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How a Gay-Friendly Bookstore Restored Jaime Harker's Faith in Humanity

Jaime Harker of VIolet Valley Bookstore
Jaime Harker, owner of Violet Valley Bookstore in Water Valley, wants her little nonprofit shop to serve as a safe place for members of the LGBTQ community and anyone else who loves books. Photo by Olivia Wells

For Jaime Harker, her LGBTQ-friendly bookstore in Water Valley is more than a business—it’s a mission.
“It feels good to give something back,” said Harker, an English professor and director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Mississippi. “I want a kid to come in, get a book and find hope and a future here. This is what I can do. I can open an LGBTQ bookstore that suggests, ‘There’s a place for you here. We want you here. Stay here.’”
Violet Valley bookstore
The little bookstore, sandwiched into an alley on Water Valley’s Main Street, has housed a barber shop and art gallery in the past. Photo by Olivia Wells

Opening a bookstore has always been Harker’s dream. After a small space in an alley on Main Street obtained a roof and went through several identities—from a barber shop to an art gallery—this 10×40 window of opportunity practically fell into Harker’s lap.
“I always thought it was something that might happen eventually after retirement, but never this soon,” she said. “I brainstormed with some buddies on a name, and when it was suggested, I immediately knew that was it: Violet Valley. I loved the alliteration, and violets are a symbol of lesbian communities. It was perfect,” she said.
Harker added that the “valley” in the name also relates to Water Valley—her home of nine years.
The idea for what Harker has described as a “queer feminist bookstore” came to her last spring after her friend, Coulter Fussell, who utilized the space as an art gallery, started making textiles and quilts. Fussell realized there wasn’t enough space to comfortably lay out her work, leading to a conversation with Harker about taking over the space.
In addition to running Violet Valley, Harker is an English professor and director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at Ole Miss. Photo by Olivia Wells

“I knew I needed to seize the opportunity,” Harker said. “The rent was extremely affordable, and I knew it would bring a notable overflow of Main Street traffic. I thought that with my other job, I might not have the time, but, soon after, I decided I should just go ahead and do it. It all seemed to just come together.”
Harker and an informal board of three other members are in charge of the bookstore.
“I’m the president, so I guess that makes me the owner and the one legally responsible,” she said, with a laugh.
The board members form a strong network; one works with OUT Oxford, another has worked for Square Books, and the third one is a member of the American Association of University Women, which gave a huge donation of books to the fledgling bookstore.
A Kickstarter campaign helped spread the word about the new business. “We put together a little video about the bookstore idea, and we had no idea how or if we’d raise any money at all,” Harker said. “We thought we’d at least try, and within four days, we’d reached our goal,” she said.
Bookstore - straight not narrow
While not everyone has welcomed Violet Valley to town, owner Jaime Harkin said the generally positive reaction has renewed her faith in humanity. Photo by Olivia Wells

Soon after the bookstore’s stance of inclusion of the LGBTQ community became publicized, backlash and false rumors started to build in the community and surrounding area.
“It was a real bummer and was very distressing,” Harker recalled. “Some who didn’t understand what this was were going to social media. They assumed, after hearing ‘gay,’ that it meant porn. My personal favorite, though, was a rumor circulating that there was a lesbian gang rolling into town who were going to take over. I heard that and thought about how I’ve been looking for a lesbian gang my whole life.” Harker laughed. “Where are they?”
Harker said the rumors seemed to have subsided lately, but the rush to judgment—and the tendency to assume the worst—reminded her why opening this bookstore was such an important thing to do.
“It provided the opportunity to correct the misconceptions and say, ‘Hey, this is what it really is—calm down.’ I realized if there could possibly be this much misunderstanding of what this bookstore is, that’s why it’s so necessary to have it,” Harker added.
The bookstore, which has earned publicity around the state and the nation, had a “soft opening” the weekend after Thanksgiving, and Harker joked that it was really just an unannounced trial run to make sure they knew how to work the cash register. Violet Valley’s official opening, however, took place the first weekend of December.
Child reading book at Violet Valley
Children’s books keep the little ones entertained at Violet Valley. Photo by Olivia Wells

“What’s special about this place is that we welcome everyone,” she said. “We have such a wide array of books that don’t just fall into the LGBTQ category. On opening night, we were buzzing. People were bringing in their kids, and children’s books were sprawled all over the floor. Of course, it made me smile.”
Since opening Violet Valley, Harker said she has been overwhelmed with the positivity surrounding the bookstore. Her faith in humanity, she said, has been renewed.
“I’ve gotten boxes of book donations, cards from people I’ve never met, letters thanking me for my courage, and even some telling me about their personal stories of growing up in Mississippi, saying they could’ve really used a place like this as a kid,” Harker noted. “They talk about how happy and hopeful it makes them.”
Harker said several people have unexpectedly reached out to help, including a minister who made a financial donation and asked for a shelf to be named in his daughter’s honor, since she was the person who educated him about feminist and gay issues.
Harker hopes the bookstore creates opportunities for enlightening conversations.
“Most people have gay kids, grandkids, aunts or uncles, but many live elsewhere and don’t feel comfortable here,” she said. “I’ve even noticed that the bulk of my students have moved away because they feel there’s no place for them here or that they’re not welcome. We’ve been sending our best talent away for decades. We talk about the ‘brain drain’ of Mississippi but not the cultural steps we should take to fix it.”
Finding solutions to this vexing problem became Harker’s mission when she took over the old barber shop with the blush-pink sink tucked away behind the counter.
“We have rainbow flags on the wall, and you’re welcome here. Here’s a space you can feel safe in. That goes for not only the LGBTQ community, but everybody,” she smiled.
Wide ranging selection of books at Violet Valley
Althought Violet Valley is a LGBTQ-friendly bookstore, its book selections run the gamut from literary fiction, romance and mysteries to comics and cookbooks. Photo by Olivia Wells

In fact, Violet Valley has book selections for everyone, from genres like literary fiction, mystery, self-help and romance to comics and cookbooks. Harker said she’ll even place special orders for customers if they have something in particular they’re looking for.
The bookstore is labeled “education nonprofit,” meaning the sole purpose is to put books in people’s hands inexpensively. Some of the books cost only a dollar or two.
In the upcoming year, Harker has decided to start holding events, including readings and reading groups, as well as adding paid staff apart from current volunteers.
Violet Valley is located on Main Street in Water Valley and is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Olivia Wells is a freelance writer based in Oxford, Miss.

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