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Gay’s The Word
Gay’s The WordCourtesy of Gay’s The Word

Reading is fundamental: inside Britain’s queer bookshop boom

Alim Kheraj presents a guide to the UK’s bounty of LGBTQ+ bookshops – from London’s Gay’s The Word and Glasgow’s Category Is Books, to Cardiff’s Paned o Gê and Belfast’s Paperxclips Books

Introducing Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here.

The UK’s LGBTQ+ scene is shrinking. According to a groundbreaking study from 2017, the number of permanent LGBTQ+ venues in London diminished by nearly 60 per cent in a decade, a figure that is likely to be higher today. Around the country, there are reports and anecdotal stories of long-standing queer venues that have either ceased operating or are on the brink of closure. Pair that with rising hostility towards LGBTQ+ people, especially trans people, and things look bleak. 

However, the queer scene in this country has a history of being transient, ephemeral and difficult to catalogue. And while it’s irrefutable that permanent LGBTQ+ spaces have decreased, there has been an explosion of club nights, one-off parties, festivals, collectives and more.

Queer spaces have also diversified, too: whereas throughout the 00s most LGBTQ+ venues were nightlife-specific, catering primarily to an audience of white cis gay men, the current landscape is far more inclusive, providing spaces for people of colour, trans people, lesbians, and those who are sober. Community-led initiatives, co-operatives and cafés have cropped up. And while it might not make up for the number of spaces that closed, a small handful of LGBTQ+ venues have opened, both in London and further afield.

Another area of unexpected growth is in the number of LGBTQ+ bookshops. For years, the iconic Gay’s The Word in London’s Bloomsbury operated in isolation, a curio among the country’s shrinking independent bookshop scene. But following an overall rise in the number of independent booksellers over the last six years, queer bookshops have blossomed.

As it stands, there are now well over a dozen LGBTQ+ specific bookstores in the UK, and even more with dedicated LGBTQ+ sections. What’s more promising is that many – if not most – of them are situated outside of London. To mark this queer bookshop boom, and as part of Dazed’s Horror Nation series exploring life in modern Britain, we’ve put together a guide to the country’s bounty of LGBTQ+ bookshops.

Gay’s The Word, London

Initially operating as a roving bookshop and mail-order service, Gay’s The Word’s permanent location at 66 Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury opened in 1979. From that moment it became a community hub for the capital’s LGBTQ+ community, hosting political and activist groups such as the Gay Black Group, the Lesbian Discussion Group (which still meets at the shop) and, in 1983, Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners – made famous in the 2014 film Pride.

The following year, the bookshop, which secured much of its stock from America, was raided by HM Customs and Excise, now part of HMRC, who accused the shop of importing and selling pornographic material. As a result, the shop’s stock was confiscated and its directors faced the draconian charge of conspiracy to import indecent books. This led to a campaign by writers and activists to support the shop’s legal defence. In 1986, all charges were dropped.

The shop’s troubles weren’t over, though. In 2007, rising rents, the global recession and the proliferation of online shopping saw the Gay’s The Word fighting for survival once more. However, thanks to a campaign supported by writers such as Edmund White, Ali Smith and Sarah Waters, as well as widespread national press coverage, the shop raised enough money to keep the doors open.

Since then, Gay’s The Word’s popularity has soared, with longstanding manager Jim McSweeney saying that the shop has never been as busy as it is today. It’s also incredibly well-stocked. Along with specific sections dedicated to gay, lesbian, trans and YA fiction, there are shelves focused on history, autobiography and memoir, queer theory, and a rather brilliant second-hand section, where you can often find rare and out-of-print LGBTQ+ books. And if there’s anything that you can’t find, McSweeney and the rest of the staff are more than happy to help you source it. It’s the oldest LGBTQ+ bookshop in the UK, but Gay’s The Word remains the GOAT.

The Common Press, London

This queer, intersectional bookshop and café in Shoreditch has an impeccably curated selection of LGBTQ+ books, both fiction and non-fiction. Championing writers from minority backgrounds, you’ll find everything here from titles about disability activism to the latest sapphic sci-fi romp. They have a packed events calendar, featuring author events, readings, workshops, talks, live music and classes, as well as an events space for hire, a podcast studio and plans for a queer co-working space. The coffee and cakes are pretty good, too.

