Interview with a Bookseller: John Evans

The owner of Jackson, Mississippi's Lemuria Books on 42 years at the helm of an indie bookstore.

Lemuria Books

John Evans and his wife opened Lemuria Books, Jackson, Mississippi’s local bookstore, out of a converted apartment in 1975. They sought to provide their community with harder-to-find alternative titles, rooted in books about psychology, art, metaphysical genres, and spirituality. We spoke to John about his journey with Lemuria, a store with a “book juke joint” and the undying commitment to real print books that vibrantly suffuses John’s life, and Lemuria’s mission as well.

Can you tell readers a little bit about Lemuria?

My wife and I opened our doors in 1975 in a converted apartment. It was in a shopping center between the sexiest ladies’ clothing store in town and the best bar and music venue. It was fortunate that we were there, because 90 days later, I was waiting tables at the bar to keep the store open.

Lemuria

What made you decide to open a bookstore?

In the early ’70s in middle America, there weren’t a lot of alternative bookstores around. I was most interested in trying to provide an alternative selection of books to my community.

Get recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.

What kind of alternative selection did you want to provide?

At that time in Mississippi, psychological books, metaphysical books, art books, and new age books. Those books were hard to find. I was mostly using the bibliographies in the Whole Earth catalogs and things like that.

Did you find there was a big community response to having that alternative?

Well, you know, it wasn’t big, but it was a start. We did poetry readings, all this kind of stuff that provided an alternative to the Baptist bookstore and the one chain bookstore in the mall, and the little mom-and-pop-type bookstore that focused on bestsellers.

Lemuria Books

What did you find that you loved about bookselling?

I learned so much. One of the beauties of being a bookseller is that you’re learning constantly from the other readers.

So Lemuria started in a converted apartment, but it’s grown over the years, right?

Oh yes. I feel like the store has the same, for lack of a better word, essence. It kind of has the same aura as when it started—it just expanded and expanded and expanded, and as the booksellers learned more, it’s become more diversified. As your tastes mature, so does your store. As your booksellers mature and become more diversified, so does the store.

Two years after opening, we moved into a shopping center, which was a new little cool thing in town, and we stayed there for 11 years, then moved into the present Lemuria. I was part of a group that built the building we’re in now. Somewhere around 2000, we expanded into the store space next to us and created a fiction room. And then a couple of years later, we bought the old building next door and created an event space that we call our book juke joint.

A juke joint?

A juke joint is a Mississippi shack, or a southern shack, where folks get together on Friday or Saturday night and cut up.

Lemuria Bookstore

Fun! What kind of events do you have where people cut up at the bookstore?

We do all kinds of things, but mostly we have a refrigerator full of beer, and we sell beer, which is mostly what a juke joint is. We have a whole wall of signed first editions down there and a stage, that kind of stuff.

What do you feel is the importance or the purpose of an independent bookstore in this day and age?

Of course, I think they’re important for all of the obvious reasons, but the thing I’m seeing that’s neat is when I opened Lemuria 42 years ago, I was just trying to fit what I thought was a need in my community. I feel like a lot of the stores opening up are small, like Lemuria was, and they’re trying to figure out ways to be more creative and to create their own little identity of who they are and what they’re going to be. All of that is real vital right now. It’s good and healthy for people to start small and grow and create their own identity, because they’ve got a better chance of their brand surviving.

If you had to put it in a few words, what’s Lemuria’s bookselling philosophy?

I would have to say we value the experience of being able to share books with people so they value reading.

Lemuria Books

Who are some of your favorite authors?

We’ve worked with so many authors over the years. First of all would have to be Eudora Welty. She was a great friend of the store and a beloved Jacksonian. Of course, Barry Hannah and Willie Morris and Walker Percy, and just walking on up through the ’80s and into the ’90s with James Dickey. Jim Harrison’s one of my favorite authors; I loved working on his books. Robert Stone is a favorite, and Elmore Leonard was a favorite and a good friend of the store.

I’ve always treated the authors as much as I can, and the books, as friends. I’ve always wanted all the authors to feel like we were part of their life. Barry Moser was a great friend; he was a great illustrator, and Barry Gifford. Jesmyn Ward is a good friend of the store. Pat Conroy. And, how obvious, but where would the store be without the love and care that John Grisham always gave it over the years? We made a new friend, we hope, this year, who we really like: Kevin Powers and his new book A Shout in the Ruins. Another great friend of the store is Charles Frazier; we just worked on his new book.

What are the books on your nightstand right now?

I just finished Ondaatje’s new book, which I thought was outstanding. He’s a favorite over the years. I’m reading an old collection of essays and poems by Kenneth Rexroth from the Sierra Nevada mountains. I love Charles Frazier’s new book, Varina. I just finished Jon Meacham’s book The Soul of America. He’s a good friend of the store, and he’s coming tomorrow. I like Chinese poetry, so I always have Chinese poetry going on. Right now, I’m reading a wonderful book called The Meaning Revolution by Fred Kofman.

