Almost smack dab in the middle of North Main Street in the sleepy, pastel-hue town of Water Valley a few miles down the road from Oxford, a tiny bookstore stands defiantly with a pride flag in its window, like it’s daring you to come inside.
Violet Valley Bookstore officially made its grand opening in February of this past year, and it’s been open every Friday and Saturday since.
The project of Jaime Harker, an English professor and the director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Mississippi, opening the bookstore has been her long-time dream.
“Anyone who loves books has always dreamed of opening a bookstore, so in some sense, it was always in the back of my mind,” she said.
Harker’s home of nine years, Water Valley, is going through something of a downtown revitalization, becoming a real art hub of northern Mississippi. Several women have recently started businesses on Main Street, including Annette Trefzer, who is the owner of Bozart’s Gallery, and Harker’s wife Dixie Grimes, who is co-owner of BTC Old-Fashioned Grocery.
“I had a lot of good role models,” she said. “When the space became available, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a chance.”
The narrow space located directly next to BTC has housed everything from barbers to paintings before finally becoming the home of shelves upon shelves of queer literature. The bookstore is an “education nonprofit,” meaning its purpose is to provide inexpensive literature to the community.
Harker, who identifies as a lesbian, said that even though the bookstore is not related to Ole Miss in any way, it is “absolutely connected to her work as a feminist and queer scholar.” Feminist and LGBTQ bookstores were integral to Harker as she was growing up and coming out.
Southern lesbian feminists and their connection to the Women in Print movement, the subject of Harker’s latest book, inspired her.
“These women wrote their own books, started their own publishing houses, and opened bookstores because they believed it was necessary and important,” she said. “They taught themselves how to do everything, made up their own rules…they were groundbreaking in so many ways. And I thought: they did this without any of the advantages that I have. They inspired me to take a chance, too.”
The only other paid employee of Violet Valley Bookstore, Ellis Starkey calls themself “the book person.” Starkey has been with Violet Valley since its beginning, watching it become the welcoming, and inclusive space for so many that it is today.
“We have several kids who act like they own the place. They come in, grab some candy from the bowl by the register, grab a book, and sprawl out on the chair,” they said. “[The bookstore] is inspired by all of the people we know who just need a space to be themselves.”
Kendrick Wallace understands that feeling. An Ole Miss student, he describes Violet Valley as a place where he feels welcome.
“It’s a place you can come to and just feel normal,” he said. “You can walk in with your significant other, and you can hold hands with them, browse books together and not feel like someone looks at you in a weird way. It’s just unencumbered by views from other people.”
Harker’s mission was just that – to give the LGBTQ community a space to exist in the South, physically and literarily.
“In the South, especially the rural South, queer people are frequently invisible. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there – but people tend to talk about it in code,” she said. “This can make queer folks, especially queer youth, feel like they are the only people in the world, that there is no one like them – except maybe in a big city far away.”
Oftentimes when they do hear about gay people, it is through “denunciations from the pulpit or homophobic slurs at school,” according to Harker.
“This puts gay youth at enormous risk – of suicide, of homelessness, of depression,” she said. “Those who survive move away, even though many love the South and would like to stay. But they feel it is impossible to be who they are in their home communities.”
Starkey said that in a way, they’re fighting the “brain drain,” the wave of talented young professionals leaving Mississippi.
“There have been a flood of messages from people who grew up in Mississippi and moved away for one reason or the other and reached out and said if they had a place like [Violet Valley], they might have stayed in Mississippi,” they said. “We’re just doing our part, trying to be kind.”
Emails come from places as far away from New York or California, and donations of boxes filled with books have been delivered from all over the country.
Starkey explained that throughout history, queer people have constantly had to make their own space through events or parades, but many of those welcoming spaces are only temporary. Violet Valley is a more permanent home and resource for the LGBTQ community.
“Code Pink pops up one Thursday a semester and is bright and loud and beautiful, but then it disappears again,” Starkey said. “It’s important that people have a place to come that they depend on, and they can ask questions that they couldn’t ask at their local library or school counselor but hopefully feel safe asking us.”
Though it isn’t the first, as of right now, Violet Valley Bookstore in the only queer feminist bookstore in the state, further proving the importance of its existence.
“There aren’t a lot of visibly queer spaces in Mississippi. That is slowly starting to change; Pride parades are beginning to happen across the state, including Oxford and Starkville. But that just happens once a year,” Harker said. “Violet Valley Bookstore is open all year, and it is a place to explore new ideas and find a community of folks you may not known were here.”
Harker stressed the bookstore’s increased importance as a result of recent legislation.
“It is especially necessary now, since the passage of HB 1523. It is a law that declares open season on queer folks, and makes us feel like we can be discriminated against and singled out anytime, anywhere,” she said. “Having a space where we are celebrated and supported is particularly important right now.”
When the bookstore’s opening was first announced, the community reactions were mixed, but Harker said things have calmed down significantly since then. Many didn’t know what to expect initially, but have since visited the bookstore and become regulars.
For newcomers and regulars alike, Harker wants each visitor to gain a sense of possibility.
“I can’t tell you how many people come into the store and can’t quite believe that it is there. They want to know why there is an LGBTQ feminist bookstore in Water Valley, and not in Jackson, or Oxford, or some other bigger place,” Harker said. “And I say, why don’t you open one? Don’t wait for someone else. Do it yourself. Remake the world the way you believe it should be.”
For many years to come, Harker hopes, Violet Valley will continue existing as a beacon of hope and pride and love.
“Violet Valley Bookstore is a place that says to queer youth, and the LGBTQ community as a whole: we want you here. You’re welcome here,” Harker said. “You are part of a vast and beautiful tribe, and we love you because of who you are, not in spite of it.”