Equal rights, safe spaces: Read all about them at Violet Valley Books

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Photo by Anna Grace Usery

Pages with the words “queer” and “feminist” aren’t necessarily dog-eared in the state of Mississippi’s dictionary, but a bookstore in Water Valley is writing those entries in bold.

Violet Valley Bookstore opened late last year and is unassumingly nestled in “the Valley’s” historic downtown in Yalobusha County, approximately 20 miles south of Oxford. It’s like any hometown bookstore, filled to the brim with old, new, foreign, local, happy, sad and fantastical books with characters leading many different lives.

With local staples Heartbreak Coffee, Yalobusha Brewing Company and the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery a few steps away, Violet Valley is a slow-paced complement to the “kick-your-shoes-off and stay a while” feeling of all Water Valley’s offerings. Only this niche storefront offers an underpinning level of queer and feminist activism between the pages of select books.

Photo by Anna Grace Usery

Violet Valley Bookstore owner Jaime Harker stands behind the counter.

Owner Jaime Harker, professor of English and director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, said labeling her bookstore as queer and feminist is appropriate for offering books that investigate and explore gender and sexuality.

The word queer, included in the common abbreviation LGBTQ to identify lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning people, is commonly used to indicate any kind of sexuality that doesn’t fit what society perceives as the heterosexual norm, Harker explained.

“I sometimes refer to myself as a lesbian, sometimes as gay, sometimes as queer; but the ‘queer community’ is useful shorthand for folks who identify in any number of ways,” she said.

The combination of inexpensive rent for storefronts in Water Valley and a resurgence of interest in independent bookstores nationwide, Harker saw a unique opportunity for her lifelong dream in this town of a little more than 3,000 residents. And it just so happens she and her wife Dixie live there. Although the story of the bookstore’s birth has been noted nationally by NBC News, Autostraddle and Bitch Media, Harker attributes Violet Valley’s success to the surrounding community.

“The positive outpouring has been amazing,” Harker said about the LGBTQ and ally residents of Water Valley and surrounding towns. But the buzz around its opening hasn’t always been positive. Prior to the opening, disapproving church groups we out in full force denouncing both the sale of alcohol at the local brewery and the bookstore’s ties to the LGBTQ world. But, as time went on, the protestors’ numbers dwindled as the initial shock wore off.

Oxford resident Hal Sullivan recounts the vehement opposition as something of a spectacle.

“These people were just making things up about what they thought the bookstore would introduce to the community,” he said. “As a local, I knew the community, for the most part, was gung-ho and supportive of the bookstore’s endeavors.”

Photo by Anna Grace Usery

Water Valley residents sit outside Violet Valley Books to read some books purchased from the bookstore’s children’s section.

With that kind of attention, Harker turned the situation into an educational opportunity by building coalitions and alliances with community members. In the meantime, the bookstore became a safe space for people feeling oppressed.

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. The law was signed by Gov. Phil Bryant in 2016 and remains in effect after appeals to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I think, with the passage of HB 1523, that opening a queer feminist bookstore became essential,” Harker said. “HB 1523 has 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 sense of being under siege is damaging, especially for LGBTQ youth, who are often living in places where they have never met an out person and hear only negative attacks on queer people from the pulpits, fellow students and teachers.”

Cities such as Atlanta, New York and San Francisco were trailblazers in the world of LGBTQ visibility. But Harker believes it’s time for members of Southern small towns to speak up for what they believe. It’s always been her belief “more people will stand up for you than you think,” which became evident for Violet Valley.

Photo by Anna Grace Usery

Violet Valley Bookstore has an eclectic offering of both new and used books.

Harker purchases some queer and feminist books to keep inventory fresh, but Violet Valley cut its teeth selling solely donated titles. Book and monetary donations come from all over the United States — from Mississippi ex-pats and those who just want to see the bookstore succeed — and sales are covering most of the store’s expenses, Harker said.

Because much of Violet Valley’s inventory is donated, the classics, fiction, non-fiction and children’s books that appeal to a more general audience fill many of the store’s shelves. But Harker’s overarching goal is to take a bold stand for moral equality with the titles she stocks and the environment she creates.

Photo by Anna Grace Usery

A gay pride flag is part of the decor in Violet Valley Bookstore.

“If this bookstore helps one person feel comfortable with who they are, I’ve done my job,” Harker said. “For some, the only time they’ve really heard about queer people is when they’re being denounced over the pulpit. For me, it matters if you can help people imagine a future. Having an inclusive space is important.”

University of Mississippi Southern Studies and English graduate students Hooper Schultz, Frankie Barrett and Sarah Heying are in solidarity when they say they believe Violet Valley is giving LGBTQ Southerners a sense of hope.

Schultz said his North Carolinian friends expressed concern when he was set on moving to Mississippi for graduate school, but he assured them there would be queer visibility resources at the university level.

“Violet Valley is creating visibility outside the university,” he said. “The visibility is community-driven rather than university-driven.”

Barrett said the bookstore didn’t quite match the vision her friends outside the state had of rural Mississippi, but it’s on their bucket list to visit when they come to town.

Heying hopes Violet Valley will give outsiders a different perspective of Mississippi, so they’ll have more of a reason to visit.

Photo by Anna Grace Usery

Violet Valley Bookstore in downtown Water Valley

Beyond their own personal reasons, the students believe the bookstore is a good resource for the community and the state.

Violet Valley Bookstore is open most Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but if you’re around during the week, Harker said she will do her best to open for a couple of hours in the afternoon.