I lived in New York in 1968-9, and I became very friendly with Craig Rodwell, who’d recently opened the first gay bookshop in the US, The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, in Greenwich Village. In the early ‘60s, Craig had an affair with Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected to public office in California. Craig is credited with radically influencing Milk’s politics, and he certainly influenced mine. His example inspired me to try and create a similar bookshop in London. At that time, finding lesbian and gay literature was extremely difficult. Finally, in the late 1970s, with the financial input of Peter Dorey, I put together a small portable collection and moved around gay venues selling books. This culminated in the week long Gay Sweatshop Gay Times Festival at The Drill Hall in 1978, and the decision that a permanent base was needed. We were looking for somewhere central but cheap and I found out that Camden Council had some empty shops in Marchmont Street due to the cancellation of the second phase of the Brunswick Centre. I applied for the lease of one with no response. I discovered, through a gay friend who worked for the council, that the officers were not taking it seriously – my surname, Hole, being the reason for that. I was advised to get in touch with one Ken Livingstone, not famous at that time, who was a councillor there. A word from him and they hurriedly changed their tune and offered me No 66.
I was living with Steve Martin at that time and we had a pure white Pyrenean mountain dog, Oscar, who became kind of a shop mascot. The two of us, with enthusiastic helpers, stripped the place bare and furnished it with tables and chairs – in those early days we ran a thriving café – and tried to fill the shelves with our meagre stock of books. No one had ever opened a place so up-front gay on the street before – the name alone was enough – and we were worried about vandalism, if not direct attack. The shop windows had no protection, and so Steve and I, plus eight stone of dog, decided to sleep in the shop the opening night. All was peaceful in Bloomsbury but friends, returning home to our house in London’s East Greenwich, phoned to say that the East Greenwich Gasworks had exploded. So Gay’s The Word opened with a bang courtesy of the Provisional IRA.
I stole the name from Ivor Novello! It was sufficiently up-front and tripped lightly off the tongue. Novello (1893-1951) was a very successful composer of musicals, and flamboyantly homosexual. Among his lovers was Siegfried Sassoon. In 1951 he presented his last work, Gay’s the Word, a backstage musical starring Cicely Courtneidge (1893-1980). It ran for over 500 performances at the Saville Theatre. The Gay in the title was the name of a character, but Novello was no innocent and, in homosexual circles, the word had been in common usage since the 1930s (and probably earlier). In his harrowing autobiographical book about the Michael Pitt-Rivers, Lord Montagu affair, Against the Law, published in 1955, Peter Wildeblood remarks, “Most of the officers had been “gay’ … an American euphemism for homosexual”.
The bookshop rapidly became what I had always wanted it to be – a meeting place as well as an information point for lesbians and gay men, who were tempted by the ever increasing stock, good coffee and home-made cake. I remember a famous, closeted, writer/actor from a classic radio soap. I remember Andrew Hodge taking breaks from writing his marvellous biography of Alan Turing, runaway teenagers seeking refuge, the director of the new discotheque Heaven seeking advice. Friendships and relationships were formed; heated discussions took place. There was a piano, and we usually had entertainment on Thursday nights – when Mark Bunyan performed his gay repertoire, it was standing room only! In the summer of 1979 we were honoured to lead the tenth anniversary Gay Pride march. And every month we had more stock including an expanding selection of second-hand classics supplied by Jonathan Cutbill. Foreign imports began to arrive.
Gay’s The Word gets ever better. It must be the longest running lesbian and gay bookshop in Europe, after Prinz Eisenherz in Berlin, with probably the most comprehensive collection of LGBTQ books in the world – The Oscar Wilde Bookshop, sadly, finally closed in 2009. Things have changed since those early days but GtW remains vital, a cornerstone of the gay community. It should be a source of pride for us all. I am certainly proud of it and my part in it.
Gay’s The Word Bookshop
66, Marchmont Street
Tel: 0207 278 7654
Visit the Gay’s the Word Website