadelphia. Maupin told the San Francisco-based gay newspaper, the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), which covered the raid just two days later, that ‘I had always wondered if I would make it to forty without having my books banned somewhere. Now I find I’m banned in London’. Maupin’s work was subsequently returned, but others – more than two hundred copies more around twenty titles – were threatened with destruction. The BAR, usefully, gave the full list:
- Terry Andrews, The Story of Harold
- Phil Andros, Below the Belt
- Christopher Street, Aphrodisiac
- Terry Andrews, The Story of Harold
- Phil Andros, Below the Belt
- Daniel Curzon, From Violent Men
- Ed Diamond, Ed Dean is Queer
- Ed Diamond, Second Crossing
- Judy Grahn (ed), True Life Adventure Stories
- Levi Kamel, Studies in Sadomasochism
- Kevin Esser, Streetboy Dreams
- Erskine Lane, Game Texts
- Tony Manotta, Forty Deuce
- Boyd McDonald (ed), Cum, Flesh, Sex
- Larry Mirchell, Terminal Bar
- Gordon Merrick, One for the Gods
- Paul Monette, Taking Care of Mrs Carroll
- Emily Sisley & Bertha Harris, The Joy of Lesbian Sex
- Richard Steveson, Deathtrick
- Carter Wilson, Treasures on Earth
The final confiscation was a quarterly periodical called Common Lives, Lesbian Lives published in Iowa City from 1980 until 1996. The wider list, which results from the full series of seizures, included works by Gore Vidal, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Oscar Wilde, as well as Victorian and Edwardian texts by writers such as Edward Carpenter. These were almost all available in other editions – such was the silliness of the custom’s legislation being used – it dates from 1876.
In total, there were three raids on Gay’s the Word or stock bound for the bookshop in 1984, with almost one hundred and fifty titles (out of eight hundred seized), the equivalent of more than two thousand books and magazines, forming the basis of the court case. Combined value: more than £8,000. The bookshop’s eight directors, a member of staff, and Ed Hermance, the owner of Giovanni’s Room, were named as ‘co-conspirators’ and prosecuted. The court case began in 1985. All of the twists and turns were reported in the American and Canadian gay press: hardly surprising, of course. In addition to reporting on events, the LGBT movements in America and Canada took an active part in the Defend Gay’s the Word campaign raising funds to support the legal effort. In the spring of 1985, LGBT bookstores across America held readings and other events to raise money – these included at A Different Light in Los Angeles, which raised more than $2,500, at A Brother’s Touch in Minneapaolis, and at the Walt Whitman bookstore in San Francisco (which became a regular fundraiser through 1985 and 1986 – including one with Maupin in July 1985). Similar events were held in Canada, too, notably at the Glad Day Books store in Toronto. When magistrates determined that the case should proceed to trial by jury, these fundraisers became ever more substantial.
The Los Angeles fundraiser, out of interest, was held at the Variety Arts Theatre in downtown Los Angeles and involved poetry and prose readings, music, and raffles of some quite prestigious prizes including novels signed Christopher Isherwood and the memoirs of Quentin Crisp, paperback copies of John Rechy’s City of Night, and a pair of the artist Don Bachardy’s paint-spattered jeans. That last apparently ‘inspired eager bidding’! Not to be outdone, in June 1986, the Modern Times bookstore in San Francisco held a series of ‘open book’ literary readings featuring writers including Armistead Maupin, who read from his 1987 novel Significant Others. The organiser of the Modern Times events, Tede Matthews, explained to the Bay Area Reporter that the Defend Gay’s the Word Campaign pointed to the need for vigilance. ‘Gay rights issues have taken a back burner to the AIDS crisis’, he said, ‘yet as shown by what’s happening to Gay’s the Word, gay literature is still suffering from attack and censorship; gay journals are in trouble. It’s important for us to be aware of what’s happening in other countries, especially since our words are not getting in’. Indeed, Giovanni’s Room, the Philadelphia bookstore responsible for exporting most of the seized books and magazines, suffered the loss of a third of its export income. At the time it was the primary exporter of lesbian and gay literature from the US to the UK.
In the event, of course, the case against Gay’s the Word was eventually dropped in the summer of 1986, with all but nineteen of the books returned – the only stipulation being that Gay’s the Word not import them again. The titles not allowed back onto the shelves included Mitch Walker’s Men Loving Men, Jack Morin’s Men Loving Themselves, and the novels of Phil Andros. As in decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland, it had been the intervention of the European courts which made the difference. A ruling on 27 June 1986 in relation to importation of goods from the continent, such as Gai Pied, to the effect that it contravened the rules of the Common Market, made proceeding with the primary case against Gay’s the Word much more difficult. It hardly needs repeating, in this era of Brexit, that the European courts really did make a difference in upholding the civil rights of LGBT people in Thatcher’s Britain. And in the US? Well, this letter from one activist from California perhaps underscores the anxiety there: ‘We are convinced that these kinds of attacks can take place in the USA, especially with 4 more years of Reagan’.
The Oscar Wilde Memorial bookstore closed in 2009, albeit having survived Craig Rodwell by more than fifteen years, Giovanni’s Room followed in 2014. Gay’s the Word, which is younger, of course, has outlasted them. Both American icons played a major role in shaping their British counterpart: Paud Hegarty, who in 1985 became manager of the shop and remained there until 1997, and whose badges were so memorably recovered not long ago, spent several weeks at Giovanni’s Room early on learning the tricks of their trade. The café and the piano may have long gone (although the former did at least make it to the 1990s) and Pride turned into something very different; the need for such a beacon has not. And that spirit and idealism of early gay liberation, encapsulated not only in alternative media, literature, music, and marches, but in bookshops and community spaces, lives on too. To coin a phrase: the (queer) readers, united, will never be defeated.