Any good bookstore is a sanctuary, giving customers a place to simply be and to get absorbed in a book — and at Under the Umbrella, an LGBTQ-centered store in downtown Salt Lake City, that idea of refuge takes on an added importance for its clientele.
“There are a lot of queer-friendly places,” said the store’s owner, Kaitlyn Mahoney, who lists off restaurants that host drag brunches, or the state’s few gay bars. She added, “I don’t think that there are other businesses like this one, that are a place that people can go that are queer-owned and queer-oriented.”
Under the Umbrella, launched through a crowdfundfunding campaign Mahoney started last year, is thriving in its first six months in business at 511 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City. It stands out as being one of the few hangouts for all of Salt Lake City’s LGBTQ+ population, regardless of age.
The store has grown beyond Mahoney’s wildest dreams, she said — and she credits that to the volunteers who help there, and the community response and the ideas everyone has brought to the store.
“In the [six] months that we’ve been open, there are regulars who come in every week [or] every couple of weeks,” she said, with delighted astonishment.
A community LGBTQ space
Firstly, Under the Umbrella is a bookstore — one where all the books are written by queer authors, or feature queer authors and storylines. The store has fiction and nonfiction, graphic novels, a fantasy section and a children’s section.
The store’s services, however, go beyond just selling books.
In the back of the store, there’s a free gender-affirming closet, featuring all types of clothing and accessories — shoes, makeup, jewelry, purses, pajamas and more. It’s become so popular that Mahoney has put up signs alerting customers that they can only take five items a day.
“I imagined it being something really small,” Mahoney said. “I bought one rack,” she added, using her hands to show that it wasn’t very big.
Mahoney said she thinks it’s beautiful that the closet is popular. “People have been really excited about this form of mutual aid between queers and for queer people,” she said.
There’s a give-and-take wall — a cork bulletin board, really — where “anyone can purchase something in the store and then post on the give-and-take wall that it’s available.”
Those taking from the wall must meet the criteria on the index cards that describe the items available. A message on a card might read “$10 gift card for someone who felt validated in their identity just by walking into Under the Umbrella today” or “For any trans athlete, regardless of age or sport. You absolutely belong! Take up the space you deserve, you have all my support.”
Some cards offer connection, like one listing an Instagram handle for anyone looking for “a friend to talk to” — or cards that promise dancing lessons for couples or a free hour of creative writing advice.
“These kinds of mutual aid aspects have been one of my favorite things to see grow in a way that I wasn’t expecting,” Mahoney said.
Another hidden gem in the store is a pen-pal writing station, geared particularly toward incarcerated queer people.
“The prison system intentionally makes it really difficult to correspond with incarcerated people,” Mahoney said. “We’ve tried to reduce the barriers as much as possible,” by getting addresses and pre-stamped envelopes, she said.
Volunteers organize a monthly queer speed-dating event. It varies from the traditional format, Mahoney said, because everyone meets everyone else, regardless of gender identity. Since everyone who participates is also involved in a monthly book club, they all have something in common to talk about. And even if someone doesn’t hit it off romantically with someone, Mahoney said, the event is about fostering relationships in all forms.
Other event ideas Mahoney is considering include tarot card readings, yoga (for any body type or gender identity), and masterclasses for trans musicians.
“If you have a queer event in mind that you would like to see at the store, please reach out,” Mahoney said, noting that the goal is to create a general community space.
The power of affirmation
If Mahoney had to pick a favorite part of the store — a question that made her pause for several seconds — she’d pick the nonfiction section, “because it has all of the words right there on the cover. You stand over there and you see trans and bisexual and queer and gay and lesbian and asexual, just right there on the covers.”
The section is full of recognizable faces: Billy Porter, Tan France, Elton John. All real people, like the customers — and all being completely, fully themselves.
Books, Mahoney said, are how she discovered her own identity. “It’s so incredibly affirming and validating to see the words printed and published and right there in front of your face,” she said. “It’s really powerful and something we deserve to have.”
A day doesn’t go by, Mahoney said, where she doesn’t share a good cry with a customer.
One time, she said, a formerly incarcerated transgender mother came into the store. “We had a book just out in our children’s section with a trans mom right on the cover,” Mahoney recalled. Then the mother saw the gender-affirming closet, and later, the pen-pal station.
“She was able to find a book for her kids that related to their experience, write a letter to an incarcerated queer person, and then find a pair of pants that she could wear,” Mahoney said, adding that she and the mother cried together over the experience.
“There have been a lot of really beautiful experiences like that, where people just feel that affirming [nature] that the store is trying to communicate so passionately,” Mahoney said.
While a reporter talks to Mahoney, another visitor speaks up to her: “If I’d had a place like this bookstore growing up, I probably wouldn’t have gone down the path of drugs and other choices that I did.”
A place for all
The bookstore is more than what immediately meets the eye.
Sprinkled within cubbies and display stands, there are pieces of queer art, clothing, stickers and pins. Pride flags of all colors are available. Gay tarot cards. Prayer candles, with icons of characters from “The Golden Girls.” An entire plastic pocket display full of queer guides on a wide range of topics. Tote bags, featuring such sayings as “this bag holds my gay agenda.”
All in all, the store is the queer-owned, queer-friendly space for everyone, just as Mahoney intended.
In June, during Pride Month, Mahoney said she plans to hold activities every night — though the plans are still being finalized.
As one exits the store, one sees a rainbow-painted crate: A little free library. Next to it is a three-tier rolling cart, with free items for anyone who needs them: Lip balm, masks, snacks and feminine hygiene products. It’s one more instance of the bookstore giving back more than it takes.
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