In conversation with Glasgow’s first LGBTQ+ bookshop

Published

Credit: Category Is Books

Amy Shimmin
Writer
Amy Shimmin talks community and representation with Glasgow’s own queer bookshop
Tucked away at the end of Allison Street is Glasgow’s own queer bookshop, Category Is Books. With quotes painted on its walls, books for all ages, and even a real-life Personals section, Category Is Books has quickly become a focal point for its community – the local community in Govanhill as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Glasgow and Scotland. The Glasgow Guardian popped in to meet wife-and-wife owners, Fi and Charlotte, and resident shop dog, Moo the greyhound, as the bookshop approaches six months since opening, to chat books, Glasgow’s LGBTQ+ culture, and the importance of community.

Glasgow Guardian: What was the story leading up to opening the bookshop?

Fi: So we started the shop mainly because we were frustrated that there wasn’t a space like the bookshop, there wasn’t a space that we knew of in Scotland, really, that we could go and explore specifically relating to queer culture and history and just to be able to access lots of different stories in the same place. We just wanted to really be in that sort of space – that was one of the reasons. I run the bookshop with my wife, Charlotte, and we wanted to work together, so that was another part of it. We just really love books, and queer books! We wanted to start the shop very close to where we live, that’s why the Southside location worked as we’re very close by.

GG: It seems to have grown into something more than a bookshop – you have yoga, and crafts, and so on. How do you feel about being a non-drinking space for the [LGBTQ+] community?

Fi: I guess we [Fi and Charlotte] are both quite introverted, so we wonder “where do all the introverted queers go?” We love drag and going to drag shows, and going dancing, but you wonder where you go the rest of the time. If you’re not going on a night out, you still need queer spaces. What’s been lovely is that we operate as a bookshop between 11am and 6pm, and then we have other members of the community who’ve come in and said “can I run a craft club?” or “can I run a writers’ workshop?” or “can I run a poetry group?” It’s very much other people saying “can I use the space?” and it’s grown a bit based on what people are asking for.

GG: Has that been you approaching people, or people approaching you?

Fi: A bit of both, but mainly people approaching us, or even from conversations we’ve had in the shop. For example, Alison [the yoga instructor] had said she did yoga and she makes sure it’s very LGBTQIA inclusive and we were excited about that, and then things have happened based on conversations in the shop and chatting about it. It means things can be quite unexpected, like the tarot we host once a month – neither of us would have predicted that queer tarot was a thing that people love! It’s nice that it’s all grown from people in the local area.

GG: There was an article in a mainstream publication not long after you opened. What was the situation there; how did the local community respond to that?

Fi: I guess that article was mainly trying to paint the bookshop as part of the gentrification of Govanhill. It upset us particularly because queers have always lived in this area, so there being a more visible bookshop and space generally isn’t aligned to gentrification. We’ve lived here for almost ten years. The angle that paper took was frustrating, but people were very supportive. They did later apologise for not understanding the context, and it felt that the importance of representation in books had been missed. It resonates the importance of independent queer media and how we should have more independent queer media when these stories are being put out.

GG: What you say about independent media, stores, et cetera, is that they seem to reverse the trend of the high street. You’ve set up an independent bookshop, while at the same time other stores are closing down. What do you think about that trend?

Fi: Independent bookshops, in the last two years, have started to increase again across the UK. Last year eighteen opened up, and the year before just one, but that was the first time in twenty years it’d been on the up, so we’re part of that reverse of the decline, and the trend of bookshops coming back. I think especially in this area, there’s lots of independent shops opening up too, which is really nice. Plus a lot of what we stock, yes, you could get it online, but from very disparate places, so maybe you’d have to go to twenty or thirty online shops to get collectively what we sell, but here it’s in one place you can explore. That’s what we find exciting about being in the shop. You can’t really get that on the internet.

GG: At the recent Glasgow launch of We Were Always Here, the new queer anthology, part of the discussion led to the categorisation of literature from a publishing perspective. Do you feel that the term “LGBTQ+ fiction” is a useful category?

Fi: It depends. For example, it can be useful for generally straight publishing houses, if they’re able to say “here are the books that have a queer character in”, so then we don’t have to go through the entire catalogue to work it out. But once you’ve done that basic filtering, we find it really exciting that we don’t have to have an LGBTQ+ shelf, we can narrow down to “books with maps at the beginning”. We actually have a sections like “books where the lesbians have creative jobs”, “stories that also involve horses”. It’s really fun! You know you can go into a book as a safe place, and halfway through you’re not going to be hit with some heteronormative bullshit!