Housmans Bookshop, London

While not strictly an LGBTQ+-specific bookshop, Housmans has deep queer connections. Along with links to the Gay Liberation Front, the not-for-profit bookshop in King’s Cross was the birthplace of the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard (now known simply as the charity Switchboard), which provided a vital lifeline to queer people throughout the 70s, and was instrumental in sharing information about the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s. 

As one of the longest-running radical bookshops in the UK, Housmans also has a history of stocking LGBTQ+ literature, and like Gay’s The Word, the shop was raided by HM Customs and Excise in 1984. Today, it still stocks a broad selection of LGBTQ+ literature, along with titles about politics, anti-racism, workers’ rights, government, feminism, socialism and more. 

The Queery, Brighton

Located in Kemp Town, Brighton’s de facto queer quarter, The Queery is a volunteer-run LGBTQ+ co-operative, community space, café, lending library and bookshop. It has a small but diverse selection of books, and hosts regular events for the LGBTQ+ community, including book clubs, workshops, yoga, clothes swaps and classes. 

The Feminist Bookshop, Brighton

Perched above Western Road, the Feminist Bookshop is another of those not-specifically-queer-but-also-kinda-queer bookshops. As the name suggests, this radical bookshop and café focuses primarily on feminist books, although as they say themselves they are an intersectional, anti-racist, trans inclusive and LGBTQ+ space. Their goal is to support and promote women, non-binary and other marginalised writers, which they do not only through their impeccable book selection, but through book clubs and literary events.

The Old Queeriosity, Plymouth

Located in Bretonside near Sutton Harbour, the Old Queeriosity began life as an online bookseller. But thanks to support from the Queer District Collective, a non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ people and organisations in the area, owner El Redman was able to find a permanent home. It stocks everything from LGBTQ+ inclusive children’s books to queer BookTok favourites like Red, White and Royal Blue, and can sometimes be found setting up shop at Pride events in Plymouth and beyond. 

Gay Pride Shop/The LGBTQ+ Bookshop, Manchester

Sharing their profits with various LGBTQ+ charities, the Gay Pride Shop, located in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, is a place to pick up all your Pride paraphernalia, along with fancy dress, stickers, toys, accessories and decorations. However, they also stock queer books – and lots of them. They often have signed editions of upcoming releases available to pre-order, and sell a wide selection of titles, including many YA favourites. 

Queer Lit, Manchester

Queer Lit was started as an online business by Matthew Cornford during the pandemic. In 2021, he opened a physical location on Tib Street, in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Along with an envious and wide-reaching collection of LGBTQ+ books on their shelves, which covers everything from genre fiction to queer travel guides, Queer Lit donates LGBTQ+ books to schools across the UK. So far, they’ve donated over 1,000 titles as part of their mission to ensure that LGBTQ+ students have the opportunity to read and encounter LGBTQ+ stories. To help counter the rising transphobia in government, they also sent 200 copies of Christine Burns’ Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows to MPs in 2021. Visit the shop in person and you might even meet Jaspar, the shop’s dog. 

News From Nowhere, Liverpool

Established in 1974 and run by a women workers’ co-operative, News From Nowhere is a not-for-profit radical bookshop on Bold Street in the RopeWalks in Liverpool. With a commitment to social justice, they stock books that are all about enacting change in the world. That applies to their LGBTQ+ collection, too, which is vast and houses some lesser-known gems. You can also order any book you’re looking for, either in-store or online.

The Bookish Type, Leeds

Founders Ray and Nic began their bookselling journey at pop-up stalls, an operation that ultimately led them to open the Bookish Type in 2020 in the Merrion Centre in Leeds. Along with selling queer books, Ray and Nic work to engage with and support the local LGBTQ+ community through a number of different initiatives. They host queer history tours around Leeds, operate a second-hand sale on a Sunday in order to raise money for grassroots LGBTQ+ groups, and run the Bookish Stroll, an outdoor book group that meets for, well, a stroll and a natter about LGBTQ+ literature. They are also about to move into a bigger space in Leeds.

