Mushroom Bookshop

Can't find an actual photo of Mushroom, which used to occupy a space which is now Paramount Pictures on Heathcoat Street. Mushroom was there from the 1970s until it closed in 2000. It had a comprehensive lesbian and gay section, displayed the gay free papers, had gay info on its notice board and sold Gay Times, giving the profits to Nottingham Switchboard. The gay writing group Pink Ink was c/o Mushroom

mushroom

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Mushroom Bookshop was an independent bookshop in Nottingham which ran from 1972 until 2000. Its roots were in the anarchist movement and in the early years, as the name suggests, was something of a hippy haunt, first opening in Arkwright Street. By the time I arrived, in 1979, the shop – a collective – had become reasonably successful, in bigger premises in the alternative/trendy area of Hockley and it gradually expanded, taking over neighbouring premises and, in the weeks before Christmas, setting up a second shop selling Fairtrade gifts and the like. At its height Mushroom occupied the premises currently taken by Paramount Pictures and Jam Café in Heathcote Street.

The shop had always stocked lesbian and gay books, in modest quantities, and supported gay liberation movements, without any direct involvement. This changed when the Mushroom Book Events Group was set up, by one worker, Kate Marsden and several customers, to start bringing women – mostly feminist – writers to Nottingham. These days, with book festivals and author events being commonplace, it is hard to imagine that this was a new idea, but it was. Quite a few of those writers were lesbians or writing on lesbian themes. They included, for example, Maureen Duffy, one of the first modern writers of explicitly lesbian fiction, Sunita Namjoshi, in those days a rare Asian lesbian writer, and Jeanette Winterson whose career still blossoms. This was in the heyday of Sheba, Virago and Women's Press.

In 1984 or 85 a regular customer, Colin Clewes, who had been active in the first AIDS support groups in Nottingham, said to us that we should have clearly marked lesbian and gay sections, showcasing the books we already had – some of which were uncomfortably living in a “sexual politics” section. He encouraged us to stock Gay Times, Rouge and other gay magazines. Just try it, he said, because it will mean a lot to lesbian and gay customers to see labelled sections indicating that lesbian and gay books were as commonplace as poetry or cookery. And he gave us booklists to increase the stock. From what I remember, he also decided where the sections should go and rearranged them himself – coming in every Saturday to admire his handiwork and to watch the books sell, which they did, in large quantity. Colin gradually moved behind the counter but was not interested in joining the collective – our pay was too low for him!

Colin's ideas were welcome. Mo Cumming and I had been involved in assorted campaigns for gay rights when we lived in Scotland, at a time when homosexuality was illegal – the change came later in that country. At one stage we were pictured - with many others - on the front cover of the Aberdeen Press and Journal as “self-confessed homosexuals” picketing a bar that was refusing to serve gay people. But mostly the books and mags were welcomed by customers. Sales of Gay Times (supplied via Switchboard, so they could get a cut of the proceeds) reached about 200 at one stage, while what appeared to be half a ton of the Pink Paper was given away every week, in addition to local news-sheets invariably edited by Richard McCance. As well as books, the shop sold tickets for buses to Pride (then only held in London), lesbian and gay badges, postcards, records. Anything we could find.

For many lesbian and gay people Mushroom Bookshop was a stepping stone towards personal liberation; to coming out. There were many nervous seventeen year-olds browsing through the lesbian and gay sections, often young women from rural areas of the County, or from Mansfield, who previously had no contact with the gay world. Occasionally they'd be offered a cup of tea but when they finally got round to buying a lesbian and gay book they'd be treated just as if they were buying a book on green politics. We wanted to make buying lesbian and gay books normal.

There were some issues... do you put gay writers in the gay sections or just books on gay themes? What about clearly gay books that had a big crossover readership, like Armistead Maupin – hugely popular at the time with a wide range of customers. What about EM Foster? Or a biography of, say, Benjamin Britten? Would people lose out by not finding these books in general fiction or subject areas? What about S & M? Some lesbians complained that we had too few books with an S &M content, others complained that we had any at all. This was never properly resolved, but led to an entertaining internal debate as the whole staff had to read Pat Califa's Coming to Power, about which the debate crystallised.

The big change came with Clause 28. The book trade as a whole was horrified. Mushroom swung into action immediately, producing a double sided leaflet – one side listing all the major lesbian and gay writers we could think of, or straight writers who'd written positively about gay people, with the reverse being the case against the Clause. Some of us took part in a Manchester demonstration but for weeks groups of, primarily, young gay men spurred into political action would pick up bundles of our leaflets and distribute them around town. We were happy to reprint and reprint until local activists could produce their own material. Though we printed tens of thousands leaflets, I don't have a copy, so do get in touch if you have one!

