January 31, 2020
Britain’s foremost collector of LGBT literature posthumously donates important collection
by Nikki Griffiths
Gay’s the Word bookshop is an institution and a pioneer. The UK’s first gay and lesbian bookstore (and one of only two LGBT bookshops currently in the UK), last year it celebrated its 40th anniversary.
The shop was co-founded by Jonathan Cutbill along with Ernest Hole and Peter Dorey in 1979 and is still going strong today in its Bloomsbury location, in London. Cutbill also worked as an information systems expert at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but retired in 1993 and moved to Shropshire. He was known as being Britain’s foremost collector of books of LGBT+ relevance, his personal collection numbering some 30,000 novels, pamphlets and newspapers. Cutbill died last year, and now his collection is to be preserved, having been gifted to the University of London.
Geoff Hardy, Cutbill’s friend of 40 years, told the BBC that he began collecting in the 1970s, saying:
“The idea was to stock the books that other people were not stocking, but also to become a bookshop with the knowledge of LGBTQ history and literature.
“Not only is it a phenomenal collection dating way back to 1760, it is also catalogued and cross referenced—he was a museum man.”
Jim MacSweeney, current manager of Gay’s the Word told The Bookseller last year:
“For over 20 years he bought a copy of every LGBT book that the bookshop stocked adding them to his already extensive library.
“When I joined the bookshop in 1989 Jonathan was hugely supportive and I often turned to him for advice on difficult issues or simply to chat and perhaps glean some of his enormous knowledge of gay literature. He was outspoken and had strong views on many issues, not suffering fools gladly. A great activist, I had enormous respect for him.”
Gay’s the Word has been at the heart of LGBTQ+ activism and support networks for the last 40 years and as a result, has faced its fair share of persecution over the years. In April 1984, HM Customs and Excise raided the bookshop, seizing 144 titles, threatening Cutbill and colleagues with imprisonment. MacSweeney told Attitude:
“They assumed it was a porn shop … They took books like The Joy of Gay Sex and The Joy of Lesbian Sex, but also Christopher Isherwood novels and Allen Ginsberg poetry.”
In response to the charges, a defence campaign was set up, garnering support from authors, publishers and the public. It managed to raise over £55,000 and help recover the confiscated stock.
Only last year, the store had its window smashed by vandals. However, thanks to an donation from an anonymous author and dedicated staff and supporters, the bookshop managed to stay open whilst repairs were carried out.
Maria Castrillo, head of special collections and engagement at the University of London’s Senate House Library, told the BBC that Cutbill’s “collection would help fill ‘fundamental gaps’ in LGBT history,” and that the library “’recognises the unique qualities of the collection and would like to develop it’ and hoped it would be a catalyst for research and community engagement.”
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.