"How do you take your coffee and what’s your star sign?" is what I’m asked when I walk into Category Is Books on a characteristically bright but wet Glaswegian afternoon. A second-hand book, which can be only be described as "more 90s than a monochrome photo of Angelina Jolie smoking", has been donated, giving predictions of what you adore and abhor in a relationship based on your zodiac. "I think this one’s staying in the shop," Charlotte cackles, while Fi, the other-half of Category Is Books, hands me a mug of coffee.
Once an old car garage, the shop sits on a corner in Govanhill, in Glasgow’s Southside. Rented and founded by Scottish wife-and-wife team, Fi – who has a design background – and Charlotte – a cardboard artist ("once a cardboard artist, always a cardboard artist") – Category Is Books is Scotland's only LGBTQ+ bookshop after Edinburgh’s Lavender Menace closed down in the 1980s. It’s also one of only two LGBTQ+ bookshops in the UK – the other being Gay’s the Word in King’s Cross, which turned 40 this year.
Inside the cosy building, we lean on a counter that displays shelf-after-shelf of queer badges, and discuss the success of Category Is Books, pausing every so often as a steady stream of customers come through the door.
VICE: How did Category Is Books come into existence?
Fi: We were frustrated that there wasn’t a place like this near us in Glasgow, or in Scotland. We had both been researching queer culture and history in our own time, and through that we realised there were a lot of books we'd never seen in a shop or just in one place. There might be a shelf in a bookshop, but there was never a space to go and explore.
Charlotte: It was that thing of realising there was a hidden history. I think there was a need to collate all this information, bring it into one room so you're able to get a picture of what has come before you, and why we’re where we are at this moment in time.
And you opened in September?
Fi: Yeah, we go full throttle into things. We decided to do it in March, and I quit my job. Then we found the space in April, got the keys in May, and we spent the summer painting and doing it up. We opened in September when we ran out of money.
Charlotte: And otherwise we would have tweaked forever. Part of the thing about the space is that it isn’t finished. This isn’t what we think queer literature is. We’ve researched what we can and we’re asking people what books were important in their journey because we want it on our shelves. We want to fill our shelves, we want them to be bursting from the seams and we want it to be a true reflection of what the community needs.
Why do you think you’re the first people in Glasgow to do this?
Fi: We’ve done it very independently and we’ve done it off our own backs, so we haven’t had to go through the hoops of funding.
Charlotte: We didn’t want to get funding, because we didn’t want to have to answer to anyone else. We did apply for little pots of money and were told by predominantly straight panels that there was no need for this and there isn’t an audience to make it successful. And at that point we realised how big the problem is.
Fi: In Glasgow there aren’t many other queer spaces that aren’t alcohol-fuelled. We’ve noticed there’s a lot of people who come in who we’ve never seen at evening events, and I thought we knew everyone queer in Glasgow! It’s nice to see new faces.
How did you decide on Govanhill?
Fi: We live here, and there’s a queer community of people who have been here for years. Some people have asked if we’re trying to bring queer culture to a particular area, but it’s been here for a long time. Maybe it’s just becoming more visible and we’re helping to bring it to the surface. Visibility has always been a part of what we’ve wanted to do.
Has that community been supportive?
Charlotte: Oh my god, yes.
Fi: I think because we didn’t want it to be about us, but rather about the space, and the key to that was for other people to feel accepted and at home in it. So, after 6PM, the shop shuts for events which are run by other members of the community.
Charlotte: We’ll support stuff that’s being run, but it’s also independently done. So we’re not choosing, but instead listening and facilitating as much as we can. Also, if something’s happened in the news that’s triggering or confusing, we have the freedom to use the space to have a conversation about it that evening. That’s a really empowering thing, to realise that there’s a space for the community.
Why do you think there are so few LGBTQ+ bookshops in the UK?
Fi: We’ve been trying to research the history of [LGBTQ+ bookshops]. We can guess, but we don’t really know the histories of why those bookshops aren’t there anymore because we owe them so much. We wouldn’t be here without them. But I think it’s changing. Even since being in this space, we’ve heard conversations about people opening more queer spaces in Glasgow.
Charlotte: Also UK-wide. I think another queer bookshop will open in England by the end of the year.
Fi: I think it takes someone making a first move. People see we’re doing this in Glasgow and maybe other people in other places will think that they can do it in their communities, too. There is an audience for it. People really need safe spaces, so the more of them the better for queer communities.
What’s your bestseller?
Fi: The bestseller for Christmas was a zine called Queering the Map of Glasgow. We really loved that that was a bestseller, because it’s local and independent. Independent publications are doing really well. It’s nice that people are interested in that stuff as much as traditional gay literature.
Tell me about the categories.
Charlotte: It keeps things fresh for us. We’ll get a book in and have enough to do an entire category of books.
Fi: Which is why we have a "Lesbian Detective" section!
Charlotte: Also "Cunts in the Countryside".
Fi: And "Books with Maps at the Beginning". It’s so nice to know that all the books are queer, so you’re not just trying to find a queer book. You just can go and find a book with a map at the beginning and there’s going to be a wonderful queer element to it.
And you sell a mixture of second-hand and new books?
Charlotte: Yeah, we wanted to make sure there were different price points.
Fi: What we care about is people being able to access the stories and read the books, but we also want to remain independent, which is why we’re a bookshop not a library.
Charlotte: We also have some second-hand books that we’re selling on behalf of people. We’ll sell them and split the cost 50/50. It’s cool, because people are bringing new books back after they’ve read them, and then we sell them on, so it’s like a network of books.
Fi: And with the second-hand stuff, it means we can sell stuff that’s out of print, because with a lot of older queer books, they’ve often had a short run or are no longer in production.
What are your plans for the future?
Charlotte: We definitely want to do more publishing and support queer writers. I guess having a small independent publishing house as part of the shop and starting DIY with zines. It would create a little micro-economy, where people can print their zines here, sell them directly to us and we can put them on the bookshelves.
All images by Paul Reich, courtesy of Category Is Books.