On a crowded pier in San Francisco, sandwiched between a shop selling clothes for “urban cowboys” and one selling merchandise for the local basketball team, is Lefty’s, one of the last remaining shops for left-handed people. Outside, giggling passersby take selfies, their left hands raised high in solidarity. Inside, posters with the names of famous lefties line the walls: Leonardo da Vinci, Bill Gates, Queen Victoria, Barack Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, James Baldwin, Babe Ruth, Paul McCartney. A portrait of Ned Flanders, a much-maligned character in “The Simpsons” who opens his own “Leftorium”, hangs above a display devoted to left-handed scissors.
At the back of the shop is a demo station, where visitors can try their hand at cutting out shapes or writing with special “no smudge” pens. My friend, a right-hander, tries to cut out a square with a pair of left-handed scissors. After a while she puts down the shears in frustration. “I’m useless!” she says. I make a few quick snips and triumphantly hold up a triangle. For someone whose kind has been marginalised for thousands of years, it’s a small victory.
Lefty’s isn’t the only shop for left-handed people in America. But it may have some of the oldest roots. Left Hand World, the original store for lefties on Pier 39, opened in 1978. It closed after about a decade, but San Franciscans have a long memory. Margaret Majua, who runs other shops along the pier, says she was asked again and again to bring the store back. She finally acquiesced and opened the new Lefty’s in 2008. “It’s my least profitable store”, she tells me, “but it’s the store I like the most.”
A shop that caters to just 10% of the population is never going to make a lot of money, especially when left-handed can-openers and notebooks can be found in a couple of clicks on Amazon. After 26 seasons as a punchline on “The Simpsons”, the Leftorium closed down for want of customers and Ned Flanders turned to selling his merchandise online. It’s the same story in the real world. In 2006, after nearly 40 years, Anything Left-Handed, in London’s Soho, closed its brick-and-mortar shop to focus on e-commerce. But no website can capture the technicolour wonderland that Lefty’s packs into its tiny square-footage. When Majua asks me what I think about being left-handed, I tell her I don’t think about it much at all. “I’ve adapted”, I say. She gasps, angry on my behalf. “You haven’t adapted, you’ve settled. And it’s not your fault!”
That I don’t often think about what hand I write with is a luxury that previous generations did not always enjoy. In America and Europe, left-handers have never had it so good. We are no longer accused of practising witchcraft or cavorting with Satan. We’re not mocked by our school teachers or forced to write with our right hands. As well as making left-handed products more accessible, the internet and social media have made it easier for us band together. On Instagram there are roughly 12,500 posts under the hashtag #lefthandedproblems. Many photos feature people proudly showing off their silvery, graphite-smudged hands.
But even now, not all of us can be out and proud. Lefties are much rarer in some parts of the world – a fact which is partly down to stigma. In China, where the proportion of left-handers is estimated to be just 1%, some people have reported being forcibly “cured” of their left-handedness. In Britain and America in the early 20th century, the number of lefties shot up as it became more acceptable to be left-handed. But Chris McManus of University College London, who has devoted his career to studying the subject, says that genetic differences play a part in determining handness as well as cultural factors. He points to studies of people who have migrated from the Indian subcontinent to Britain and their children, who were born in Britain. Both groups have a similar rate of left-handedness – a rate that is lower than the general population – which could be attributed to genetics.
Back at Lefty’s, I take a pair of scissors to the till. The sales clerk offers a stream of pleasantries. “Are these for you?” “Do you know many lefties?” “It runs in the family, right?” As she scans and wraps my purchase, I ask her if she is left-handed as well. “Of course!” But that is not the case for everyone who works there. We don’t discriminate in San Francisco, she says, even against righties.