With its official grand opening on February 3, owner Jaime Harker’s dream has become a reality: the small town of Water Valley, Miss. has its first (and only) queer/feminist bookstore, Violet Valley Bookstore.
The store’s mission statement makes Harker’s intent clear:
"Violet Valley Bookstore makes feminist, queer, and multicultural books available to the Water Valley community, the state of Mississippi, and the South. The bookstore provides a series of readings and other programs to support diverse voices in Mississippi. It features new and used books so that everyone, no matter their income bracket, can afford to have books."
For Harker, who, is also professor of English and director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, owning a bookstore was a natural progression. “Everyone who loves books dreams of opening a bookstore, and in this town there are a lot of women who own businesses," Harker says. "It’s affordable in this town, it’s a place with a lot of property, and you can start a business without breaking the bank…I can even fill up the store with books without breaking the bank.”
Harker has no doubt there is a place for an LGBT oriented bookstore in Mississippi. “The fact that I’ve gotten so many people wanting to come visit tells me there is. And of course, it is a novelty: a lot of the kids have never seen an LGBT or feminist bookstore. We’re getting people who drive down from Memphis who want to see it, people from Oxford…they’re all interested" she says.
“I think also, there’s a resurgence of feminism, and people have a need for a space where you can discover books not only where you can find what you’re looking for, but a space where you can discover new books that you didn’t know existed.”
And of course, politics in Mississippi emphasize the importance of bookstores such as hers:
As reported by Anna Grace Usery in Mississippi Today, “The bookstore opened in the midst of a tumultuous debate over the Mississippi Legislature’s passage of the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, more often referred to as House Bill 1523, which prevents government intervention when churches and business owners with sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions refuse service to same-sex couples.”
Harker believes that the passage of HB 1523 made opening her store “essential.” She told Usery that “it made a lot of LGBTQ folks in the state feel like it is open season on them. They never know when or how they may be excluded or denied service, and that state of being under siege is damaging, especially for LBGTQ youth, who are often living in places where they have never met an out person and her only negative attacks on queer people from the pulpits, fellow students, and teachers.”
Given the political climate, how has the store been received?
“There’s been a lot of excitement, although there was an initial backlash – there were misconceptions about what the bookstore was, that we’d be corrupting children, etc. My favorite rumor was that there was a gang of lesbians from the next town who were going to come in and take over!
“But now they are getting used to the idea that it’s just a bookstore. And the crowd at the opening made others think that maybe they were missing out on something.”
Harker's goal “is that the store becomes self-sustaining, so I can pay a bookseller to run it. Right now we’re opening only Friday and Saturday which makes it manageable, but it would be great if we became part of the community. There was no bookstore in town – we’re it. It’s the tourists in Oxford who are going to keep us afloat, but I think there are enough people in town interested as well.
“I’ve always wanted to live in a town that has a queer/feminist bookstore, so I opened one,” she says. “I think it will be fun.”