The Portal Bookshop, York

Tucked away near the York Shambles, the Portal Bookshop is a queer bookshop with a difference: along with a focus on LGBTQ+ literature, they also specialise in graphic novels, and science fiction and fantasy titles, with an emphasis on queer genre fiction in particular. Upstairs is the Over the Rainbow café, where you can pick up a bite to eat or drop in for an event.

Juno Books, Sheffield

Located on the picturesque Chapel Walk in Sheffield’s city centre, Juno Books is a queer and intersectional feminist bookshop that has a small but extremely well-curated collection of books. From indie releases to bestsellers, their shelves are filled to the brim with an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction, and owners and friends, Rosie May and Sarah Scales, are happy to help you find what you’re looking for. They also put on literary events and workshops, and even host a craft group.

BookWyrm, Durham

Head to the historical Durham Market hall and hunt down stall 12 to find BookWyrm, an LGBTQ+ bookshop run by partners Chris and Miles, who is an author and illustrator. Don’t expect to find the shelves stacked like in your local Waterstones. Instead, BookWyrm offers a handpicked selection of titles, from queer fiction to fantasy, with a particular interest in small authors and indie presses.

Lighthouse Books, Edinburgh

This radical bookshop near the University of Edinburgh is a queer-owned and women-led. Championing marginalised voices, their selection of books focuses on left-wing politics, Scottish politics, feminism, environmental issues, LGBTQ+ writing and more. Along with year-round events programming, including regular book groups, they run the Book Fringe in August and the Radical Book Fair in November. They are also home to Word Power Books, an independent Scottish publisher.

Lavender Menace Queer Books Archive, Edinburgh

This is the cheat entry. Beginning life as a bookstall in the cloakroom of a gay disco, Lavender Menace was an LGBTQ+ bookshop that operated from 1982 to 1986. It was the first LGBTQ+ bookshop in Scotland and the second, after Gay’s The Word, in the UK. In 1987, it relocated and was renamed, becoming West & Wilde. After a decade, however, it was forced to close.

Now, Lavender Menace acts as an LGBTQ+ archive that is actively archiving queer books, especially those that were sold when Lavender Menace was a shop and which are now out of print, as well as collecting ephemera associated with queer bookselling. They also host events at Edinburgh Palette.

Category Is Books, Glasgow

Everyone is welcome at Category Is Books, which calls itself “fiercely independent and queer”. Located in the southside of Glasgow, this LGBTQ+ bookshop opened its doors in 2018 and has since gone from strength to strength with its expansive selection of queer books and zines. Like many of the shops on this list, they have a pay-it-forward scheme, and have hosted everything from queer tarot readings to a transgender-friendly barbershop pop-up. They’re also adventurous with how they categorise their shelves, and will deliver books locally on a skateboard.

Paned o Gê, Cardiff

In Cardiff, you’ll find the Queer Emporium, a social enterprise that’s home to over 20 local LGBTQ+ vendors. One of those is Paned o Gê, an LGBTQ+ bookshop that also operates as a social enterprise. When they’re not selling books there, you’ll find them at Pride events and festivals all over Wales. Their goal is to take Paned o Gê on the road and convert it into a mobile bookshop. Who says gays can’t drive? 

Shelflife Books and Zines, Cardiff

This radical bookshop began life as a pop-up at a beer and record shop called Pop’n’Hops (amazing), but can now be found in The Corp Market, a hub filled with independent traders. Drop by to find books with an emphasis on anti-racism, radical politics, feminism and LGBTQ+ themes, as well as many DIY publications and zines. Also keep an eye on their event schedule for some literary talks, author events and more. 

Paperxclips Books, Belfast

If you ever need a haircut, an iced coffee and a new page-turner, head to Paperxclips in Blackstaff Mill in Belfast. This bookshop, barbershop, community space and café opened in 2022 and stocks a well-researched collection of LGBTQ+ titles. There’s a library shelf filled with donated books, and space to just go and hang out, with no pressure to spend a penny. They host events and workshops, including their weekly “Shut up and Write” sessions, which is pretty much what it says on the tin.