I decided to take the bus today. I had time to kill, a book to read, and a headache creeping up, the reminder of that third glass of wine from yesterday.
The sky was a darker shade of grey when I looked up, and I was near Kings Cross. I checked the time on the screen of my phone, took a deep inhale, and pressed the stop button.
I got off and made my way across the street and into the British Library. I went to the ground floor cafe, queued for a lemon and poppyseed cake, took my latte in a paper cup, and found a table in the corner. I sat in the admittedly uncomfortable chair and turned my phone off.
About two hours later, when my cup was almost empty and my plate licked clean, I decided it was time for a walk. I gulped down the rest of my coffee, got up and wrapped my scarf around my neck as I was walking towards the exit. I knew where I was headed.
I started walking towards the Brunswick centre. I used to live close about 4 years ago, so I knew the streets and shops relatively well. A few more steps, and I would stand in front one of the most important shops in LGBT British identity. And, sure enough, there it was.
Sandwiched between an Internet Cafe and a spa, Gay’s the Word looks a little out of place; a little queer. The blue sign, the wooden frames, the charm that it exudes making it look like it just appeared out of nowhere. If there ever was a gay version of Harry Potter, this would definitely be the Ollivanders Wand shop.
Greeted by a bell on the door and a warm smile at the counter, GTW can not disappoint. It is a literal literary tardis, housing in a relatively small space a plethora of LGBT work: in its shelves, one can find the latest queer studies, academic work, non-fiction, fiction, magazines, DVDs, postcards and small gifts (for others; or yourself; or bought for others, but kept by self).
The space’s relaxed atmosphere is partly due to the clever layout and quirky interior, but mostly to the mesmerising presence of Jim Macsweeney. Cool blue eyes and a knowing smile, Jim greets people that walk in as if they used to know each other from a different past, a different life. He radiates a disarming warmth, his face lighting up when talking about the space, the events, the customers.
I tell him about the first time I saw the store. It was my first year in London, and everything seemed so vast, so chaotic. Apart from my conviction that it was really cool to wear only red and black when going out (the delusions of youth), and that Topman was the centre of the universe (the source of the delusions of youth), I was pretty lost. I was out to my friends from home, but as I was making myself at home here, I did not know where the outside was. I was walking down the street from my student halls with my Sainsbury’s bags, and there I saw it. I stopped; walked past it; stopped; went back to it; inhaled; and walked in.
You see, like for many GTW customers, visiting this shop was a small brick to building my gay identity. It is not a badly lit bookshelf in the corner of a sex shop. It is not a pile of books next to displays of double dildos. It is an actual bookshop, a place where it is ok to be out: out in public; out in press; out in writing; out to the world. I bought a couple of books, went to my room, and read them at the same night, sat on the green rug next my bed, my phone on silent, my eyes sponges soaking up all the words. Since then, I would visit the store almost every month: from my AXM and Attitude copies, to references for my MSc dissertation, I knew I would find everything I wanted there.
Jim smiles. He tells me how the customer age group ranges from 16-85, and how just the other day, two young guys came in the store; the more confident was bringing the novice to browse. We started talking about the importance of a bookshop like this one in the normalising process, and he told me that after 32 years, GTW is the only remaining LGBT bookshop in the UK. Not surprisingly, it was in the Top 50 Independent Bookstores list, and was shortlisted for the Best Bookshop of the Year Award.
What really impressed me though is the unyielding positivity that Jim has. ‘Yes, customers are happy, we are happy, sales are great, everything is fine!’ he says. I look at him suspiciously. ‘What about ebooks?’ I say, ‘surely that must worry you. It is worrying most of the publishing world for their future’. Jim looks at me cryptically, tilts his head and says ‘I prefer to stay in the present. We have survived a lot of other things, and I am sure we will survive this one; ebooks can be something we can look for the future, but for now, life is good as it is.’
A constant LGBT presence, it must be a bit unnerving for him to see popular outlets like Waterstones and HMV to have a G&L section now, after GTW gave a fight for all the years that these stores would never commission LGBT literature. ‘Not at all’ he says, ‘I actually think it is brilliant. It makes LGBT literature visible. It makes it accessible. I would much rather prefer young people walking in their local Waterstones in Cardiff and finding LGBT material available’. He smiles. I am amazed, and a little speechless.
Here is a man and a store that have survived 32 years open, during which they have had their shares of threats and misfortunes, from rent raises to political boycotting. Even after all this, they choose not to be bitter, or miserable, or short-sighted. They choose to celebrate life. They stuck with it when the going was tough, and even if people do not necessarily realise it as they dance in clubs, or hold hands in public, or tell their colleagues they are gay, we owe a lot to this little store.
We close our discussion with talks about community: apart from a weekly Lesbian Discussion Group and monthly Trans Discussion Group, they now have a monthly LGBT Book Club, discussing works that are not necessarily under the LGBT umbrella. And if all this was not enough, Jim tells me how excited he is about the March events, and the work that GTW customers can explore:
First, the fascinating work of psychiatrist and criminologist Donald J West, who 55 years after publishing Homosexuality, can write openly as a gay man about his own experience of marrying a ‘deviant’ sexuality with a ‘mainstream’ career. The event centres around his new book Gay Life, Straight Work (01/03/2012, 19:00-21:00), and is absolutely free.
Then, the new and exciting voice of Justin Torres, in his new coming of age debut novel We the Animals (22/03/2012, 19:00-21:00, £2 entry); and Patrick Gale’s sold out event for his new book A perfectly Good Man. If you want signed copies of the books but can not make it to the events, fret not: just drop them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and they will find a way to make it happen.
LGBT History Month is almost over. I read a lot of material on the press, about the adversity and difficulties we go though. The discrimination, the pain. I have felt it as well. I know what it feels like, the taste it leaves in your mouth. I know how important it is to put it out there. You know that. However, I think that once it is out there, it is even more important to show the next step. The step of acceptance. The step of moving on. Of celebrating life. Of focusing on the positive. Of looking at the world through rose tinted glasses, that you chose to wear on a cloudy afternoon.
I have mine on now; and the world looks a little bit magnificent.