Under the Umbrella: Salt Lake’s Queer Little Bookstore

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Under the Umbrella opened November 15, 2021, 11 months after Kaitlyn Mahoney made it her New Year’s resolution to open a queer bookstore. “I was never interested in writing a book,” says Mahoney, an English major and the owner and sole employee of Under the Umbrella. “I always thought owning a bookstore would be really cool. When I started reading queer books, I was like, ‘God, we need a queer bookstore. Somebody needs to do that, right?’” No one did, so Mahoney stepped up and committed herself to creating a space that would strive for inclusiveness, anti-racism, affirmation and safety.

“I always thought owning a bookstore would be really cool. When I started reading queer books, I was like, ‘God, we need a queer bookstore. Somebody needs to do that, right?’”
Photo: John Barkiple

At the start of the year, Mahoney knew nothing about retail, much less owning a business. She studied and took a course on bookstore management, and by April she had launched a crowdsourced funding campaign for the store’s inventory budget that raised $56,000. By the end of July, Mahoney found the store’s future home on the corner of 200 S. and 500 West just off the TRAX station; by November, the store was open. Mahoney now works with a team of volunteers to run the store.

As a young person, Mahoney discovered her queer identity through books. “I grew up Mormon and didn’t have access to the language of queerness,” she says. “I was taught very binary things, and without access to those stories, I don’t know how long it would have taken to start questioning my gender and my sexuality. When would I have figured out who I am?” Mahoney recognizes that even though her access to these stories was stifled, she was still privileged to find them as quickly as she did. It became important to Mahoney to increase accessibility to queer narratives. Stories give us the opportunity to see ourselves in unexpected places, and that possibility for tremendous, life-altering resonance makes a place like Under the Umbrella feel bright.

“I grew up Mormon and didn’t have access to the language of queerness.”

In its short time open, the queer community has emphatically embraced Under the Umbrella, and the store hosts events from queer speed dating to watercolor workshops, evincing the need for a welcoming community space of Under the Umbrella’s kind. Events like these, Mahoney says, come about when people encounter the space and see Mahoney’s vision. For instance, Madazon Can-Can, a local queer performer, acquired a grant from Project Rainbow for a monthly series called Drag King Story Hour that features drag kings from the community performing readings of books for children. The store also offers meeting spaces that anyone can book, as well as a gender-affirming closet (a community-supplied clothing repository anyone can take from).

Under the Umbrella’s slim margins and slight opportunities to break even mean that community support is vital for this queer little bookstore.
Photo: John Barkiple

Even though it’s technically a special-interest bookstore, Under the Umbrella’s book selection is diverse, an intention set by Mahoney’s anti-racism action plan she instituted as a tenet of the store. “At least 50% of the books that are face-out on the shelves are books written by people of color. The displays we have are representing the more marginalized identities within our community,” she says. Stories from Black trans women and Indigenous authors are front and center. In May, the store’s front display featured books concerning aromanticism and asexuality, two identities often and unfortunately excluded from the queer community, says Mahoney. The bookstore also features a Community Curated Shelf, which rotates monthly, and 5% sales of the shelf’s books go to the organization that curated it.

“At least 50% of the books that are face-out on the shelves are books written by people of color.”

There’s too much to say about Under the Umbrella. Between its community events and its ideas around inclusion and the power of stories, the store seems to be on a trajectory toward becoming a community pillar. The store’s slim margins and slight opportunities to break even mean that community support is vital for this queer little bookstore. Find it on the corner of 200 S. and 500 West just off the TRAX station, and visit them online at undertheumbrellabookstore.com.

More reads for SLC bookworms:
9th & 9th Book & Music Gallery: The Bookstore In Your Bedroom
Marissa’s Books: A Treasure Trove for Bookworms of All Ages