I like business books. I quit reading business books for about 15 years, and then when the recession hit about 10 or so years ago, I thought I’d better wake up and start reading business books because everything’s changing, and I better start trying to figure it out. There’s a new book that I read called Retail’s Seismic Shift by Michael Dart and Robin Lewis. It’s real important, especially for booksellers to read right now. The authors are predicting what retail will be like in six or seven years.

Lemuria Books

Are you seeing any trends in the book industry, or—with regard to Retail’s Seismic Shift—any predictions for the future of bookselling?

As an independent bookseller right now, you need to have as wide and clear a vision as possible. I think it’s possible publishers will start buying independent bookstores. I think it’s possible someone will buy Barnes & Noble. I do know independent bookstores need to make sure they’re culturally well-defined in their community. Their importance that they put into their community needs to be accentuated in every way they can figure out how to do, so their community doesn’t take them for granted.

I would love to see a seismic shift in our industry. I’d love to see it be more competitive so independents have the opportunity to grow and come back, and hopefully the publishers will be more inclined to support independent growth more rapidly. But the business and the publishers have gotten so big, and I don’t know how much energy they have to help the smaller independents. Smaller independents have to hone up and do everything they can for themselves: develop friendships with the writers, try to figure out how to sell more of the same books, and make their brand stronger. Not from a discounting perspective, but because they believe in them—to authenticate the work they’re doing as booksellers.

How was the book business different when you opened in the 1970s?

Well, you’ve gotta remember where I am. In the ’70s in Mississippi, I don’t even know how many people knew Mississippi existed in the book business. I called people for five years and they’d say, “Well, where are you now?” So, it’s quite different. The main thing that signifies a difference is that 42 years ago, there were five to six thousand independent bookstores scattered around the country. You have to remember this was the early part of the chaining of America. We had our first chain bookstore open up in Jackson’s first mall in 1970. By 1983, there were five chain bookstores in our community, not counting the Christian bookstores, and then two smaller independents. And then the superstores came in 1993, 1998, and 2002. I guess Amazon started doing their proliferation around 1995, and it began to affect us. We were straddled on each side by Borders and Barnes & Noble, and then there was Amazon. You could really tell—we were struggling. I think when the recession hit and the eBooks came along, Amazon began to affect the marketplace because it was able to really beat up on the box stores.

What did you do during that time when you had so much competition to keep your customers coming back to Lemuria?

We did a lot of things. My main campaign was that if everybody’s going to get into ebooks, we decided we were going to brand our store as a store for real print books. So we did “real book” bookmarks and went on a real book merchandising campaign about eight or so years ago. We’re real books only. We’re going to live and die with real books.

We started doing a lot more offsite events, going to the readers, and a lot more to carve our niche into the community. We wanted to make sure whenever anybody was doing anything book-related, they would think about our bookstore. And then we decided to publish a book about our community, Jackson, to try to point out everything beautiful, fun, and of value here. We figured what more authentic thing can you do for your local community than to be the local bookstore that published the very best book you could think of about the pride in your community? We did that four years ago.

Six years ago, we started working on creating the Mississippi Book Festival at the state capital. Two months from now, we’ll be on its fourth year, and we’re bringing about 150 authors in six venues going all day long on Saturday, August 18. So, these are all things I could figure out how to do to provide value. We don’t discount. Everything that I tried to do is the opposite of what any bookseller would do, who’s just appealing to the discount. I want the customers to value the whole experience of the book-buying: coming to my store, telling me about their books and what they’re reading, and vice versa, to be as real and authentic as it can be. You can’t compete on price if you’re an independent bookstore. You’ll lose. I figured that out in 1993 when Books a Million moved across the street to try to put me out of business. And I thought, “Well, I can’t compete with 40 percent off across the street, so why even try?”

I feel very fortunate because I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do: create a bookstore. I’ve spent 42 years in the neighborhood I grew up in, trying to be the best bookstore I can be, and been able to raise my children and do everything I ever wanted to do, as far as labor is concerned.

Lemuria Books

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Lemuria?

I have the very best young booksellers I’ve ever had, and they’re excited about the books. I don’t feel like any of them are just coming to a job. In the South, it was really hard to find anybody in the ’80s who had any bookselling experience. Most of the people I was able to hire were at least capable of working in a restaurant or a bar and knew how to be courteous to people; they were basically going through a learning curve for bookselling. But the excitement my young booksellers have, and the excitement that I feel from other young booksellers trying to figure out where their store is going, may be the greatest thing happening in our industry right now.


All Images: Gil Ford

About Brittany Goss

Brittany Goss

BRITTANY GOSS is a reader and writer living in Brooklyn. Her creative work has appeared in Confrontation, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Joyland Magazine, and Bellingham Review, among other places. Follow her on Twitter at @blgoss.