by Xinhua Writer Guo Likun
TAIPEI, Nov.1 (Xinhua) -- In a quiet small lane near a noisy metro station in southwest Taipei City, you can find Gin Gin's, Taiwan's first gay and lesbian bookstore which opened more than 11 years ago.
Going up a short stairway and through a big glass door, you can see people shopping in the 132-square-meter store for gay and lesbian literature, magazines, comics, audio and visual products, as well as T-shirts, accessories, tank tops, and even condoms and sex toys.
"Apart from local residents, we also have many customers from Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Europe and America," said the bookstore's owner Lai Jeng-jer, who himself is gay.
"More customers from the Chinese mainland have been coming to the store in the past years," the 44-year-old said.
He said that even nuns visited his store.
"Occasionally five or six nuns come here together looking for tank tops. I think they need them to hide their curves."
"I was surprised the first time I saw them in my store," he laughed. "You know, here's a conflict. Both the most reclusive group of people and our gay and lesbian friends come to my store for things they most need."
"From the very beginning, I knew I couldn't keep my store running by only selling books with the competition from large franchised bookstores here and the books' marginal profits. So I also sell things other than books."
Now, tank tops are one of the best earners for Gin Gin's, Lai said.
With the aim of providing a cosy, discrimination-free space for homosexuals, Lai opened the island's first gay and lesbian bookstore in 1999.
"When I was in high school, I usually went to 228 Memorial Park where homosexuals often got together at night," said Lai who has been active in the gay rights movement for years.
Two incidents prompted him to open his bookstore. The first was the 1997 police crackdown on gays hanging out on Changte Street near 228 Memorial Park and the other was a restaurant on Yungkang Street putting up signs saying "No Gays" in 1998 after its customers made complaints.
"At first, it was quite difficult. I called 30 friends, only two of them said they could chip in some money for the bookstore. But my mother gave me enormous help," he said.
At that time, Lai even brought in some discarded tables from off the street. "I majored in architecture, so the decoration is sound with such a mean budget."
Gin Gin's has done quite well for the past 11 years.
"In the first year, I and my store got quite a bit of media exposure." Soon a huge number of people got to know about the bookstore.
Gin Gin's has expanded over the years and moved to the current site, which is just opposite the original one, in 2005. And to prevent rising rents from eating his profits away, Lai bought the space with a loan.
About one fourth of Gin Gin's floor area is reserved for activities -- such as lectures -- to improve communication about and between homosexuals.
Lai constantly invites experts and celebrities to his store.
"The celebrities including singers, news anchors, writers and film directors have given me kudos. They've attracted media attention. I think the reason they show their support for me is because I'm brave enough to step out into the spotlight as a gay."
However, from the very beginning, the bookstore has experienced criticism and attacks from conservative groups and homophobes.
In January 2001, an unknown person threw bricks at Gin Gin's during the night.
In 2005, a local court ruled that Lai was guilty of providing "indecent materials" as he sold gay magazines imported from Hong Kong, despite the fact the magazines were properly sealed and had a clear warning that they were only for adults.
"Three years ago, a foreign teacher of a church school in the neighborhood brought his students to my store and painted graffiti on the outside walls, saying things such as 'transform yourself, believe in God, this is the truth,'" he said.
"I was sad at that time, not because of the graffiti, but because the teacher educates students in this way. What he should tell the children is there are various kinds of people in the world, and people should respect each other," he said.
Lai chose to paint his store pink and created a restroom with transparent walls. "People are too conservative when it comes to the human body."
Gin Gin's opened its online shop in 2000 and on the homepage "We fly our own way" stands out as the shop's slogan.