For the past seven years it has been my task to take that unique and special institution, Gay’s the Word, and help steer it through some fairly rocky times. I remember when the shop was in the grips of its financial crisis in 2007 and the local authority landlord decided to increase the rent dramatically. It was a really lean time – there was this sort of precarious lingering tension. The empty jaws of closure loomed. There was even some uncertainty as to whether the bookstore had served its purpose and it was just time to simply shut-up-shop. It looked like I might be getting a front row seat to the last days of the last British lesbian and gay bookshop.
One day a young Greek kid walked in who had just been kicked out of home for being gay. I think he was around fifteen or so. He’d been to a well-known chain looking for a book to help him deal with his sexuality, and everything that was going on, and had been ushered to a shelf behind a stairwell somewhere containing some gay erotic fiction then had a copy of the Gay Kama Sutra thrust into his hands. At this he’d taken a step backwards, knocked over a huge pile of books, and then ran out of the place in sheer embarrassment. Then he’d found out about Gay’s the Word.
We talked to him about what was going on, his family’s response, how he was feeling, then showed him the books from our Coming-Out section and referred him to some agencies that might be able to help. As this beautiful and brave young man was leaving the shop he turned round to shake my hand and thank me for my help. He looked straight into my eyes and – I’ll never forget the words – said “thank you so much for existing”. I know it was that one moment that really galvanised me to go on and rally the community to save the bookshop.
I set up a rescue-plan meeting with Tim Teeman, the Times Arts Correspondent, who kindly said yes to helping me devise a shop survival strategy. I put together a press release about a shelf-sponsorship fund-raising initiative I called ‘Cash for Honours’, generating thousands of pounds in donations from customers, authors and shop supporters (there’s a plaque in the shop that names each and every one of them) … and the shop, for the time-being at least, was saved.
It is that young man, and the countless other people who the bookshop has nurtured over the last 34 years, that gives my passion for Gay’s the Word a sense of purpose. They give me the certainty that when I leave the shop to go onto a new job, its future will be secure, and that I had the opportunity to do at least one really worthwhile thing in my life. And I am genuinely grateful to the shop for that, because I’m the one really getting something precious out of it. But that’s just the shop all over, really; it gives to everyone without you realising just how much.
When I’ve not been ordering books, putting up shelves, laying carpet or helping customers, I’ve been working to rebuild the shop systems from the inside, making them stronger, building the shop’s confidence, making it more profitable and focused; believing in a vision of the bookshop’s future vitality until it and everybody else believes it too. I guess working in the shop has made me pretty single-minded, but when you are working to preserve the existence of such a kind and marvellous place you are not often in doubt about what motivates you.
I’ve learned that no matter how good-natured something may be, without growth you get stagnation. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what the bookshop needed to evolve: a great transactional and interactive website. But the challenge has been how to achieve one without having any money – that’s any money at all. In truth, this encapsulates my mission at the shop; how do you invest in the future of Gay’s the Word without any resources? However ‘blah blah’ it may sound, the simply answer is vision, ambition, determination, and – most importantly of all – the kindness of others.
I met Kenneth Hill, a London-based American social media specialist and independent LGBT bookshop fan three years ago. As a customer who was keenly aware of the sad demise of a number of independent gay bookshops in the US, he wanted to help and offered the benefit of his expertise and contacts. Over the last 36 months this kind and thoughtful man has giving up hour upon hour of his time to advise me on establishing what is now a much loved Gay’s the Word social media platform on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. His dedication knows no bounds. For example, when I got a place on a retailing scholarship run by the British Shops and Store’s Association at Oxford, it was Kenneth who leant me some business suits to wear so I wouldn’t feel out of place because I didn’t have any of my own. On the scholarship I learned everything I could about on-line retailing. Devising a social media platform was to be merely the first part of a greater strategy for the shop’s on-line web-development.
