Leah Johnson, the author of a middle grade book (Ellie Engle Saves the World) and two YA novels (You Should See Me in a Crown and Rise to the Sun), isn’t simply speaking up against censorship or writing letters expressing her opinions—she’s putting banned books into people’s hands. Two months ago, Johnson launched an online bookstore on Bookshop.org to sell these books, and she intends to ratchet it up a notch this fall by opening a bricks-and-mortar store that will spotlight books in its inventory that are routinely challenged by individuals and organizations such as Moms for Liberty. Loudmouth Books, which will be located in Indianapolis, where Johnson lives, is scheduled to open with a soft launch in late September, followed by a grand opening during Banned Books Week (October 1–7).
Loudmouth Books is being financed through Johnson’s advances and the royalties from her books, as well as the $16,570 she raised last month during a GoFundMe campaign with a $10,000 goal.
“We exceeded expectations,” Johnson said of the fundraiser. Most of the money, she said, was raised on the first day—Juneteenth; $14,000 or $15,000 was raised in 24 hours. “I was so pleasantly surprised to see how overwhelming the response was. The lease is signed, the building is secured, and we’ve already started work on the inside to get it ready.” The store’s retail area is 1,000 square feet, she noted. “It’s not a small space.”
Johnson explained that she was compelled to act in response to the avalanche of bills being introduced in state legislatures around the country that are intended to restrict access to books, as well as recent legislation that openly discriminates against LGBTQ+ people.
“One of the scariest [bills] for me as a writer is right here in Indiana,” she noted. “HB 1447 is a book banning bill that not only makes it easier for books about queer and BIPOC folks to be challenged, but also makes it easier to criminalize teachers and librarians for keeping those books available to young people.”
It’s also personal, she said: her three YA novels, which feature Black protagonists and contain LGBTQ+ themes, have been challenged—especially You Should See Me in a Crown. “Watching them being removed from shelves, I felt like my hands were tied. All of us are just looking for a way to get these stories into the hands of the readers who need them the most. It’s hard to do that as a writer, because all I can control is the book itself. But as a bookseller, it’s a different ballgame. It’s a private business: they can’t tell me that I can’t sell the books I want to sell. This is the most empowering course of action for me right now.”
Asked whether she intends to continue writing books, Johnson said that she currently is under contract for three more. “Those books will get written, and we’re going to put them out, and I will tour with them and hopefully they are far-reaching. In the coming years, there’s going to be a decrease in writing for me—that’s the side effect of choosing to spend so much time working on this. But I’m ready for a new era in my career; I’m excited to keep writing alongside being a bookseller, and I’m going to keep teaching [in the MFA program at Butler University]. Hopefully, we can keep all these balls in the air.”
The store will be divided equally into two sections, the first being general literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, “through the lens of marginalized writers and stories.” The other section will be dedicated to children’s books, from board books to YA.
The mission of Loudmouth Books, Johnson said, “is to put banned books in communities where we are losing access to diverse stories. The whole store is filled with banned books, but at its core, all the books are by, for, or about marginalized peoples. Some of them haven’t been banned yet, and hopefully, won’t be banned. We just want to make sure that those stories that other people may find too risky to keep on their shelves always have a home. The hope is that Loudmouth will seek out those authors and stories, so that when the chain stores may not put them on their shelves, we’ll always have them on ours.”
Not only will Loudmouth Books sell books, it will also give them away to young readers. Replicating an initiative launched at Semicolon—a Chicago bookstore which is also owned by a Black woman and specializes in books by BIPOC authors—Loudmouth Books will hold a monthly event called “Clear the Shelves,” during which young people can come into the store and take a book, free of charge.
Noting her lack of bookselling experience, Johnson said, “I have a lot of work to do and part of that is figuring out the nuts and bolts—what it takes to make a bookstore work, not just the theoretical ideas.” She said that she has been taking full advantage of the online resources made available by the American Booksellers Association. “Because of the relationships I’ve been able to build as an author, even before I announced [the store] publicly, a lot of people were really enthusiastic about offering help, advice, and assistance,” she said, lauding her former colleague at Catapult, Bookshop.org CEO Andy Hunter, for meeting with her earlier this year to introduce her to bookselling. “This big-time CEO guy is taking the time to walk me through everything I need to do to get this thing started,” she recalled.
Local indie booksellers Shirley Mullin, longtime owner of Kids Ink, and Jake Budler and Julia Budler, a couple who opened Tomorrow Bookstore in April, have also encouraged her in this endeavor. Johnson said, “What makes all this so beautiful is that independent booksellers really believe that rising tides raise all ships. The scarcity mindset I have found in other avenues of work doesn’t exist in the same way with indie bookstores. I feel really taken in by the bookselling community.”