This Thing Called Courage

Monday, March 26, 2007

Britain's Only Gay Bookstore Struggling to Survive

Britain's only gay bookshop faces threat of closure

By Louise Jury, Arts Correspondent
Published: 24 March 2007

Its fans claim it is far more than just a bookshop. Since Gay's the Word - the UK's only dedicated lesbian and gay bookshop - opened in 1979, it has acted as a social centre, information service and advice shop.
But the store on Marchmont Street, central London, is having to rally supporters, led by the literary heavyweights Sarah Waters, Edmund White and Ali Smith, after fewer visitors and falling revenue put its future at risk. Jim MacSweeney, the manager who has worked there since 1989, said: "We're an institution so people assume we're there forever. But if people don't use us, we won't be."
With reserves depleted, a board meeting heard last month that, if the shop carried on making losses at the current level, it would have to close within two months. A decision had to be taken on whether to shut down or go public and hope that saviours would ride to the rescue. They chose the latter route.
The valiant determination to press on is already seeing results - though with a long way to go to secure the £20,000 needed to stay open. "We've only just started writing to big names but already we have raised £3,500 by people sponsoring shelves. And people who haven't been here in ages have been coming in and buying books," said Mr MacSweeney. "Sales have doubled - and yesterday they were three times what they had been."
Turnover was running at around £160,000 a year until the bombings of 7 July 2005 when the shop's proximity to Tavistock Square, where a bus was blown up, hit takings by 14 per cent. "We only just cover our costs and make a small profit, so this had a huge effect on the business," said Mr MacSweeney. "Never mind that independent bookshops are struggling generally."
Its stock normally covers books that the mainstream stores do not cover, including imports from America. But when income fell, it became harder to maintain the kind of new and interesting stock which encouraged people to come back.
Yet the social function always remained. A lesbian discussion group meets every Wednesday evening and Mr MacSweeney spent part of yesterday talking to the mother of a 14-year-old boy who wanted advice.
Jake Arnott, 45, the author of The Long Firm and Johnny Come Home, said it was the advisory function as much as the literary one that would be missed if the shop were to close. "It would be terrible if Gay's the Word goes," he said. "It's a fantastic bookshop and it belongs there. Marchmont Street would lose something without it. Given the current circumstances for independent bookshops, it might be gone forever and there aren't any other solely lesbian and gay bookshops in the country.
"But it's so much more important than just a retail outlet in terms of people having somewhere they can go to find out [about lesbian and gay matters]. Sometimes going into a bar isn't a very warm and friendly experience. The social act of going into a bookshop and finding a book about oneself can be important."
For Mr Arnott's generation, Gay's the Word acted as an important political focus given that they grew up in a time when gay rights were under attack from measures such as the Section 28 legislation.
"If you see London now, people forget there was ever any kind of trouble. They forget that, if it hadn't been for Gay's the Word, they wouldn't be going to clubs and having such a good time," he said. "I think it should be subsidised by the Government."


Blogger berlinorama said...

Oh gosh, I do hope they manage to get the money they need together. Gay's the Word was a favorite hangout of mine in 1979-80 when I lived in London for a year. They had great readings back then and discussion evenings, and attracted all sorts of eccentric and delightful characters.

8:31 AM  
Blogger BiscuitsBoy said...

Hi Pam!
Somehow I had the feeling you had been to this place, you world travler, you! Good for you! I can almost see it in my mind's eye-- what a shame we live in a world where bookstores are struggling, but the money for illegal wars just keeps on coming by the billions and half-trillions....

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Lunette said...

People should read this.

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