Kenneth will continue working with us on a pro bono basis over the coming months on not only our social media strategy, but also delivering on a promise he made to us: to get Gays the Word a web site worthy of the 21st century. Kenneth – who used to be a fundraiser at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and was also managing editor for AOL’S LGBT site for many years – approached a prominent UK design firm with a simple request: could they donate a bespoke web site project for Gays the Word. The company, Ledgard Jepson www.ledgardjepson.com , said yes.
Ledgard Jepson, a Sheffield-based branding, digital, marketing and PR agency, have to their credit the foresight and humanity to run a small number of good-will projects each year. The cost of the kind of sophisticated e-commerce web site we are going to have far exceeds anything we would have been able to afford. It’s a revolutionary moment for us. As part of the project, we had to find money for some minimal design costs (keep your eye out for our new retro logo and branding!), which I was able to raise from of a few kind patrons.
Over the last seven years I’ve worked hard to make Gay’s the Word a stronger vessel, a ship that knows where it is going and the best way to get there. I’ve tried to make every penny we have work harder for us, and at the same time never compromise the unique original character of the shop, the very thing that makes it what it is. We’ve had to navigate successive rent increases, the economic downturn, not to mention the odd brick through the window or homophobic comment from passers-by. Through it all I’ve learned in a very real way that without believing that you can achieve something, it is much more likely that you won’t. And that if you do, and are fortunate to have access to the pools of support and faith that Gay’s the Word is privileged enough to have in its customers, well then, there is no reason why you can’t save the shop, see the baddies brought to justice, get the hot guy, and ride off into the sunset . Despite my sexuality I’ve always been naturally dubious about fairy-tale endings. But one thing I’m sure of is that I’m not going to stop until I feel that glowing sense of satisfaction that we did good and that future generations of the LGBT community will have access to a great physical and on-line bookshop because of it.
But as I write this the challenges for the bookshop are far from over. Will the web-site bring revenue into the shop? Or will people just look up the range of titles that we’ve worked so hard to collate and review and then simply cross over to Amazon and buy them there? Perhaps some people will, yes. But there will also be those who believe in the shop – hopefully people like you – who know the when they buy a book or a DVD or even a greeting card or magazine from the shop (even if it’s only once a year) they are investing in the presence and future of an institution that had the nerve to open in 1979 when gay and lesbian books weren’t available and make them available. An institution that, after the shop closes to customers in the evenings, runs and hosts support groups for people coming out or to terms with their identity. An institution that has gently nurtured the queer community along for decades and shared thousands and thousands of fascinating books and ideas about LGBT life, culture and perspective. A place full of laughter, joy and interested, interesting people. Given the choice – and it is good that we have a choice – I know where I would spend my money.
In anticipation of the launch of the new web-site there are very easy and simple things we can all do to give it the best chance of working. One of the biggest challenges the shop has is visibility. Based in Russell Square’s Bloomsbury we are well off the well-trodden Soho path. While the new site will make us available to everyone with access to a computer they still have to know that we exist to do so. So please, please share this article with every gay, lesbian, trans and straight person you know and ask them to friend us on Facebook www.facebook.com/gaystheword or follow us on twitter www.twitter.com/gaystheword
The shop was set by the LGBT community for the LGBT community – directors are unpaid, all of the staff work on modest salaries, and the shop operates on a tight budget, pouring profits back into improvements and operations. So, if you are passionate about keeping a place like Gays the Word alive and have a few notes burning a hole in your wallet, we need funding. Help us upgrade our equipment, refit the shop, update our signage, and create an even more welcoming community hub in helping us realize a new cafe, art gallery, and reading-room. Don’t be shy, and give me a bell.
On behalf of Gay’s the Word and everybody who it means special something to, thank you.
In December 2011 Gay’s the Word was voted one of the top-100 shops in London by Time Out Magazine, who described it as ‘truly a fine example of how an independent bookshop should be.’
The new Gay’s the Word website will launch in the Spring of 2012.