May 11, 2007
Volume 35
Issue 19
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Monday, Mar 30, 2020



General Gayety by Leslie Robinson
One for the books
by Leslie Robinson - SGN A&E Writer

I'd read in the American Gay press that Britain's only Gay and Lesbian bookstore was facing a future as bleak as Anne Boleyn's. Since I planned to visit London shortly, I knew I had to scope out the place.

Near the British Museum and the University of London, at 66 Marchmont St. in Bloomsbury, I found Gay's The Word. Should any passerby confuse that name with "Grease is the word," there's further explanation on the storefront: "Lesbian & Gay Bookshop."

In the window, along with books, were four articles about the shop's potentially imminent demise. Gay's The Word is experiencing the same problems so familiar to American Gay bookstores, like online book-buying, the growth of chain bookstores, and rising rents.

The shop, in business for 28 years, has also seen a unique challenge. The bombings of July 7, 2005, happened nearby, and led to a drop in sales. Presumably this byproduct of their handiwork would tickle the bombers, were they alive to enjoy it.

I entered the store to one of the Gayest sounds on the planet, the warbling of Madonna. She crooned her hits until she had some sort of seizure and was replaced by Kate Bush.

I scanned the books, divided into sections like "Detective Fiction," "Biography," "Coming Out, Sex & Relationships," "Erotic Fiction," "History" and "Marriage/Civil Partnerships." There were also DVD's, cards, magazines and used books.

Quite the Gay-intensive experience. If I didn't live 6,000 miles away, I'd have asked for a job.

The entrance featured a notice board and loads of pamphlets, as well as free magazines and newspapers. Outside, people hardly broke stride as they leaned through the front door and grabbed publications. I know-twice I had to shimmy out of the way.

At the register, a letter to patrons of the bookstore explained why the place is in trouble and what people can do about it. Buying books is the most obvious solution. The most creative is sponsoring a shelf, what the store calls its "Cash For Honours" program. Hand over 100 pounds (about $190) and you're officially listed as a "Friend of Gay's The Word."

And before anyone could say "God save the queens," people responded. Manager Jim MacSweeney told me, "It's going in a very good way."

With major newspapers running quotes from prominent authors like Sarah Waters extolling the shop's significance, and customers telling him how much they appreciate Gay's The Word, MacSweeney said the acclaim of the last six weeks has been like "having your obituary before you're dead."

The strokes are good, and so is the money. "It's given us some breathing space to look at options," he said.

So at least in 2007 Gay's The Word can continue to sell books, hold readings, host groups, dispense information and be a touchstone for both the novice and veteran Queer. The shop faced its Waterloo, and once again the British won. For now, anyway.

MacSweeney told me of being on the phone recently with a guy ordering titles from the teen list. MacSweeney asked how he wanted to pay. The fellow responded hang on, I'll put my mum on the phone now.

I loved that story, as mushy as that English favorite, mushy peas.

Wanting to do my bit, I inspected the "Lesbian Fiction" section for something to buy. The whole shop is loaded with American offerings, but I thought a local book would be appropriate. I chose The Patterned Flute, billed as "a very British tale of Lesbian romance with action shadowed by cynicism, heartbreak and lust."

Romance? Lust? Doesn't matter if you're English or American or Peruvian, those are words to suck in any Lesbian reader.

Leslie Robinson is seriously put off by the very idea of mushy peas. E-mail her at, and read other columns at

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