WHEN Jim MacSweeney heard that same-sex marriage had been legalised in his native Ireland four years ago, he celebrated by having a “swift half”.
“Same-sex marriage in my lifetime? “Who’d have thought it,” muses Jim, who has been the manager of Gay’s the Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, London, for 30 years.
“Irish bars were really hip when I first came to live in London,” adds Jim. “I don’t drink so much now!”
He still gets a taste of home though.
“I love a pint of Murphy’s when I’m back in Cork,” says Jim. “Especially when Munster win the rugby! When Cork does well any time, especially in the sporting world, I feel so delighted. When Ireland does well, it makes my heart swell. It makes an immigrant feel really proud.”
Jim left his native shores many moons ago.
“Looking back, coming to London in 1982, I was just 22 years old, and I had just told one person that I was gay,” says Jim, who grew up in Blackrock, Cork.
Was it difficult growing up in Ireland as a young gay man?
“I have only fond memories of growing up in Cork,” says Jim, who has five siblings. “I had a great time growing up and a very happy child-hood. I wasn’t aware of being ‘different’ at all.
“But I wanted to make a new life for myself. Coming to London and coming out, I was accepting myself and I’ve never looked back. It was very different; very exciting.”
Gay’s the Word, the first and only remaining, specifically LGBTQ+ bookshop in the UK, is located on the quirky and unassuming Marchmont Street, away from the pandemonium of Euston Road. The façade of the bookshop is striking — bright paint and big windows as if announcing ‘I’ve arrived’.
“I grew up surrounded with books at home in Blackrock,” says Jim. “There were always books in the house. I was an avid reader, always having a book on the go.
“My dad, Liam MacSweeney, had a bookshop on Lavitt’s Quay for some years when I was young. I loved it. I had a great relationship with my dad.”
But Jim decided to fly the coup and spread his wings.
“I came to London to study drama, having dabbled in Irish gay theatre. I was questioning lots of stuff and I wanted to be more true to myself.”
He took to the Big Smoke like a duck to water.
“I was young, free and single,” says Jim. “I loved the whole London scene, going to the theatre, dancing, living in bed-sit land, squatting in flats, having fun, getting drunk with my mates; it was all part of the growing up process. It was like being a teen again, having fun at 22.”
Were the streets of London paved with his dreams? “I was living the dream for a while,” says Jim. “And I never expected to be in the world of bookshops again. I had applied for various jobs after I got the acting bug out of my system. I worked in bars and as a waiter.
“Gay’s the Word was a great community space back in the day, It had its own café, holding workshop events and discussions for the LGBTQ+ community. Then, we drank coffee, chatted all day and smoked! I went along to the ‘icebreaker’ group held at the bookshop and I felt right at home straight away.”
In fact, Jim felt so at home in Gay’s the Word, he got a job there.
“In 1984, lesbians and gay men formed an alliance in support of the one year British miners strike, I took part in my first gay pride March,” says Jim.
“I think that year changed the future of the bookshop and public attitude towards it. Since opening its doors in 1979, at a time of widespread homophobia, police raids and objections from the local council, Gay’s the Word has long been a beloved support, acceptance and information for the LGBTQ+”.
As bookshops go, it’s a veritable treasure trove, with an enormous selection of literature, fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, poetry, young adult, magazines, erotic and more, curated by friendly and knowledgeable book-sellers, and browsed by people of all ages and identities.
“I like to think that the bookshop provides a friendly environment for people wherever they are in their journey,” says Jim, who is delighted that I sought out a fellow Corkonian while visiting relatives in London. Jim has the natural Cork intuition and warmth.
“A young woman came in this morning to buy a book,” says Jim. “When she was paying me, I asked her how she was. And she got very emotional and she just broke down.”
Jim knew how she felt.
“I know how being in the LGBTQ+ community feels at first,” he says. “I always take time out to speak to someone who is finding their own personal journey sometimes difficult.
“When I came out, I was young and even though I was confident about being (out) there, there were all these barriers about being out and few places to go where no-one would judge you.
Gay’s the Word was a non-judgemental place.
In a 2006 documentary about it, assistant manager, Uli Lenart said: “For this bookstore to open in this country, it finally meant that people had the right to access their own ideas. It’s also been very practically important in terms of advice, support, help for the gay community. To be able to come to the bookstore and have a book, or a series of books, available to you that makes you feel less fraught, makes you feel less alone; I think it’s a really wonderful, important thing.”
Jim reiterates Uli’s sentiments. “Today, too the bookshop still provides the same support, the fight for equality and acceptance, that is, after all, far from over,” says Jim.
“It’s particularly valuable as a place for people to visit when they’re first coming out; it might even be the first place where they encounter others of the same identity. And although these days the bookshop is far from only a dedicated LGBTQ+ community space, that role remains as important and necessary as ever.”
Jim feels it is important to come back to his roots and his family on a regular basis.
“My mother came to visit me here in London; and I go home lots,” he says.
He becomes a Lee-sider again.
“London slips off my shoulders, and I’m a true Corkman in my own city,” add Jim.
“The friendliness of home never changes. Across the Irish Sea, I often mull over that.”
Jim is mulling over shutting up shop for the day. It’s that time of the evening for us Corkonians to go for a ‘swift half.’
“I love London and I Iove Cork,” says Jim.
And in Jim’s lifetime — that will never change.
Gay’s the Word, 66 Marchmont Street, St. Pancreas, London. WCIN IAB.