Bookshop Queer Lit On Making Space For LGBTQ+ Literature
What’s your favourite queer book?
The book lovers among us will know what it’s like to see ourselves in what we read; a lot of us may even remember the first time we found a character in a book who shared our identity, and how that validation felt. However, with the mainstream still dominated by heteronormative storytelling, it can be difficult to find titles with decent LGBTQ+ representation.
Queer Lit decided it was time for a change. An online store dedicated to LGBTQ+ titles, with plans for a physical shop to open in Manchester after lockdown, Queer Lit was set up by Managing Director Matthew Cornford after he struggled to get his hands on queer literature. “Whenever I went onto Google and typed in LGBT books, the same 40 books just continued to show up,” he tells us. When Matthew visited the Waterstones branch in Manchester, the self-proclaimed “biggest bookshop in the North”, he was told that they had got rid of their LGBT section. “I thought, you know what? That’s just not good enough.”
It was then Matthew decided that queer readers needed their own dedicated space to find books that catered to them, and embarked on every avid reader’s dream – opening his very own bookshop. The first step, he tells us, was contacting the publishers who dealt primarily with queer literature. “We had a really big conversation with them – and thankfully all of them said they’d been waiting for somewhere online to come and create a space that has all of this literature; they really wanted to get behind us and support us,” Matthew says. “From there it was about looking at how to stock them, and how to get online. I think it took us about four or five months just to get the online shop to the place that it is now.”
The store is also focused on helping queer authors who may have experienced difficulty in getting their stories published, having ordered stock for over a dozen independent LGBTQ+ authors. “It’s great for us to be able to say, “Ok, you’ve not been picked up, or you’ve decided to publish independently – we’ll support you how we can,” Matthew says.
Queer Lit started with seven hundred books – a number which now, five months on, has almost doubled. The website has over eighty categories, so that shoppers can find exactly what they’re looking for; whether it’s a certain genre, or a particular type of representation. Asked if there have been any particular stand-out books since Queer Lit opened, Matthew names Christine Burns’ Trans Britain, which has been an “enormous success” for the store. “I think it’s because we’ve got more people within our own community trying to become better trans allies,” he says. “It’s the perfect book to be able to digest all of that information, because there’s a lot of things that have happened within the trans community that has forced them to struggle more than many other parts of our community. Books like this are really opening up our own community to learn more and be more inclusive within ourselves.”
There’s little doubt, then, of the significance of having access to queer literature – whether you’re reading for education, entertainment, or escapism – not just for the LGBTQ+ community to find ourselves, Matthew says, but for those outside of the community too. With queer books such as Booker Prize winner Shuggie Bain (Douglas Stuart) and the multi-award-winning Cemetery Boys (Aiden Thomas) leaving their mark on mainstream literature recently, making queer literature accessible to the masses helps to normalise LGBTQ+ experiences. “Even within our own community, there’s still so much stigma around whether we challenge and accept ourselves,” Matthew says, citing the stereotypical or side-lined characters we see all too often when it comes to queer representation in fiction. “I think the more we can just read a fiction novel or a sci-fi fantasy novel and just see some queer characters in it, the better – most readers aren’t asking for an aggressively sexy storyline, they just want to be able to identify and see themselves within that representation.”
The impact of having access to LGBTQ+ books doesn’t stop with adults – Queer Lit has a range of almost one hundred books for kids, too. The team is currently packing up some of their books to send to schools because, as Matthew tells us, LGBTQ+ books are the most stolen titles from school libraries. “It shows that children need and want to read them, but it also shows they’re not comfortable enough to sign it out and they need to steal it,” he says. “There are so many great kids’ books out there that start to explore not just their gender or sex, but also conversations around race and religion, and being inclusive as a behaviour. Racism and homophobia is taught – so if we can get hold of children and inspire their minds whilst they’re at a young age, before these core beliefs are built, we can make those core beliefs be inclusive and diverse.”
They’re just getting started – but what do the Queer Lit team hope for the future? Matthew says that they already have a list of authors keen to do in-store events, once they are able to open their bricks-and-mortar Manchester shop. Much like Gay’s The Word, the famous LGBTQ+ London bookstore that opened its doors in 1979 and is still flocked to by queer readers from around the world, Matthew hopes that Queer Lit can be a place of belonging for local LGBTQ+ bibliophiles. “Bookshops are very much a pillar of the community; they become a safe space, a community space. Gay’s The Word is an absolute an icon for the LGBT community, and we would love to be the North West version of that.”
Cathie Swan is the creator of website Queer Creatives, which spotlights LGBTQ+ people and initiatives in the UK’s creative industries. You can read more of her articles over at queercreatives.co.uk.