The 5 Types of LGBTQ+ Bookstore Sections
The Fixed Foundational, the Token Shelf, the Halfway There, and more!
Bookstores are important resources for all communities. In particular, the LGBTQ+ community benefits from the safe and welcoming environment bookstores offer. Because of this relationship, bookstores have historically been instrumental in local activism and the organisation of rights movements.
Stores such as Gay’s The Word, in London, and the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, in New York were a few of the first Queer bookstores that emerged in the 60s and 70s . In progressive fashion, hundreds of Queer bookstores have followed suit in the last 50 years by opening their doors across the world. And bookstores which are not specifically Queer-run, or marketed as Queer, now have LGBTQ+ sections incorporated as a standard genre on their shelves.
Though, not all LGBTQ+ sections are equal in their repertoire! Just as every bookstore is different, so are the Queer sections they curate for sale. Here are 5 different types of LGBTQ+ bookstore sections you might encounter in the search for Queer voices on paper.
The ‘Fixed Foundational’
This section is pretty rare in new-stock bookstores, and is most often found in second-hand bookshops. The Fixed Foundational LGBTQ+ section is full of books from pre-2005, often from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Across these decades, Queer literature was growing in many countries, and a chorus of voices were being brought forward to print. The voices of these decades went beyond the subversive fiction, poetry, erotic pulp, or the cis-straight-analysis of ‘homosexual life’ that LGBTQ+ content had been fairly limited to previously.
Queer writing and voices that emerged during these decades followed on from huge civil rights movements in the 60s. But these texts still faced much censorship and persecution right into the 21st century, and weren’t necessarily easy to find if you didn’t know where to look.
Writers you might come across in the Fixed Foundational section are people like Audre Lord, Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Merle Miller, Judith Butler, Alison Bechdel, Dennis Altman, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and Susie Bright – just to name a few. Though these author’s works are somewhat fixed in time, they are very important to LGBTQ+ history and our collective knowledge.
As a reader, if you can make it passed the older terms (like homosexual, transsexual, and genderfuck, for example) and some potentially dated ideas about identity, sex, and gender, then these books are still very much worth picking up. Foundational, Queer poetry is a particularly timeless genre.
The Fixed Foundational section may provide you with LGBTQ+ insights you won’t find elsewhere. I experienced this after picking up a graphic novel by A. K. Summers, which was originally written in the late-90s to early-2000s, (though it wasn’t published till 2014). You can read about my experience with it here.
The ‘Halfway There’
This section is the embodiment of ‘a great start’. It’s most often found in smaller, local bookstores, where space and margin are large factors in determining how large their LGBTQ+ section can be.
The Halfway There section might fill one or two shelves, and it frequently contains popular, recent Queer titles. In it’s contained space, the Halfway There has at least two or three books from the genres of non-fiction, graphic novel, poetry, memoir, and fiction. Authors you might find here include Ocean Vuong, Sarah McBride, Bernandine Evaristo, Samra Habib, Jacob Tobia, Gabby Rivera, Rita Mae Brown, Camryn Garret, Noelle Stevenson, and Chen Chen.
Remember, any store with a Halfway There section might have several more LGBTQ+ books hidden around the place in other sections like Young Adult, Feminism, and History. So, have a further look!
The ‘Token Shelf’
The Token Shelf almost exclusively appears in large, chain bookstores. This LGBTQ+ section is not inherently bad, but tends to exemplify a lack of effort on the chain’s part. There might be one or two gems in here, from any of the authors mentioned in the last two categories. But this section is mostly filled by pop-LGBTQ+ literature, and by ‘pop’ I mean books which have had a recent movie adaptation.
Titles here might include Call Me By Your Name (André Aciman), Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda (Becky Albertalli), The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Emily M. Danforth), Holding the Man (Timothy Conigrave), Tell It to the Bees (Fiona Shaw), and Boy Erased (Garrard Conley). Again, these books are in no way bad for appearing in the Token Shelf, they are all worthy Queer reads!
What these books’ collective existence on the Token Shelf shows is simply how little chain bookstores invest in LGBTQ+ content. Queer books which have recently been adapted into films are an easy pick for these stores because they are quick to source, often have newly-printed editions, and don’t need to be content vetted thanks to their ‘recently adapted into film’ status.
If you are stuck in front of a chain’s Token Shelf, remember not much of your purchase is going toward supporting LGBTQ+ authors. Still, you won’t go wrong picking up a story you haven’t watched yet, or even one you have! Novels still contain plenty of additional content, nuance, and story their film adaptation might not have captured.
The ‘Whole(some) Package’
When you find a bookstore with the Whole(some) Package, get your wallet out and be prepared to rejoice as hard as you buy! This LGBTQ+ section contains everything from the previous three sections, and more. The more is often made up of authors local to your city, state, or country, as well as LGBTQ+ books printed by smaller publishers and universities.
This section is a literary and cultural goldmine for LGBTQ+ readers. The Whole(some) Package often takes up five, six, or seven shelves, which feels generous on the storeowner’s part. But it should really be the Queer-section standard. Yes, this section sets the bar for every other bookstore. I’ve only found one store in my city befitting of this category, and five-or-so others during my international travels (that weren’t Queer bookstores).
This section also contains books by author’s whose Queer identities are underrepresented in the publishing and literary worlds. Trans, Non Binary, Intersex, Pan, Ace, and Aro authors can be found here. And plenty of authors with intersecting identities too.
Some of those underrepresented writers you might find in a Whole(some) Package section are Charlie Jane Anders, Thomas Page McBee, Vivek Shraya, River Solomon, Alok Vaid-Menon, Casey Plett, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha, Claudie Arseneault, Lauren Jankowski, Alec Butler, Aaron Apps, and Jy Yang.
Bookstores which contain a Whole(some) Package of LGBTQ+ literature, are simply fantastic and should be applauded on their curation abilities, dedication, community mindset, and probable-employment of Queer staff.
The ‘Zine Time’
Zine Time finds its home in the most alternative of bookstores. This LGBTQ+ section is stacked with journals, magazines, local and national zines, crowd-funded anthologies, manifestos, chapbooks, and comics. The bookstores containing a Zine Time section are tucked away in the trendy parts of town, in the gaybourhoods, and in hole-in-the-wall spaces.
The texts available in any Zine Time section are very regional, so it is difficult to speculate what titles and authors you might find here. However, this section usually contains local, state, and national Queer works which are unavailable for purchase online. So, if you see something that piques you’re interest, it’s a good time to buy. Fortunately the Zine Time LGBTQ+ section is very reasonably priced, especially considering your dollar is directly supporting your local Queer creators and rebel thinkers.
Bonus: The ‘Local Library’
Local Libraries can be a potluck when it comes to LGBTQ+ books. Depending upon the country, state, or city (and their respective laws), some libraries will have dedicated Queer sections (titled as Sexuality or LGBTQ+) or Queer subsections (found within Young Adult, Health, History, Fiction etc.), or no LGBTQ+ books at all. The same can be said of school libraries. Regardless, libraries are instrumental in the identity education, mental wellbeing, safety, and happiness of Queer readers.
Libraries are always worth mentioning in conversations about Queer reading, because they remain the most accessible and (ideally) indiscriminate source of information for society. With the agency of just a library card, anyone can borrow and read the LGBTQ+ books their library holds, and feel safe while doing so.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also like these two:
‘The Half of It’ Creates a Whole Picture of Regional Queerness
A queer movie review of Alice Wu’s new film