Together with Nottinghamshire Libraries we produced a booklist, “Unsilenced Voices” and libraries ran some good displays of the books, promoted by Alan Guest, an out gay man in the library service. Alan died a few years ago, in his retirement.

We increased the range of gay writers coming to Nottingham including a set of writers with coming out stories; a set of multicultural writers; novelists like Adam Mars-Jones and Francis King. We put on the play This Island’s Mine by Gay Sweatshop. Two of my favourite writers came to visit – Tom Wakefield, to speak about his memoir of being the gay son of a miner in the Potteries, and the playwright Noë l Greig to talk about Edward Carpenter, an early socialist and gay man who lived near Chesterfield. In both cases the authors revealed a very different attitude to that which we might imagine towards gay people and gay life among the northern working class. Tom's book, Forties’ Child, is well worth finding, while the playscript of Noë l's Carpenter play, The Dear Love of Comrades, still inspires. I'd seen the play some time earlier, in my last year in Aberdeen, and was thrilled to meet the author. For a few years Chris Richardson organised an annual Edward Carpenter walk round his old haunts in Derbyshire. Sadly, Tom and Noë l are no longer with us, with the latter dying just three years back.

Armistead Maupin came to town and we decorated West Park Pavilion in West Bridgford with daffs from the allotment of two of the staff members, and turned the stage into a living room with material from my then partner and my own living room. And Jane Rule, over from Canada, came to talk about her book Desert of the Heart, which had become a very popular lesbian film. We also launched the poetry books of our local gay writer, Gregory Woods, and published a collection of his review essays (This is no book - still available!).

The staff of the bookshop was always mostly straight, though with a large periphery of lesbians who drove round with our library and school deliveries, covered holiday and sickness relief, some bookstalls, helped with stocktake and at times operated almost like a secondary collective where a call to one woman would mean that she would usually sort out a rota for holiday relief or whatever we needed amongst the others. Two of that group, Billie Riley and Helen Jarrett, eventually joined the collective and stayed for a long time, while other lesbian and gay men, including Robin Thomson (who went on to become a translator of Russian) worked for shorter stretches. It never seemed to matter though, as all the workers were committed to lesbian and gay rights, to the books and to the campaigns.

Similarly the customers as a whole found no concerns. Yes, there were the occasional homophobe or homophobic group that came in to mock or insult but they usually gave up quickly, embarrassed - leaving with the tuts of disapproval from other customers ringing in their ears. Two staff members though, coming back to the shop late at night, found a couple in the doorway – we coughed politely, thinking they were snogging. In fact they were praying for us as we were doing the work of Satan by selling gay and mystical books. We cheerfully invited them in to have a look round and have a chat, but they were unwilling.

The best anecdote was, however, from the mouth of a new customer. He was browsing round our general new books section and saw a shelf of novels by Vita Sackville-West, of Sissinghurst Gardens fame. “Oh look,” said the man to his wife, “there's some books by Sackville-West. I didn't know she wrote novels, I thought she was a lesbian.” Well she was a lesbian who wrote novels. In February 2012 Mushroom Bookshop was awarded a posthumous gong (or, to be more exact, a certificate) by Nottinghamshire Rainbow Heritage as part of the LGBT History Month. Several of the old team - Mo, Helen and Kate (all mentioned earlier), Hilary Trengrouse and I - turned up to receive the award. We were all touched that the shop was remembered so as a lesbian and gay haven. But it was. A place where you could find that lesbians really did write novels, as did gay men and that lesbians and gays read too. Who knew?

I left the bookshop in 1995, after seventeen years, missing the difficult years that followed, with the shop closing in 2000. There has not been another independent bookshop in Nottingham since then, to great regret. There are, however, stirrings in the radical bookshop milieu that remains, with some new shops opening elsewhere last year. Gays the Word, on Marchmont Street in London remains as it was in Mushroom's time. Different staff, but still a fantastic bookshop and community resource. Gay or straight, we need to support it, with our pink, rainbow or whatever coloured pound so there is still a major “bricks and mortar” bookshop where you can see a range of lesbian and gay books in the one place. A place where a seventeen year-old, or worried parent, can still turn up to find that lesbian and gay books (and by definition lesbian and gay lifestyles) are quite normal, and that there is a whole history and culture to explore. Or just to find some good reads and fun postcards.

Ross Bradshaw

Ross Bradshaw runs Five Leaves Publications in Nottingham, a small radical and literary publishing firm (www.fiveleaves.co.uk)

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