Meet the women who have launched an independent queer bookshop in Leeds
Nicola Hargrave reflects on growing up in the 1980s and coming to realise her sexuality during the era of the controversial Section 28 legislation.
Introduced as a clause as part of the 1988 Local Government Act under then Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it prohibited local authorities from advocating same-sex relationships.
It also forbade them from promoting the teaching of “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” in schools, prompting uproar from LGBTQ+ activists right through to its eventual repeal in England in 2003.
“There wasn’t any positive role models or representation of lesbians or any LGBT people really,” recalls Nicola, who grew up in a village just outside Grimsby. “I used to go to a bookshop called Page One in Hull and that was the nearest radical bookshop to where I lived.
“It was great to see those kind of books on the shelves, knowing you’re not the only one out there and that it is okay to be queer. But I was also on pocket money and there’s no way I would have afforded to bring those books home.”
Fast-forward three decades and Nicola has recently launched a queer bookshop with her partner Ray Larman in Leeds. It is heartening, she says, to see young people visiting and making use of its ‘pay it forward’ scheme.
“The idea is one we’ve seen at different bookshops and events and it’s a way of supporting people who don’t have the funds at the minute to access books. People have been very generous in giving £5, £10 towards a book.
“We write a little tag and it hangs on this notice board in the shop and anybody who wants a book but doesn’t quite have the funds can take a tag and bring it to the till. We’ve had lots of generous people giving money towards that but it’s also been really heartening to see a few teenagers sneaking in and making use of a tag.
“I know that when I was a teenager it would have been almost impossible to have had the funds to afford the books and it would have made a real difference seeing myself [represented] in a book so I think it’s really great that this is taking off...It’s nice to think we can facilitate that for younger people. It’s not just younger people that can use the tags but that is what we’ve seen so far and it’s really heartening.”
Nicola and Ray opened The Bookish Type, located upstairs in the city’s Merrion Centre at the start of the month. The indie bookshop sells a range of literature, including novels, children’s books, memoirs and non-fiction, all written by LGBTQ+ authors or with LGBTQ+ themes and characters. The women, who live in Chapel Allerton, say they know the importance “of seeing yourself represented”.
“We stock books for pretty much all age ranges,” explains 46-year-old Nicola. “We’ve got little board books for babies that show gender and different types of identities. All the books are for anybody to read really but if you are queer then it’s really nice to see yourself reflected back in these stories.
“But it’s not just an exclusive space for LGBT people. If you like reading books that have diverse representation and interesting stories, then this is where you can find them.”
Her favourite is Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, released in the late 1970s. The author is credited with capturing the spirit of LGBTQ+ communities. “It’s a really heartwarming, humorous book about an LGBT community.
"It’s really nice to read something the best part of 40 or 50 years old and yet I can still see how true it is today and how people still live like that today,” Nicola reflects.
“There are certain authors that have become very successful and had their books turned into TV shows or films,” she adds. “Someone like Sarah Waters has had very successful books, prize-winning...
“But at the same time, there’s authors who really go under the radar and their books are phenomenal but I guess they aren’t marketed as strongly as others. That’s why we have got this bookshop so we can have those books in there and make sure they do come to the surface.”
Nicola and Ray’s inspiration for the store has come from a number of independent bookshops they have visited over the years including an LGBTQ+ one in Glasgow named Category Is Books. They flippantly remarked how a similar shop would be great for Leeds and it was a friend who pressed them on the idea.
“One of the friends we were with [on the trip to Glasgow] said a few months later so when are you setting up this bookshop?,” Nicola elaborates. “We thought well, yeah, when are we doing it? Things stemmed from that.”
Wanting to “test the water” before opening a bricks and mortar store, they held a series of pop up book stalls, starting at Leeds Queer Film Festival in May last year.
Their most recent one was in January, with plans to open the store in March as an oral history and archiving project - West Yorkshire Queer Stories - that Ray, 46, had been working on was coming to an end. Like many things though, the opening was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s tricky to try and set up a shop when you’re not even sure that you’ll be able to buy bookcases to put in it or if your stock of books will arrive, because at one point during the pandemic, nothing was happening,” Nicola reflects. “It was a waiting game to get to the point of being able to open.
“Since we actually have had people through the door, we are taking all the precautions we can and we are really pleased people have been coming out to support the business.
“It’s a bit frustrating because when we visited the bookshop in Glasgow it was a real community space and they had lots of different events going on - we planned for that too but obviously can’t at the moment....Once we’re post-pandemic we hope to have author events, writing groups and readings.”
They hope the shop will become a community hub, not just a place where people can buy books but somewhere that people who are questioning their gender or sexuality can seek out to try to find information and a space, too, for LGBTQ+ groups in Leeds to meet.
“We’re actually quite short on places for LGBT people to go that aren’t just pubs or clubs. So to have a sober space in the city centre, there’s a lot of potential for it to be a community hub.”
Their pop-up stalls, she says, made clear there was demand for an “almost-curated” bookshop experience dedicated to LGBTQ+ literature.
“I think if you are from a marginalised community, why not try to create a space to show the multiple talents that are out there, the books that are brilliant? It then also becomes a sort of safe space...To have somewhere that does include everybody is really important.”
Nicola and Ray went to school together, growing up in villages just outside Grimsby. For Ray, whose background is in heritage and education, running the bookshop is now a full-time job.
Nicola continues to run online sports shop ATU Sport, a family business which she has been involved in for 15 years, alongside the new venture. “Combined, I think we’ve hopefully got the skills and experience to pull off running a queer bookshop,” she says.
“It’s not perhaps the most sensible time to start up a business, during a pandemic, but at the same time, if you wait for this to be over, you could be waiting for a long time. We had piles of books in our kitchen just waiting to populate a shop...We’ve been very heartened by the support we’ve had.”
The Bookish Type is open 10am until 6pm Tuesday to Saturday. Visit thebookishtype.co.uk