New brick-and-mortar bookstores are popping up all over these days—but as far as I know, only one new owner has been accused of planning a lesbian takeover of her small, rural community. That would be Jaime Harker, who decided to open queer feminist bookstore Violet Valley in Water Valley, Mississippi (population 3,323) and got just that.
The year was 2017; Harker, then 53, seasoned lesbian and professor of English at University of Mississippi, had just finished writing The Lesbian South, featuring many women who were part of the Women In Print movement. Women In Print arose in the mid-70s because women—and especially lesbian, bi, and queer women—weren’t being taken seriously in traditional publishing. So, sisters did it for themselves: they founded publishing houses, bookstores, and even printing presses in order to make sure that the likes of Dorothy Allison, Alice Walker, Fannie Flagg and others could make and sell books.“These women were writing, they were publishing, they were opening these stores,” Harker told VICE. “They created this whole network, with no resources except a lot of talent and I guess grit, and I just thought… I want to be a part of that!” Then luck intervened: the long, narrow, former barber shop in Water Valley—right next door to wife Dixie Grimes’ Dixie Belle Café on Main Street—became available. After being immersed in the rich history of queer southern women of letters, Harker started to think about joining their lineage from a new angle: as the founder of a new, queer bookstore. At the time, the queer bookstore nearest to Water Valley was five and a half hours away, in Atlanta. Harker knew for a fact there were plenty of people closer than that who would be interested in queer and feminist books. She was right—some are now her customers, and regularly drive between 30 minutes and two hours to reach Violet Valley (which, in the rural South, counts as relief).
Harker didn’t share her plans widely in town right away. She quietly signed a lease and started to make plans for Violet Valley. (The store got its name when Harker was brainstorming with a friend, who mentioned that violets have long been used as a symbol of lesbian desire; Sappho wore garlands of violets, and in the mid-20th century, women gave violets to their lesbian lovers inspired by a character in a popular and scandalous play. Her friend suggested Violet Valley Bookstore as a marriage of Water Valley and queerness, and Harker liked it instantly.) The planning stage included a crowdfunding campaign that one of her gender-studies students suggested. But when her Kickstarter picked up steam, word got around to the local residents. Reactions in Water Valley were… mixed. “Stories were spreading that we were selling porn, that we’d be teaching children to be queer,” Harker said. “A group of my students came once on a Saturday to unpack books, and a rumor started flying that we were organizing a lesbian takeover of the town.” (Not the first time a queer bookstore has caused this accusation, sorry to say.) “A group organized a prayer meeting in a park across the street from the store for weeks in a row. Nothing has been harmed, but there’s been that sort of thing.”
The store opened one year after Mississippi had passed the second of two “religious freedom” bills that function as wholesale licenses to discriminate against queer people. The first, in 2014, paved the way for employers, landlords, and businesses to refuse service to anyone, as long as they were prepared to assert that their refusal was required by their religious beliefs. Then, in 2016, Mississippi doubled down on its opposition to the U.S.’s legalization of same-sex marriage by passing another bill, one that explicitly gives people in Mississippi the right to refuse to provide service to queer people, trans people, and anyone who has premarital sex. Harker thought, “I’m not a politician, I’m a book person. I’ll do it. I’ll open a little bookstore. To make it clear to queer and trans kids that they’re welcome here. That they’re safe here. We can carve out a little bit of room for them.”Annaliese Coughlin, 13, loves the bookstore and regularly runs the register there when Jaime needs to step out. (Annaliese’s mother, Alexe, is Dixie Grimes’ business partner in the grocery and cafe next door.) “I have friends who identify with the LGBT community and they just… they feel really glad it’s there, it makes them feel safer, like there’s someplace for them to go and just be,” Annaliese said. “I think it’s a really great thing in a small town. We’re lucky.”
Beverly Lowe also counts herself lucky to have a bookstore in town. Lowe, now retired, moved to Water Valley five years ago with her husband, who was born and raised there. “I found out about the bookstore from Dixie one morning at the cafe and I got as excited as a kid in a candy store. I mean—in small-town Mississippi?” Describing the impact of the store on the town, Lowe said, “People who maybe don’t feel welcome have a place to come and do something ordinary, like pick a book. It’s not an agenda. It’s an expansion of literature. Anyone is welcome, anyone.”
Harker told VICE that there are plenty of other longtime Water Valley residents who support the store, and who have made their support known in town, which has helped tremendously. “I think somewhat by just insisting that we have the right to be here, we’ve made some room,” she said. “There’s an idea about small towns, that there’s one right and one wrong and that’s all. But we’re complicating that and making conversations happen.” But the level of visibility, in a place where people have largely chosen discretion (sometimes at a level that borders on erasure), has also been a challenge for some queer locals. “I know a gay man, born here, who had moved away to New York,” Harker said. “When he was back visiting his mom in Water Valley, he saw our rainbow flag. He told me later his first impulse was to hit the gas and run away.”
The bookstore, a nonprofit, has now been open for almost four years and recently got its first, part-time, paid staff member. (Before, Harker was the only staff person and opened the store as often as she could, mostly on Saturdays.) Sales have been up a bit recently and the store is now open two days on most weeks, staying afloat thanks to the low rent and some ongoing donations, plus locals like Lowe who make a point of doing their holiday shopping at the bookstore. Harker has big dreams for her little shop… but not just her own dreams. What she’d really love, she said, is for it to become an incubator for other people’s ideas, projects, plans and goals. More than anything, Harker has braved the gusts of disapproval and the logistical challenges of running a bookstore in order for it to be half safe zone, half launchpad. “People are bubbling with possibilities for queer and feminist and community things they want to do, or make, and I wish I had the cash to just say: yes, go. But I have some space, and a name, and we’ll see what we can make out of it. For now, if one kid comes in here and feels better about who they are, we’ve met our goal. That’s success. We’ve won.”Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Harker is a professor at the University of Missouri. She is a professor at the University of Mississippi.S. Bear Bergman is the author of ‘Special Topics in Being a Human: A Queer and Tender Guide to Things I've Learned the Hard Way about Caring for People, Including Myself,’ coming October 2021. Follow him on Twitter.