Acceptance Speech by John Evans of Lemuria Books Citation of Merit Award 2020
Lemuria, as a concept, was born in the summer of 1975 when Mel and I were 24-year-old newlyweds.
We were young, alternative counter culture types looking for a new way of life. With no training, just an idea, Lemuria just sort of happened. I’m not sure we even considered opening a bookstore to be a job. It was simply a calling. With hard work, the idea of Lemuria began to materialize, as almost all good things do if you get lucky.
For Mel and me, reading good books was not a problem. There are plenty. Figuring out how to share books, helping them find the right reader and creating a business, however, is a different situation.
Baby Lemuria was a converted apartment on the 2nd floor of a shopping center with a balcony facing a swamp. Luckily, we were located by Poets, the best music bar in Jackson at that time. About 100 days after we opened on October 20, 1975, I was waiting tables at Poets to keep Lemuria’s doors open.
After two years of our pouring all extra cash into buying more books, Lemuria began its teenage life cycle with our move into Highland Village. During this time, new authors and more readers found our stacks. Ms Welty, Ellen Gilchrist, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, Walker Percy, Barry Moser, Willie Morris and others all became good friends of the store. During the following years, we began to fulfill our mission of creating the best bookstore we could create in Jackson, Mississippi.
Later, great booksellers Valerie Walley and Tom Gerald became Lemurians, bringing with them new bookselling ideas. During the 80’s, Lemuria aged into adulthood and moved to Banner Hall on April Fool’s Day of 1988. Throughout the 90’s, more national friendships were formed. (To name a few, Jim Harrison, Robert Stone, Kent Haruf, Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Pat Conroy, Mary Ward Brown, Tim O’Brien, Barry Gifford, and the devoted author John Grisham) All were great writers graciously sharing their gifts with our readers.
As middle-age set in, so did the problems of change. As Amazon bloomed and Barnes and Noble attacked, Lemuria needed space to grow and expand. We created our Fiction Room to get a competitive edge and feature our friends’ literature. Shortly after, we added our events and web building to expand the Lemuria brand. As predictions of the end of physical books surfaced, spurred on by Kindle, Nook, and I-pad readers, we worked on branding the physical book with the motto “Read real book from a real bookstore.”
Over the years, our First Editions Club has been our backbone, bringing new authors to Mississippi and into the Lemuria family. We welcomed new friends. Among them were Charles Frazier, Jesmyn Ward, Rick Bragg, Greg Iles, Larry Brown, Ellen Douglas, Howard Bahr, Karl Marlantes, Jon Meacham, Ron Rash, Matthew Guinn, Katy Simpson Smith, Elizabeth Spencer, Natasha Trethewey, Angie Thomas and many others.
Teaming up with our soul brother, Richard Howorth of Square Books, we became a brotherhood of two bookstores and developed a bigger mission. Together, we were able to put Mississippi on the national literary map.
Lemuria’s mission has always been to make books stand up and come alive. Authors visiting with readers and booksellers, touching, reading from, and signing a physical book, was our way to let the words sing forth.
Now, in our post-covid elder years, Lemuria is moving forward once again to meet new challenges. Today, Lemuria is becoming more virtual, guided by two great booksellers, Lisa Newman and Hillary Taylor. We ask ourselves what’s next? A better bookstore, I hope. Our challenge continues with many of the same questions we faced in our early years. How do we bring the words to life? Will the authors visit Mississippi? Will new writers support our efforts?
In this new virtual world, ordering books for e-readers and from Amazon seems so easy. The physical bookstore is facing a great challenge, but Lemuria feels ready to face this challenge head on.
As I say thanks for this honor, I am humbled that you acknowledge Lemuria’s efforts and its being. But simply, I consider bookselling life to be just a different kind of artform. A calling not unlike taking pictures that become photography books, creating paintings that emerge as an art book. Placing words on the page– poetry, fiction, or prose– all are art forms that just have to come out. Bookselling and book sharing is just something that has to be expressed. I have been so fortunate to live this dream, surrounded by authors, readers, and books, in the neighborhood I grew up in and where I raised my family. Keep writing, expressing your creative outlet, and cheers to reading and to keeping bookstores alive.
MIAL Awards Banquet 2020-2021: (L to R) Saramel Evans, Laura & Austin Evans, Valerie Walley, John & Mel Evans