The doorbell chimes. A customer wanders in. Jaime Harker looks up from a pile of books she’s sorting in the front of Violet Valley Books. It’s the weekend of Oxford Pride—held annually the last week of April.
Harker is getting ready for an event with some of the authors featured in the queer literature festival she helped organize that weekend at the University of Mississippi, where she teaches English and directs the Sara Isom Center for Women’s Studies.
The space that now houses Mississippi’s only LGBTQ+ and feminist bookstore was most recently an art gallery, but also was once a barber shop. The barber pole remains on the storefront.
Ten feet wide and about 60 feet deep, the shotgun building has high ceilings and walls lined with tall bookshelves, giving the store that I-could-be-here-all-day feeling. It’s open on Saturdays. Harker runs the store along with one employee, Nora, who she hired just a year ago.
The storefront is sandwiched in what used to be an alley between an old-fashioned grocery store and a historic building. The city around it, Water Valley, Miss., has a population of less than 4,000 people. The once bustling railroad town about 20 miles south of Oxford is now the home of professionals who sought out more affordable real estate as home prices in Oxford soared.
Just a couple blocks down from the bookstore is Turnage Drugstore, open since 1905. Across the street, the town’s weekly paper, The North Mississippi Herald, has been in print since 1888. The streets are lined with neatly arranged flowers and American flags. There’s a mural honoring Water Valley’s railroad history on Main Street.
A pride flag hangs just inside Violet Valley Books. Harker is cultivating bookstore magic at Violet Valley—a place for avid readers and queer Southerners alike.
“Do you have someone who reads and can talk to you about books, who can know what your interests are and help you discover new books? That’s what bookstores are for. And they’re also for community and they’re also a space for the queer kid who thinks they’re the only person in the world,” she said.
“They can walk in here and see rainbow flags on the wall and books about them and see that there’s a place for them in the world and they matter. [LGBTQ bookstores] mattered to me when I was coming out.”
She credits the Buy Local movement for the recent renaissance of independent bookstores. The number of independent bookstores in America has grown by about 50 percent in the last decade, according to the American Booksellers Association.
Violet Valley, which operates as a nonprofit, sells both new and used titles. Children’s books are always just $1.
Harker opened the bookstore in 2017 following the publication of her book, “The Lesbian South,” which documents the mid-20th century women in print movement and its deep Southern roots.
According to the Census Bureau, the South has the largest concentration of LGBTQ+ people in the country, so it’s no surprise that many of the leaders of the feminist print movement were Southern women who refused to be quiet. These women worked printing presses, created their own publishing companies, managed distribution channels and ran feminist bookstores.
The legacy of the women who pioneered the feminist and LGBTQ print movement is something Harker takes seriously.
But what possessed her to open a nonprofit feminist bookstore in a small rural Mississippi town?
“It’s important to have spaces that aren’t just in university towns or big urban centers,” she said. “Because queer people are everywhere. Queer youth are everywhere.”
Water Valley is now Harker’s hometown. She lives near the bookstore in a historic home with her wife, Dixie.
While Violet Valley is very much a feminist bookstore, it also sells used books of virtually every genre, from karate lesbian romance novels to gay science fiction to world literature and even religious texts and commentaries.
Harker was raised in a Mormon family on the west coast. She attended Brigham Young University and moved to Philadelphia, Penn. to pursue her Ph.D. There she found Giovanni’s Room—a famous feminist bookstore and a queer booklover’s paradise. The store is now called “Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni’s Room.”
“I was there all the time. There was a discount books rack and lesbian room and I still have books on my shelves that I got there,” she said. “I discovered writers there. It was every genre. It was everything you could imagine. They had readings there all the time. It was awesome. It was like Nirvana.”
More than just a professor teaching and studying feminist literature, Harker refers to herself as a “book person” first and enjoys talking about books, people’s reading interests and giving book recommendations.
Customers wander in. Harker gives every customer the same “grand tour” she offered me. I admired the expansive section of books by Mississippi authors while she greeted customers and gave book recommendations.
‘We should publish their books’
About 12 hours earlier, Harker wrapped up Glitterary Festival—a Southern queer literature festival—at the University of Mississippi.
The festival, in-person for the first time this year, was the brainchild of Harker’s colleague, Beth Ann Fennelly, and Fennelly’s graduate student at the time, Kate Leland, now an editor for Sibling Rivalry press.
The women cooked up the plan for the festival over margaritas in 2019. The following year was supposed to be the festival’s inaugural year, but the pandemic put a stop to that. The festival was held virtually in 2021.
Giltterary Festival celebrated the work of LGBTQ+ writers from the South. The keynote speaker was Atlanta-based Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown, who shared his poems and short stories about his experience as a Southern, gay, Black man.
The festival featured Southern writers from Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas and beyond.
One of the panelists, S. Bear Bergman, who lives in Canada, founded his own publishing company, Flamingo Rampant, after a larger publisher rejected his book about a transgender child. Bergman, a trans man himself, said the publisher asked if he had any books about “normal kids.”
Instead of accepting defeat, he created his own publishing company.
Harker said Bergman’s story reflects the continued reality of getting queer words published: The big publishers still don’t want to listen.
“It’s like every five years they remember ‘Oh yeah there are queer people! We should publish their books.’ Then they say, ‘Oh, not books like that,” Harker said.
The future of queer writers
Seeing yourself and your experiences reflected in books is important, Harker said, especially for LGBTQ+ people, who must juggle their own experiences along with homophobia on multiple fronts, including from lawmakers and school boards who seek to ban books about LGBTQ+ people’s thoughts and experiences.
In the last few years, the most banned books in America have been books about LGBTQ+ people and people of color, according to the American Library Association.
Harker said she first saw herself in print when she read “Fried Green Tomatoes,” which tells the story of a lesbian couple and a café in 1920s Irondale, Alabama.
“It was a book that just accepted the central love story of these women as a given and not one person ever questioned it in this book. It was the first book I read that made me think, ‘Maybe it’s gonna be okay.’ It was the first time I could imagine a life that wasn’t bound to be so hard,” she said.
“Those are the stories that we tell. We’re so addicted as a culture to gay tears, to a life of tragedy. It’s not that those things don’t happen, because they do. It’s not that there isn’t homophobic nonsense all the time, but we often only describe queer people as tragic and hopeless. There is still that dominant narrative that you take in and they feed it to you like poison every day. [The dominant narrative] teaches you to think of yourself as different and tragic, that life is so hard. You need other stories. You need other models and you need the spaces for all of that.”
With more and more political banning of LGBTQ+ books, an outsider might see the future of publishing for LGBTQ+ authors as bleak, but Harker doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t worry about the future of queer writers because I think it always evolves. It has never been easy for queer writers. They’ve always had to be really inventive. They’ve always had to create their own audiences and spaces. But we’ve always done it,” she said.
“After I finished ‘The Lesbian South,’ I was trying to figure out what’s next [for queer and feminist bookstores]. This bookstore is part of what’s next.”