‘Are there enough books?’
A History of LGBT+ Bookselling in Scotland
Lavender Menace opened in August 1982 as Scotland’s first lesbian and gay bookshop in Forth Street, Edinburgh. Set up by Sigrid Nielsen and Bob Orr, the shop grew out of several years of LGBT+ bookselling in the city which started with Open Gaze bookstall in 1976 as part of the Scottish Homosexual Rights Group’s (SHRG) Gay Information Centre in Broughton Street.
Bob Orr set up Open Gaze and by 1978, and with the help from a collective of SHRG members, the bookstall was thriving. The stock became more adventurous eventually threatening the more conservative-minded members of the centre. In December 1979, took control of the bookstall after the collective were accused of selling a blasphemous greetings card.
Consequently, the book collective gave up their memberships and formed Lavender Books. Their long-term view of opening a bookshop under co-operative ownership. Lavender Books began selling lesbian and gay books and paraphernalia at conferences and marches across the UK between 1980 and 1981. The collective was supported by the First of May, the radical bookshop in Edinburgh at the time and Gay’s the Word, the lesbian and gay bookshop in London which is celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2020.
Lavender Menace Bookshop
When a decision was finally made to open a bookshop in late 1981, some members of Lavender Books no longer wanted to continue, leaving Sigrid and Bob to pursue the venture. They formed a business partnership and started to raise funds to open what was to become Lavender Menace Bookshop. The main source of income was from a bookstall which they ran with the help of several supporters, in Fire Island, Edinburgh’s first fully-fledged gay disco in Princes Street, now a branch of Waterstone’s Bookshop. The other sources were an overdraft with the Co-operative Bank, and donations from people in the community.
Sigrid and Bob’s vision of offering a resource of lesbian and gay literature and a safe space for anyone who wanted to use it was realised in 1982. Despite some scepticism, including a supporter who wondered ‘Are there enough books?’, many people helped us by donating their services. We completely refurbished our basement space in the summer of 1982 and opened our doors in time for the Edinburgh Fringe. Our sign called us
a ‘Edinburgh’s Lesbian and Gay Community Bookshop’ – we had still to become aware of the importance of bisexual and transgender members of the community.
We staged author readings, discussions and book launches, and during the Fringe, original short plays about our books. The shop reached out to the rest of Scotland with lesbian and gay men’s mail order book lists. We started to import titles from the US to expand our range. These shipments came under the eye of HM Customs. Many of them were seized as pornographic, including classic gay authors such as Jean Genet.
West & Wilde Bookshop
LGBT+ bookselling in Scotland came of age when Lavender Menace changed its name to West & Wilde Bookshop with a move to Dundas Street in 1987 under the joint ownership of Raymond Rose and Bob Orr. West & Wilde continued to trade for ten years until 1997. In that time we were able to bring writers from all over the lesbian and gay publishing world – authors such as Armistead Maupin, David Leavitt, Edmund White Jackie Kay, Karla Jay (one of the original New York Lavender Menaces), and Sarah Shulman. We also tapped into important topics by publishing book lists related to HIV/AIDS, child and domestic abuse and our ever increasing awareness of feminism. Later we offered a wholesale service to lesbian and gay booksellers in Germany, The Netherlands, France, Italy, the former Yugoslavia amongst others.
Where we are now
After a gap of twenty years or so, and the rise of a much more diverse community, LGBT bookselling in Scotland has blossomed again. We are delighted that the queer and LGBT+ community and the literature they have created can now support a queer and LGBT+ bookshop in Glasgow – Category IS , along with The Portal Bookshop in York.
Inspired by the play Love Song to Lavender Menace, written by James Ley about the early days of the bookshop, Lavender Menace returned as a project created by Sigrid and Bob to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. With the support of LGBT Youth Scotland, Lighthouse Bookshop and Somewhere: LGBT+ culture and enterprise hub, the project ran popup bookshops taking part in events related to contemporary queer and LGBT+ writing and publishing throughout 2019. Since then, we have spent time speaking to the community and working with our LGBT+ partners and other organisations, and the result is the next chapter in the story: The Lavender Menace LGBT+ Book Archive.