In the heart of the bustling neighbourhood of Chueca sits the LGBTQ+ institution of Librería Berkana – Madrid’s oldest LGBTQ+ bookshop, which first opened its doors in 1993. After struggling for a number of years with her identity as a lesbian woman, founder Mili Hernández credits the discovery of LGBTQ+ bookstores in New York and London with “saving her life” and giving her the tools and information to understand and embrace herself. “Discovering these books and literature helped me deconstruct myself as a heterosexual woman and build myself up as a lesbian woman” explains Mili. “After living abroad, I decided to return to Spain and pay a sort of ‘homage’ to these two bookshops from elsewhere in the world and bring what I had experienced to other people.”
Chueca in the early 90s was a very different place to what it is today. There were fewer safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community back then, and the majority of LGBTQ+ businesses such as bars and discos were only open at night. Berkana gave the community somewhere to be visible and safe during the day. “My bookshop was the first business open for gays, lesbians and transsexuals during the day” says Mili. “Berkana was the embryo of what became the gay neighbourhood of Chueca and it completely shook up the conception that people had of hidden and obscure homosexuality.”
As the business became more established, the services it offered evolved. Mili was building a safe space for the community, and increasing numbers of people were soon seeking out Berkana of their own volition. “We were an information point, we provided psychological support, we did everything in the bookshop” recalls Mili. “People started coming from outside Madrid and would look to us as a safe space, a shelter where they could ask for information, such as finding gay-friendly cafés.” Long before Google Maps existed, Mili produced an annually printed map of gay-friendly businesses in Chueca, which grew from a mere 20 businesses to over 200 in the space of just a few years.
Having built a visible safe space for the community within Madrid, Berkana was eager to expand its reach. Before the internet, Mili produced a paper catalogue twice a year and sent them directly to people’s houses – an endeavour she says was prohibitively expensive. The internet has enabled Mili to embrace new tools in order to extend the safety and community of Berkana further afield. “The internet and Google in particular have been instrumental in helping a lot of gay, lesbian, transgender and queer people meet and discover numerous businesses” says Mili.
Mili’s ultimate goal has been to connect with the community beyond Chueca. Through Berkana, she has built an active social media presence and e-commerce website, as well as gathering over 300 reviews on its Business Profile on Google. “For every remote village where there is no bookshop, where there is no business, there is most definitely an LGBTQ+ person – and we want to reach them,” she says. “Our Business Profile lets us do that by making all the relevant information visible.” Berkana has been able to increase its reach internationally too, as evidenced by the reviews on its profile from customers in Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America.
The ability to easily identify Berkana as a safe space for the community – whether in person or online – has been an important element for expanding the business. Adding the attribute to your Business Profile is a simple and effective way for all businesses, no matter how big or small, to show that they’re a safe space – something Mili thinks is crucial as businesses reopen after COVID: “If I just use the name ‘Librería Berkana’, nobody will know what it is about, but the LGBTQ-friendly attribute will make it easier for people to identify us.”
Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Berkana has stayed strong, with Mili putting its resilience down to the support of the community and access to digital tools such as its Business Profile. ‘’When the pandemic hit, we were physically closed to the public. The first day, I went to the bookshop and thought ‘What tools do we have? We have Google, we have networks, we have the website. Well, let’s go for it.’” Running online events and competitions, like offering books signed by the author, helped engage its online community, and when the business was ready to reopen Mili was able to use the Health & Safety attributes on its profile to communicate that it’s COVID safe.
Berkana has managed to have a successful year and Mili is looking forward to returning to normal. The physical shop is what keeps the business alive because its main function is helping people thrive and grow in their LGBTQ+ communities through visibility and diversity. As Mili says in her own words: “Our commitment has not changed. We provide the same service, the same activism, the same safety. But our family is bigger now, as we have expanded our reach overseas and gained the trust of regular users who have known us for 27 years. Digital tools like our Business Profile on Google have helped us adapt and stay open during the pandemic while not losing touch with the community we have worked so hard to build. We’ve grown old together and what we’ve ultimately done is consolidate a safe space for LGBTQ+ people all around the world.”