by Melinda Lejman | photo above by Jamie Harker
In this day and age, taking a chance on a brick and mortar bookstore is an intimidating proposition. Competition with e-books and audio books might turn a would-be entrepreneur away from investing in a local bookstore venture, even one that provides a new, exciting genre. But thanks to good timing and feminist moxie, an experimental model for bookselling is up and running just a few hours outside of Memphis and is filling an untapped niche.
Violet Valley Bookstore, a queer/feminist bookstore located in Water Valley, Mississippi, was recently featured as a project on Kickstarter, and within four days was more than fully funded.
Co-founded by Dr. Jamie Harker and Ellis Starkey, the Violet Valley Bookstore will bring feminist and queer literature to the area, as well as create a sense of community among LGBTQ residents. “There are a lot of kids growing up in small towns who don’t have any sense of queer history, or queer culture, or that there’s a place for them anywhere,” shares Harker. “It’s a small thing, but it’s a thing that I could do.”
Harker, a professor of English at the University of Mississippi, opted to open the bookstore as a non-profit, creating a barrier between her professional work and her contribution to this project. “Independent bookstores are starting to make a comeback, which is really heartening for me,” says Harker, who is also the Director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies. While she won’t benefit financially from the bookstore’s operations, the venture is absolutely connected to her work as a feminist scholar. For the past five years or so, Harker has been researching and writing about Southern lesbian feminists in the print movement from the 1970’s to 1990’s.
“There was all this energy in early feminism in the 70s around creating alternative print venues and feminist presses,” says Harker. “Feminist bookstores were a place for feminist readers and writers to connect apart from the mainstream media.” With maybe five or six of those bookstores left in the country, Harker began toying with the idea of opening a bookstore herself. And as luck (or fate!) would have it, a perfect space opened up almost immediately. “Wouldn’t that be cool to do ‘some day’ became ‘it’s free in November!’” laughs Harker.
Lending a hand in the project is Ellis Starkey, an AmeriCorps volunteer Harker has worked with at the Isom Center. Starkey has experience in bookselling, and when the two launched their fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, they had no idea how much support the project would receive. “People in the community who don’t identify as LGBTQ are telling me, ‘I love those feminist bookstores!’ and ‘I used to go to Old Wives Tales in San Francisco; those places are so important to me.” Many are also volunteering to help out, which highlights the kind of community the space is already creating.
Co-founders Dr. Jamie Harker (above) and Ellis Starkey (below)
Initially, the bookstore will open just two days a week, on Fridays and Saturdays. The store features new and used books, and a bulletin board for interesting events and happenings. Harker hopes it will attract queer youth who might never make it to university. “Given what’s happening in Mississippi with HB 1523 (also known as the religious freedom bill) and given what’s happening nationally, there’s a lot of backlash for queer people,” shares Harker. “When people are feeling like they’re under siege, having a visible space that especially queer youth can come to, and read books, and meet people, and feel like there is a space for them and a future for them in Mississippi seemed like a really important thing.”
According to data from Governing.com, Mississippi is losing Millennials, with a 4 percent decrease since 2010. “They’re not all queer. They’re leaving partly for economic opportunity,” admits Harker, “but they’re also leaving because they feel like there’s no place for them here.”
Harker goes on to explain that it might be due to being African American, or being a Democrat, or perhaps due to their sexual orientation, but she also suggests something much more visceral. “It may just be because they feel like they can’t breathe here,” she says. “I’ve had students contact me and say, ‘I can’t breathe in this state, there’s no place for me in this state.’” Harker continues, “Until we start saying ‘No we’re here, we’re visible, and we’re creating a space, and we’re insisting on our rights to a public space’, that’s not going to change.”
“This is the right time to do this,” shares Harker. “If I let this opportunity pass by, I’m going to regret it.” Just 85 miles away, Violet Valley Bookstore will be a beacon to the LGBTQ and feminist community in Memphis and beyond. Anyone up for a day trip will be delighted to find not only a fabulous bookstore full of interesting books and people, but a community that supports its existence. Harker also recommends stopping by the BTC Old-Fashioned Grocery where her wife Dixie is chef. Now you have no excuses not to hit the road and buy some fantastic books!
Must-Read LGBTQ Books
Orlando, Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s charming love letter to Vita Sackville-West features Orlando, a figure who lives from Elizabethan times to 20th century London and one day, in Turkey, wakes up transformed from a man to a woman. An homage to the power of the queer to transcend time and the body.
Maurice, E.M. Forster. Forster wrote this love story of a posh university graduate and a gardener in the 1920s, but would not let it be published until his death. It provided a happy ending for the lovers, who are allowed to escape into the greenworld. It was adapted into a Merchant-Ivory film (featuring a very young Hugh Grant).
The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith, better known for The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, wrote this novel under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. She combines all her skill for suspense in this story of Carol, a mother trying to divorce her husband and keep custody of her daughter, and Therese, the young woman Carole loves. Told mainly from Therese’s perspective, the novel shows the power of society to punish “sexual deviants” and the means to resist that power.
Desert of the Heart, Jane Rule. This lovely, quiet novel tells the story of Evelyn, a university professor in Reno who gets a divorce, and Ann Childs, an artist and casino worker. It was also made into a spectacularly trashy movie in 1985 called Desert Hearts, which completely changes the story but is delightful in its own campy way.
A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood. You may know Isherwood from The Berlin Stories, which was the source material for the musical Cabaret. This 1964 novel focuses on one day in the life of English expatriate George, who engages with an indifferent heterosexual world in all his flawed and charming queer glory.
Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown. Written on the cusp of gay liberation and women’s liberation, Rubyfruit Jungle is a breath of fresh air. Heroine Molly Bolt embraces life with enthusiasm and swagger. Her refusal to conform makes her a delightful role model.
The Color Purple, Alice Walker. This novel is notable for many reasons—its focus on poor African American characters in Jim Crow Georgia, its frank depiction of incest and violence—but the healing relationship of Celie and Shug is central, as is the complex and untraditional love triangles and quadrangles that define the primary relationships.
Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin. This is the first installment of Maupin’s nine-volume love letter to San Francisco. Maupin first published these stories in a San Francisco newspaper, and he weaves multiple plotlines, based around the residents of 28 Barbary Lane, overseen by the delightfully eccentric landlady, Anna Madrigal. Maupin also features one of the first trans characters in LGBTQ fiction.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Fannie Flagg. Fans of the movie may be surprised to learn that the novel features Idgie and Ruth as an unambiguous couple, in love and raising their son, Buddy Jr. (They may also be surprised to learn that Rita Mae Brown and Fannie Flagg were an item in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before Brown left Flagg for Martina Navratilova. But I digress.) Fried Green Tomatoes invents a small-town world in which queer citizens are so integrated into Southern life that no one finds a lesbian couple odd or strange.