We spoke with Ray, who along with partner Nicole runs The Bookish Type, an LGBTQIA+ inclusive bookshop in Leeds
RD: How did The Bookish Type get started, and how would you best summarise what you offer?
We started The Bookish Type in 2019, inspired by our love of alternative and queer bookshops such as Housmans and Gay’s the Word in London. After a visit to Category is Books in Glasgow, Nicola and I thought that Leeds needed a queer bookshop, and the city was big enough to support one, so we thought Why not? We’ve both been involved in various LGBTIQA+ community groups and projects, (such as Leeds Queer Film Festival and the West Yorkshire Queer Stories history project), while Nicola has lots of online retail experience and I used to run an alternative bookshop with friends in Lancaster in the 1990s, as well as working in publishing.
We began as a pop-up bookstall, held at various events and venues in Leeds, and then we moved to having a monthly stall at the local Book and Record Fair. We set up a website and started selling online in April 2020 and then finally we opened a bricks and mortar shop in September 2020 in the Merrion Shopping Centre in Leeds.
The Bookish Type is a queer independent bookshop selling fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, children’s books, YA (young adult), poetry and graphic novels. We offer a LGBTIQA+ community space that is open during the day and has a cross-generational appeal. We champion LGBTIQA+ authors and books with queer themes and characters because we know the importance of seeing yourself and your community represented. We want to celebrate queer literature because there are so many amazing books out there and we want to encourage everyone to read them.
RD: How does your work compliment your personalities?
I love being in the shop: chatting to customers, giving recommendations, selling books and doing displays whereas Nicola is more of a behind the scenes kind of person so she deals with the finances, social media, the website and sending out orders. She’s very entrepreneurial with good business skills so we complement each other.
RD: You’ve known each other for a very long time—what are the greatest joys and strains to starting a business with somebody that you have a close pre-existing relationship with?
It’s easy to plan, discuss ideas and make decisions about the business because we live together so we have lots of informal meetings. However, that’s also the downside—it sometimes feels as though The Bookish Type is taking over our lives!
RD: LGBTIQA+ and racially diverse representation in books has always been important, but the range of available and easily accessible titles has really increased in the past few years. How has better mainstream attention to diversity helped what you do with the shop? What does good allyship look like?
Diverse representation in books has definitely improved which is great. There’s been a real boom in young adult literature with racially diverse and LGBTIQA+ themes and characters which is really encouraging, although most of it still seems to come from the USA.
Although we are a queer bookshop, we’re well aware that people’s identities don’t start and end with their sexuality and/or gender, so it’s important to us that we pay attention to race, class, disability, age, and different faiths and cultures.
RD: What book would you most recommend for families looking to introduce their children to queer people and relationships?
For young children, I’d recommend Aalfred and Aalbert by Morag Hood which is about two sweet aardvarks brought together by their friend the little bluebird. For older children, Nicola would recommend Proud by Juno Dawson which is a LGBTIQA+ collection of short stories and artwork by a range of talented YA authors.
RD: What does a typical workday look like for you? How has the business adapted for lockdown?
A typical workday pre-lockdown would involve opening up the shop, collecting books to post out from website sales, serving customers, giving book recommendations and unpacking book deliveries.
We switched to selling through our website thebookishtype.co.uk during lockdown which has worked really well for us. All our stock is online so people can order fabulous queer books and have them delivered. We also offer lots of recommendations on social media as well as sharing bookish news. Sales of books have rocketed during the pandemic and it feels like reading is a great way of getting through these tough times.
RD: What are your favourite and least favourite parts of the job?
I love being in the shop and selling books, and Nicola enjoys researching and finding the best titles to buy. We both enjoy giving recommendations to people whether it’s by email or in person but neither of us enjoys dealing with invoices!
RD: What do you like to do to switch off (apart from reading of course!)?
Watching films and walking Betty, our lovely greyhound. And yes, we do a lot of reading.
RD: What has been the most valuable business lesson you’ve learnt so far? And what has been your most tangible achievement?
The most valuable business lesson has been to build a strong customer base through social media, events and running bookstalls. Listening to your customers, following up on their suggestions and engaging with them on social media is so important.
Our most tangible achievement has been making the switch from running bookstalls around Leeds to actually opening a shop. I’m so proud that we took the risk and that it worked.
Some of our achievements are very much about advising and helping people; for example, I once had a customer who came in asking for books about being bisexual because her grandson had just come out as bi and the rest of the family weren’t being supportive. It was a real pleasure to talk to her, to point out various books and to signpost her to organisations who could help. About a week later I got a thank you card from her which was lovely.
RD: Where would you like to see the business in five years?
We’d like to be a bigger version of what we are now, so bigger premises with enough space to run community events such as book groups, writing workshops and book launches.
RD: If you weren’t in this line of work, what other career would you love to have?
I would have loved to have been an illustrator for children’s books, but my artistic skills aren’t up to it. Nicola would have loved to have been a pop star (but that’s never going to happen!)
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