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

By Makayla Steede

Journalism student at the University of Mississippi

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

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

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

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

Initially, authors often turn to or rely on local independent bookstores to help promote their work. This was the case for Jesmyn Ward at the start of her career.

“The first book she wrote was a paperback original; it was a small publisher,” Roberts said. “Now she has won the National Book Award twice. She is incredible. In the beginning, we saw this talent in someone from Mississippi, so we wanted to help get a book signing and get him to sign his books and help promote his book as well.

Melissa Ginsburg, another author and poet from Mississippi, 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 city,” Ginsburg said. “It really is the heart of this vibrant community. Booksellers have sold and supported every one of my books and hosted events, which have definitely been the most fun and popular reads I’ve given.

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

“We love being a jumping off point for local authors as well as early national authors,” Taylor said. “We’re definitely a great place for local authors to hold their book signing with their friends and family. It’s like a gathering place for our community.

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

“The ‘buy local’ movement has re-emphasized the importance of supporting members of your community, as independent bookstores are places that build community, enable 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 bookstore chain, with national ordering priorities and booksellers who may not have read the books available or invested in them, simply doesn’t offer the same experience.”

With their fixed position in the community, independent bookstores can build personal relationships with their customers and can prioritize the sale of books most likely to interest the community.

“We are responding to the needs of our community,” Taylor said. “We’ve spent our time learning what our community wants and needs when it comes to books, and we want to make sure that’s what’s stocked in our store. We love giving genuine book recommendations – our booksellers want to engage in book conversation with you and we love sharing books with our readers. You can’t find this on Amazon.

Square Books has a similar dedication to its community, which is why in addition to its wider selection of books, the store stays stocked with titles by William Faulkner and other Southern writers, as well as books that must be read. at the University of Mississippi.

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

As a not-for-profit bookstore, it’s an essential part of Violet Valley’s mission to ensure its books are accessible and affordable to the public. For example, Violet Valley Books’ Scott Crone Fund is setting aside money to provide books to young members of the LGBTQIA+ community who cannot afford to purchase books on their own.

In addition to providing books by and for marginalized people, Harker also hopes to represent the full spectrum of Mississippi literary culture.

“Mississippi, and the South as a whole, has a rich literary history,” Harker, author of “The Lesbian South,” said. “It also has a rich queer literary history. One of my specialties as an academic is southern queer literary culture, and I always have a large representation of it at Violet Valley Bookstore.

Promoting authors, catering to readers, and providing books that may not be available to local library readers are just part of how independent bookstores in Mississippi are impacting the literary history of the state.

“We help advance Mississippi’s literary culture by investing in new literary voices and investing in our state’s readers,” Taylor said. “We love 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 part of its growth.

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