Across the world, when queer people seek out community or refuge, they seek out LGBTQ bookstores. From Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia to Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto, LGBTQ bookstores have a deep history and have long served as pillars of LGBTQ culture and activism. It’s in that spirit that Matthew Cornford started Queer Lit in August 2021.
Queer Lit began as an online bookstore based in Manchester, UK, stocking exclusively LGBTQ books. Matthew was working in law when he visited a large chain bookshop in Manchester and noticed there was no LGBTQ section.
“I thought, right, OK, maybe this needs to change,” he says. “And the concept of Queer Lit started from there.”
Opening an online business—especially one traditionally known for being brick-and-mortar—in the middle of the pandemic is no easy feat. But Matthew made it happen and even found ways to virtually recreate that vital sense of community, like starting a free book program and a Queer Lit book club.
Now, Queer Lit has it’s very own physical location in Manchester that Matthew built thanks to loans from Shopify Capital. The space is wall-to-wall green shelves, stocked with titles encompassing the full LGBTQ spectrum of identities.
Queer Lit was even named Best New Business at the LGBTQ+ Business Awards. It went from offering 700 titles online to offering 2,000 titles in its physical space.
Shopify talked to Matthew about serving the LGBTQ comunity, and expanding from online to include brick-and-mortar.
Shopify: LGBTQ bookshops are such a cornerstone of community and an important place for gathering. When you have an online shop, how do you recreate that sense of community?
Matthew: When we started, I needed to be very careful about what stock we had, because there was a limit that we could handle as a new business. So that meant asking our community, what did they want to see in store? And rather than “How do you want us to sell books?” it was “How do you want us to interact and support our community?” That’s why even before we opened the brick-and-mortar store, we’d already started programs, like free books for schools.
Shopify: Why was it so important to hear from the community and know what they want to see?
Matthew: Our community is very diverse and it’s like no other community out there. Only by asking and listening were we able to create what we did.
I had a 13-year-old come in only a few days ago—a young trans girl with her dad. Her dad literally hung around at the front and said, “I’ll give you some space,” because they wanted to come in and ask about support for themselves and to see themselves in literature. You don't go into a normal bookshop and ask for these kinds of things, because they’re not going to have those life experiences to be able to go listen.
It’s a very different atmosphere that needs to be created and an openness that needs to be created online and in-store and on our social media: That anyone can come and ask anything, and be seen and be heard and be valued within a tiny little shop.
Shopify: Was it always the goal to have a physical location?
Matthew: I think so. I mean, it was one of those weird times though, because I knew that we couldn’t because we started this just at the beginning of lockdown. I knew that we had to hold tight and perform online and show what our core belief systems were online for a number of reasons. One, to keep people shopping and spending with us. But also to just get through COVID and get to the end of COVID and still give people a reason to come and visit us in-store.
Shopify: What were the biggest challenges of opening a brick-and-mortar store?
Matthew: Stock. Definitely stock. When you’re dropshipping, or you’re getting it in quick. I don’t need to have it right now. I can get it in for tomorrow, ship it out, and as a customer you’re probably not really aware of that. When you’re walking into my shop, I need to give you a big enough visibility of stock for you to have a good selection from. If we don't supply that, we’re always going to be seen as that little shop that doesn't really have much.
Shopify: What does having a physical location allow you to do that you couldn't do before?
Matthew: Have an in-face conversation with customers that they don’t want to have online. People want to come in and just talk to you and they want to open up. Yes, the conversation will no doubt end up with books, but the roots of that is just by starting from where they feel.
Sometimes people just want a really nice romance novel. Other times people are wanting a book that supports them around their question of their gender, or their sexuality, or their identity. I was in earlier and I had a polyamorous couple come in. I was chatting about my love life and relationships and my other half and then they were like, “So, we’re poly and we’ve tried opening it up, but then jealousy kicks in.” And then suddenly now we’re talking about books. So when you’re doing that online, that interaction just doesn’t happen in that way.