It was a love affair, carried out by letters and parcels, though the love was all on my side. I would wait, with both excitement and anticipation, for each new delivery, some of which would take weeks to arrive.
Aged eighteen, in suburban Liverpool, in the early 1980s, I had little chance of finding any queer literature. The big chain bookshops in the city centre only sold bestsellers and mainstream books. The independent bookshops sold the same bestsellers and sentimental books on local history. I was starved for any gay literature; I was desperate for anything that reflected my sexuality, which showed me how gay life was lived. I would search the Central Library, Liverpool’s large city centre library, for any books with gay content, even if they were just minor characters or slight themes. I read so many offensive and homophobic books in that search.
Almost by accident I fell upon a copy of Gay Times magazine, it was tucked away amongst the top shelf porn magazines in a rundown newsagent up near Liverpool’s two cathedrals. Almost with a nervous twitch, I bought it. It was only when I got it home and I was safely on my own that I started reading it.
What leapt out at me, amongst all the other things within its pages, was a mail order service from the Gay’s The Word bookshop in London. They offered only gay books, several of which were mentioned elsewhere in the magazine.
With excitement, I filled out the order form, choosing two novels, writing a cheque to pay for them, sealing it all up in an envelope and posting it off. Then I waited. Nearly two weeks later, my parcel arrived, wrapped in plain paper, and inside were my two new novels. With glee I started to read both of them right away, ignoring all the other books I’d been reading.
Soon this became my routine, each month I would send off my order and wait for my parcel of books to arrive. The anticipation of waiting for those books was sometimes greater than the thrill of receiving them, but I was always excited when my parcel arrived.
At first, I ordered gay romantic novels, stories where handsome men would meet and fall in love, eventually living happily ever after. They were fantasies, but I wanted that fantasy. I was deeply closeted, living in a strongly homophobic environment, and those romantic novels held the hope that one day I could find a lover and live happily ever after. I lapped them up, even with their poor plots and stereotyped characters.
As the months passed by, though, my tastes began to expand. Gay’s The Word made book recommendations and Gay Times had its own book review section. I started to read contemporary gay novels, discovered the crime novels of Joseph Hanson (his portrait of California was so different from that of Hollywood), novels of gay life in 1980s England, and many coming out stories.
I also began to read non-fiction books, I started with self-help books on how to be a Happy Homosexual but I soon moved away from them because of their very simplistic views. Quickly I moved on to biographies and historical studies of gay life. What did it mean to be gay in Victorian London? What was the Gay Liberation Front? Was there a gay scene before 1960? I read all those books with a voracious appetite. This was a world that had been hidden away from me.
As those books kept arriving for me, I began to wonder where they were coming from. What did the Gay’s The Word bookshop look like? It must have been a huge bookshop judging by the variety of stock they carried. I imagined that it stretched over several floors of a big, brightly light book superstore; all smooth, laminated bookshelves, polished floors and assistants who all wore name badges telling the world who they were. I imagined it was a great palace of gay literature, where I could simply lose myself in the pleasure of buying a book.
At nineteen, I began to explore the tiny gay scene that Liverpool had to offer back then. Even as I did this, I still relied on those parcels of books from Gay’s The Word. Those books were still such a large part of my life. They were my main entertainment, but they also offered me information and consoled me when my adventures in gay life flat-lined.
At twenty-one, I finally moved to London. Ever since I’d started receiving my parcels of books, it had been my dream to move to London and finally throw myself one hundred percent into gay life. That dream had been created and fuelled by the books I’d read, so many of them had portrayed London as the centre of gay life in Britain, the San Francisco of British gay culture.
The reality of London both lived up to my dream but also disappointed me; so many things were different from what I’d imagined them to be. But London was also where Gay’s The Word had their bookshop, in the heart of Bloomsbury. Even its location sounded literary.
I didn’t rush to Gay’s The Word the moment I arrived in London; I didn’t have the opportunity. It was a month later that I was actually able to visit the shop.
One Saturday lunchtime, I took a tube train to Russell Square and walked the short distance from there to Gay’s The Word. When I found the shop, on a street made up of Victorian buildings with a large 1970s block of flats dominating one end of it, I was shocked at what I saw. I wasn’t mistaken, this was the right shop, its name was clearly on display above the plate glass window that covered its tiny frontage, but it was so small. It was tiny. It was as small as so many of the shops squeezed onto many of London’s streets. It was no bigger than the newsagent where I bought my morning newspaper.
It wasn’t the huge gay book superstore I’d imagined it to be. It was a tiny, dusty London bookshop, like so many others across the city. It wasn’t the glorious palace I’d imagined it to be. It was another of the disappointments I found in London. But this was a gay bookshop and I was running out of reading material, so I went inside.
Inside, though, was a different world, an Aladdin’s treasure cave of books. Though small, miles of wooden shelves had been squeezed into there, all filled to bursting with different books. The mail order service had had a wide range of books, but the shop itself was bursting full of different ones. I’d never have imagined there could be so many different lesbian and gay books in one place, let alone that so many had been published.
I was so excited, almost too excited to know what to do. So I simply started at one end of the shop and worked my way round to the other end of it, looking at every book I found. I was lost in the most perfect world to me, a world of books.
Gay’s The Word wasn’t the shiny, laminated bookstore I’d imagined; it was crowded and cramped, with dusty wooden shelves that were overstuffed with books. It was perfect though and I fell in love with it in that first moment I stepped inside. It was full of the widest range of queer books, journals and magazines; I was in heaven.
On that first visit there I stayed twice as long as I meant to and spent three times as much as I had intended to, but I didn’t care.
I’ve returned there many times, but how could I not when they love books as much as I do.
(I originally wrote this essay for a proposed anthology of true stories called My First Gay Bookstore. It was accepted, the editor liked my different take on the subject, and I was elated. But all good things… The anthology was never published, everything just went very quiet and I heard nothing.
But this is still an essay I like; it is a personal story but it is a different telling of a familiar subject. It shows one of the ways I slowly overcame my very isolated teenage years and is about a place that is still very special to me)
Edited by Drew Payne
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