As cliche as it sounds, books are glimpses into new worlds. Gateways to explore, get to know, and fall in love with characters. So if books are glimpses into new worlds, entering a bookshop is like pushing that door wide open. Standing in a bookshop you are standing on the precipice of all these worlds.
What is it like then when you don’t see yourself represented in these worlds, and then when you walk into a bookshop you have to hunt through the shelves to find the odd book which may represent some aspect of your identity?
For members of the LGBTQ+ community, bookshops are extra special.
Section 28, the 1988 act which banned the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ was ‘launched’ by a children’s book, Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin.
The book (originally published in Danish, where it did not face any backlash), tells the story of five-year-old Jenny who lives with her father Martin and his boyfriend Eric as they go about their day-day to life. First published in the UK in 1983 by the Gay Men’s Press, it is known as the first English-language children’s book to discuss same-sex male relationships.
This act limited the books available to both adults and children, sending a message that books and bookshops were not the safe places they were meant to be.
However, this has always been something that has been fought against. Gay is the Word, the oldest LGBTQ+ bookshop in the UK has been open since 1979. They have campaigned to make bookshops a safe space for the entire LGBTQ+ community.
Thankfully, in 2023, there are LGBTQ+ bookshops up and down the country. In an era where e-books, audiobooks, and shopping online are increasingly popular, these bookshops continue to thrive as physical spaces where people feel seen and safe.
My local store (which I visit quite a lot, much to the upset of my bank account) is The Bookish Type in the Merrion Centre in Leeds. Subconsciously I’d always known I like women but I read a lot of straight romance books and as I had never seen myself represented, it took me a long time to come out.
And that lack of representation is why, when I first came out, it felt like I was grieving the futures I had read about.
Walking into a store that had shelves overflowing with queer stories across all genres changed everything. Seeing books where women can fall in love and get their happy ending was magical.
Ray Larman and Nic Hargrave who run the shop began by running pop-up book stalls before opening a physical store in 2020.
Ray explained that they were “inspired by places like Gay’s The Word and Housmans in London, and also Category Is Books which is an amazing queer bookshop in Glasgow.”
Although they were nervous about whether people would come to the store, they have had a ‘fantastic response’. Ray went on to emphasise the community of bookshops “has been great to see there’s been a flourishing of other queer, radical and feminist indie bookshops opening in the last few years all around the UK.”
It is not just the booksellers who benefit from the growth of queer bookshops, it is also the local community. Over at The Bookish Type you can buy zines and other artworks by local queer artists.
Ray elaborated on why they do this: “It’s important to give local queer artists a platform to show the range of talent that is out there and to encourage other people to start being creative. It’s part of being community focused and having a genuine commitment to seeing your community thrive.”
Kaye 19, a student at the University of York and a regular visitor of LGBTQ+ bookshops, highlighted how important these spaces are, explaining that when she visits a store she feels “happy. I feel peaceful and comfortable. It’s like a breath of fresh air.”
Unfortunately, it is not always plain sailing.
I spoke to Fionn and Charlotte from Category is Books in Glasgow about the difficulties they faced: “We were wildly unsuccessful in accessing any funding support to set up – funders would often say there was not a large enough audience for queer books.”
Thankfully, they were not deterred: “We were lucky to find a shop space in our neighbourhood and spent the summer of 2018 DIY-ing it up ourselves which was a lot of fun.”
It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that funders couldn’t see the potential of an LGBTQ+ bookshop in the local area.
According to Stonewall, 54% of lesbian gay and bi people and 53% of trans people feel like they cannot be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity to everyone in their family. This is why having a physical space where you can live as your true self is so vital.
Many cities have an LGBTQ+ nightlife scene or at least ‘gay nights’ (shout out to the Flares in York for my first-ever gay night experience).
These are incredibly fun and important nights, but as Claire*, a student from the University of York explains: “It’s quite nice and important to have non-alcoholic settings that maybe aren’t as sexually charged so that quieter queers can come together, or younger queers can find a space for themselves.”
Bookshops are places for quieter reflection and communication that are vital for people of all ages to come together.
Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is at its core joining an accepting and loving community of people. Whether you’re newly out or completely comfortable in your identity we can all help and learn from each other.
However, these spaces are sometimes under threat as Fionn and Charlotte explain:
“We do get backlash sometimes, but try to deal with this with as camp an attitude as possible.
“For example, when some local terfs were consistently photographing us through the front door for a while, we covered the door windows in photographs of hot gay naked butts. Queer power.”
Whilst it is heartbreaking to see that these spaces that promote inclusivity and acceptance do face hate, it is heartwarming to see that they persevere and continue to serve their community.
The Bookish Type in Leeds run Queer History tours of Leeds, Second-Hand Sundays, and Bookish strolls, and Category is Books keep their shop open into the evening for community events, everything from book readings, book clubs, queer yoga, and film screenings.
Both stores also operate a pay-it-forward scheme, where you can donate money to help make queer books more accessible.
Queer bookshops do so much good for the community around them. There is perhaps a misconception that in 2023 it is completely safe to be out, but unfortunately, this isn’t true.
In 2020/21 there were 26,152 sexual orientation hate crimes reported by the police in England and Wales, this obviously doesn’t take into account all the unreported incidents yet this number is still way too high.
The LGBTQ+ community deserves safe spaces, where they feel seen and represented and bookshops fill that space. This is why in a world where it is so easy to avoid a bookshop and access books online, there will always be a space for an LGBTQ+ bookshop on the high street.