Being independent anything is tough.
Ask a singer, artist, writer or retailer: without large scale backing, there are places you want to go – and you will fight for every step in the journey.
The independent book business? Let no one tell that is easy.
“We’ve been going sideways for three years,” said John Evans, owner of the 44-year-old Jackson indie bookstore, Lemuria Books in Banner Hall. “We’ve tried a lot of different ways to make the business grow but there’s so much pure competitiveness out there.”
In light of the behemoth online prowess of national brands, book stores like Lemuria are trying to set themselves apart.
“We’re a destination book store,” Evans said. “We always have been. I think we are winning the existence battle, the contributing battle. And we’re doing a lot to do that.”
From author signings and readings – many standing-room-only occasions in the book store’s “Dot-com” annex – to Lemuria’s leading-edge participation in the Mississippi Book Festival held in August, Evans noted his staff as a driving factor to that success.
“Realistically, it’s the dedicated young booksellers we have. The art of bookselling is still something you don’t get in other places. You can save a lot of time and energy if you read a lot to have a bookseller you interact with, someone that knows your tastes. It’s like a doctor… hardware… a mechanic. Interaction adds to the experience.”
Publishers play a big role, too, in recognizing the power of the independent bookseller.
“To get them to go downstream to Jackson and send the writers we want to work with… it takes a lot of effort. Your community has to respond or you don’t get many chances with the same publisher.”
Evans said his store’s work with the Mississippi Book Festival has helped raise awareness and appreciation for literature in the state, but it goes beyond that.
“It can’t just be local or regional,” Evans explained. “It has to have a national element to it. (The festival has) already got an excellent reputation. Maybe, three or four more years, we could get in the position the publishers are coming to us and wanting to send their ‘pick-of-the-litter.’ We’re winning enough battles that we’re catching attention.”
Evans is looking forward to several components of this August’s event, namely panels on LGBTQ literature and one on Afrofuturism, blending the African Diaspora with science, philosophy and technology.
Richard Ford is slated to appear, along with Joyce Carol Oates, Kiese Laymon and Karl Marlantes, a Vietnam Veteran, whose latest book, “Deep River,” comes out in July. The book festival is a stop on his national tour and one Evans is giddily awaiting.
“That will be the best novel I read this year,” Evans said. “And better than any novel I read last year.”
Also, as part of this year’s festival, more historic markers will be added to the Mississippi Writers’ Trail, joining existing markers for Eudora Welty and Jesmyn Ward, announced last year.
“That’s huge for Mississippi,” Evans said. “We’re honoring the celebratory past that we have… something good. It’s a great way to keep writing in the forefront nationally.”
Back at Lemuria, Evans is driving forward, adding to the fabric of his community. As travelers stop in, on their way to New Orleans or Memphis, or loyal locals come by, his enthusiastic young booksellers have their finger on the pulse of what’s next to read.
“You’ve just got to not go backward. That’s the change in the marketplace. But I think the (local) vibe is growing – and that’s good.”