Lavender Menace: Queen of Bookshops

With a new play celebrating Scotland’s first Gay Bookshop, Lavedner Menace, due to open at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre, co-owner Bob Orr looks back to the start of the story, in 1982.

Your involvement in selling books started long before you opened Lavender Menace.
I’d come to Edinburgh in 1976. By 1979 I was part of a collective running a “book shop” in the Edinburgh LGBT Centre, owned and run by the Scottish Minorities Group (now, Outright Scotland). That had started off as a locked display cabinet, so it was only open when there was somebody there! Eventually, we put up some makeshift shelves in a recess in one of the walls. For the life of me, I cannot remember now where all the stock came from—as a student, I was working part-time in the book trade, so I guess I was able to access catalogues.

As told in Love Song to Lavender Menace, that’s how you first met Sigrid Nielsen?
Yes, she’d come to Edinburgh from America, and was soon involved in the collective, and later worked in First of May, an Edinburgh bookshop selling leftwing, feminist, and LGBT books.

The impetus, though, for setting up Lavender Menace was having to leave the SMG Centre!
We got ourselves into trouble because we sold a ‘blasphemous’ Christmas Card, which the Committee didn’t like, and so banned. We appealed their decision, but we lost. We had decided that, if we lost the appeal, we would just leave. That was a huge wrench for me, because I’d “come out” through SMG but, by that time, the idea of an ongoing bookselling effort was viable without the Centre.

Male homosexuality was only partially decriminalised in 1980; how difficult was it to open a bank account for a ‘gay bookshop’?
We drew up a business plan, with a cashflow – hand written in those days – and we tramped around the banks. Certainly the idea was… off the wall, as far as bourgeois financiers were concerned, but the Co-op finally said yes. The bank manager told us he’d seen our sign in the window of the SMG Gay Centre on the way to work. They gave us an overdraft matching the funds we had raised. We had raised £2,000, mostly from selling books at Fire Island, Edinburgh’s first gay disco.

In the end, it was just you and Sigrid who started Lavender Menace.
The collective continued to meet for about a year, nourishing the idea of a bookshop but, over time, the others faded away.

The play highlights how you didn’t keep your signage up overnight.
It was a conservation area, and we didn’t want to get involved in any planning bureaucracy. The sign would go up in the morning and came down at night; it was like that for the five year period we were there. That was—jumping ahead—one of the reasons why I wanted a main street site, so that we could be much more visible, which we ultimately achieved in Dundas Street when we reopened as West & Wilde.

How were your relations with the Police?
We were raided, once. We stocked a magazine called “Minor Problems”, a newsletter, and somebody complained. So they took that away; a pal of mine said “I wish I could have them in my house, they cleaned up after themselves so well!” So long as they knew where we were, I think they were quite happy. Not a lot they could’ve done, as we weren’t doing anything illegal.

So many years later, are you still happy to talk about Lavender Menace?
I have to say I never tire of talking about the bookshop, especially the more I realise what an influence it had on people’s lives. I am still learning more about the shop’s story after all this time!

Love Song to Lavender Menace, by James Ley, runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 12 – 21 October.

First published by Attitude, #October 2017.

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