GG: If you go to a high street bookshop and you’ve got an LGBTQ+ shelf or table, those books could be wildly different, you don’t know what you’re going to get. Here, you’ve got that baseline met, and then you can explore from there…

Fi: Yeah, and you need all of it. More queer books on the bookshelves is a good thing, and more independent queer bookshops means that the high street bookshops get in LGBTQ+ titles. What we’re interested in is how you get more people to read those titles. There was an interview with Lavender Menace, Edinburgh’s old LGBTQ+ bookshop, where they said that when they were open, Waterstones would always have an LGBTQ+ section, but when they shut, Waterstones took that away. You need independent bookshops to encourage these shelves or tables.

GG: What’s your process when buying in books? Do you go via publishers and their queer book lists, or is it more based on demand?

Fi: Recently we’ve had a lot of requests for particular titles, or certain types of books or representation, or we’ve had suggestions of “oh, have you read this?” and we’ve based it from that. There’s been research on titles out there as well as people saying “I’m about to publish this book”, so it can depend on how we choose to source our books.

GG: We’re in Glasgow, obviously, and queer literature in Scotland is such an evolving thing – you’ve got new writers emerging as well as icons like Edwin Morgan and Carol Ann Duffy. Do you feel like that’s more queer, Scottish literature, or Scottish, queer literature?

Charlotte: We still get excited seeing queer lit, so it being Scottish doesn’t necessarily make it more exciting for us. But having said that, the DIY movements coming out of Glasgow and Scotland as a whole is fantastic and there’s a lot of it right now.

Fi: There’s lots of new publishing houses like Knight Errant Press, and Monstrous Regiment Publishing, and newer writers are able to be more explicit with the queerness. In the past Scottish writers have maybe been less able to be openly queer in their stories, but now people have a higher chance of being published while writing about queer narratives.

GG: What’s been the most rewarding encounter since you’ve opened the shop?

Fi: I love it when school kids come in here, so much! They come on their own and even in school trips, and yesterday a kid came in after school in their uniform and asked for a book, and I love it! It’s rewarding to see members of the community grow, especially when they come in here quite often, and you gradually see them coming out more, or being encouraged to express themselves more, and that’s a privilege to get to see.

GG: That can be such an intimate thing to witness. Do you deliberately seek to create a safe space in the room, or is it more by practice?

Fi: More by practice. We’ve researched how to create a safe space but then we make sure we make that as safe a space as possible, and we’ll always try to improve that. But I think with the nature of the shop it kind of lends itself to being a safe space. It’s by the community for the community, therefore it’s a safe space.

GG: We’ve spoken about the role in the community, but where do you see the bookshop in 5, 10 years time?

Fi: Still here! As the main thing. We’d love to run a small press or small publishing house on the back of the bookshop, and we’re about to get a photocopier which makes that very straightforward, for zines and stuff. We’d love to support queer writers, even in a small, lo-fi way, we’d like to do more of that. We’re still getting used to how the space is used, but publishing, and responding to the seasons and what’s going on in the world, we’d like to become a support for people over the next few years. We want to stand up for issues like trans health, and to continue fighting for these issues.

GG: When you first come into the shop you’re met by two quotes on the wall, Audre Lorde [“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences“] and Sasha Velour [“Be the difference you wish to see in the world“]. How did you choose those quotes?

Fi: We decorated the shop all over the summer, and we both love Sasha Velour, a lot! She’s so knowledgeable about queer history, and understanding our history, so that’s where that quote came from. With Audre Lorde, I think we just both happened to be reading her last summer, and it felt very positive. The thing with the shop is that it’s never going to be finished; we have stuff on the walls that we wrote last summer, but it’ll always be evolving. Behind the curtains here [behind the till], we’ve got Queer Nation [“Out of the closet and into the streets“]. They felt like very relevant and accepting quotes to see when you walk into the space.

Charlotte: With Audre Lorde We really wanted to communicate the value that the space is for everyone, but also to learn about each other’s differences.

GG: Who runs the shop – you and Charlotte, or the dog?

Fi: The dog, definitely! She’s definitely in charge. She’s cute, but she’s a diva.