Monday, September 26, 2022

How Local, Independent Bookstores Shape Mississippi’s Historic Literary Culture

By Makayla Steede

University of Mississippi Journalism Student

Mississippi has a long literary history laying claim to a multitude of authors, such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, Angie Thomas, John Grisham and many others. 

However, not only are the many authors who call Mississippi home responsible for the state’s literary history, but also the state’s independent bookstores. 

“Independent bookstores are important because they add value to the community beyond selling books,” Hillary Taylor, event director at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, said. “They bring in authors, and they create experiences for readers in the places they call home.”

In Lyn Roberts’s experience as manager of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, one of the many roles of independent bookstores is to recognize and foster talent. 

Starting out, authors often turn to or rely on local, independent bookstores to help promote their work. Such was the case for Jesmyn Ward at the beginning of her career. 

“The first book she wrote was a paperback original; it was a smaller publisher,” Roberts said.  “Now, she’s won the National Book Award twice. She’s amazing. Early on, we saw that talent in somebody from Mississippi, so we wanted to help have a book signing and get her to sign her books and help promote her book as well.”

Melissa Ginsburg, another Mississippi author and poet, also notes that Square Books and other independent bookstores are important to her work as a writer. 

“Square Books cares about writers and about the town,” Ginsburg said. “It’s really the heart of this vibrant community. The booksellers have hand sold and supported each of my books and hosted events, which have certainly been the most funs and well-attended readings I’ve given anywhere.”

Lemuria Books also hosts author events and book signings and has helped many authors launch their careers. 

“We like to be a starting place for local authors as well as national debut authors,” Taylor said. “We’re definitely a great place for local authors to host their book signing with friends and family. It’s like a gathering place for our community.”

In addition to supporting authors, independent bookstores serve the community in a way Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million or Amazon seldom do. 

“The ‘buy local’ movement has re-emphasized the importance of supporting folks in your community because independent bookstores are places that build community, allow for in-person connections, book readings and book clubs and building relationships with readers,” Jamie Harker, owner of Violet Valley Bookstore in Water Valley, Mississippi, said. “A chain bookstore, with national ordering priorities and booksellers who may not have read the books on hand or been invested in them, simply does not provide the same experience.” 

With their fixed position in the community, independent bookstores can create personal relationships with their customers and can prioritize carrying books that are most likely to interest the community. 

“We cater to our community,” Taylor said. “We’ve spent our time learning what our community’s wants and needs are when it comes to books, and we want to make sure that is what is stocked in our store. We love giving genuine book recommendations- our booksellers want to engage in book talk with you and we love to share books with our readers. You can’t find that at Amazon.”

Square Books has a similar devotion to its community, which is why in addition to its broader selection of books, the store stays stocked with titles by William Faulkner and other Southern writers, as well as books that are required reading at the University of Mississippi. 

Violet Valley Bookstore is unique even among the state’s other independent bookstores by being Mississippi’s only “queer feminist transinclusive bookstore” that serves LGBTQIA+ authors and readers. 

As a nonprofit bookstore, it is a core part of Violet Valley’s mission to make sure its books are accessible and affordable to the public. For example, the Scott Crone Fund at Violet Valley Books sets asides money to provide books to young members of the LGBTQIA+ community who cannot afford to buy books on their own. 

In addition to providing books by and for marginalized individuals, Harker also hope to represent the full range of literary culture in Mississippi. 

“Mississippi, and the South as a whole, does have rich literary history,” Harker, author of “The Lesbian South,” said. “It also has a rich queer literary history. One of my specialties as a scholar is queer Southern literary culture, and I always have a broad representation of this at Violet Valley Bookstore.” 

Promoting authors, catering to readers and providing books that may not be available to readers at the local library are just part of the ways Mississippi’s independent bookstores impact the state’s literary history. 

“We help further the literary culture of Mississippi by investing in new literary voices and investing in the readers of our state,” Taylor said. “We like to help foster a shared love of stories with everyone who walks through our doors. Mississippi has such a rich literary history and a rich future in the world of literature, and we are happy to be a part of growing that.”

Provided by Violet Valley Bookstore
Photo by Makayla Steede
Photo by Makayla Steede
Independent Booksellers located in Mississippi according to the American Bookseller Association directory by Makayla Steede

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