Gerry Wilson interviews John Evans, the founder/owner of Lemuria Books
The façade of Lemuria Books would be impressive anywhere, but in Jackson, Mississippi, Lemuria’s doors represent the entrance to a long literary tradition. Lemuria’s founder and owner, John Evans, has a story to tell about the sculpture of a “book in hand” over the front doors.
He reminds me that Lemuria spent the early years (I was a customer even then) in a closet-size space in The Quarter, a small shopping center located on the outskirts of Jackson, and in Highland Village, which was a step-up location-wise, but it wasn’t John’s dream store. Lemuria moved to its present location, Banner Hall, in 1988. In the course of that move, John says, he immersed himself in design books and books about bookstores. He became enamored of Irish book shops and diners with unique entrances (think: a donut shop whose entry is a donut hole, or the old A&W root beer chain). Lemuria was settling in at the new location when the eBook craze began and threatened to take down physical book stores everywhere. That was when John settled on the symbol of the “book in hand” that would represent what was and is, for John and for readers, the essence of Lemuria. A design firm in New Orleans created the “sculpture.” Mounted over the front doors, the piece looks like a bronze, but to quote John, “If it were, you’d need a fortress to hold it up!” It’s striking just the same and speaks for Lemuria very well.
John will tell you that, even though much has changed over the years, Lemuria is the same warm place it was when the store first opened in 1975. The interior will remind you of someone’s lovely, dark-paneled home library. The staff are happy to help and/or make recommendations, but they won’t follow you around. You’re free to wander from room to room where the shelves are clearly defined for content.
There’s the “Mississippi corner,” where Lemuria celebrates Mississippi’s literary chops with unabashed pride. I’m happy to have one book on those shelves already, and That Pinson Girl will be there soon, alongside all the “Mississippi greats” I so admire. There’s as fine a selection of poetry books as you’ll find anywhere. Looking for travel or food or nonfiction? Lemuria has them all. There’s a children’s and youth shop, too—OZ, a magical little place. Lemuria boasts all the accoutrements of a “good” book store space but goes one better. The First Editions Room houses an exceptional collection of books you may not find elsewhere, especially the classic, collectible Mississippi authors—William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Ellen Douglas, Barry Hannah, Willie Morris—as well as the newer generations of writers: John Grisham, Richard Ford, Jesmyn Ward, Natasha Trethewey, Katy Simpson Smith, and many, many more. The Mississippi literary tradition lives on.
The photos I’ve included give you a taste of Lemuria, but they can’t tell the whole story. Only John Evans can do that.
He and I got together a while back. In the interview you may be struck, as I was, by his breadth of knowledge and his love for what he’s been doing all these years.
GERRY: Lemuria’s website tells us, “In 1975, John Evans opened Lemuria in a converted apartment stuffed full of books in The Quarter in Jackson, Mississippi.” In 2025, Lemuria turns 50! To what do you attribute Lemuria’s longevity?
JOHN: Lemuria has many loyal writers, but we’ve maintained a malleable business plan that adapts as the industry changes. For the last 40 years, the industry has often been on a rollercoaster. We’re going through another period like that now. But Lemuria has maintained the loyalty of our readers and has been able to adapt to change.
GERRY: Lemuria has a very active visiting author schedule. Why do you think it’s important to provide the space where authors and readers come together?
JOHN: The answer goes back to when we [Lemuria] first began in the Quarter. A poet, Terry Hummer, came to me and wanted to do poetry readings in the book store. So we started having some poets come and read. The author list grew when the store moved [to Highland Village] around 1977-78. That’s when we met Ellen Gilchrist, we met Barry Hannah, we met Willie Morris, and we began to realize that writers being friends with the store made the books come alive and become more than a product. When books come alive, readers care more about them. It creates a more vibrant experience.
Also it’s fun! I didn’t realize when I started, but the ability to develop long-term friendships with writers has been a gift to my life. I’m not just somebody selling their books. They respect my work as I respect theirs.
So many writers who were great friends of Lemuria are gone. We can’t talk about the book store without talking about Miss [Eudora] Welty. What a gift. She shared so many of her friends [with the store]—like Walker Percy. Those friendships full of integrity and association wouldn’t have happened without her. John Grisham is another writer who has allowed the book store to stay out of debt!
GERRY: How do you want your customers to feel when they walk into the store?
JOHN: Relaxed! If they’re relaxed, they’re comfortable to explore. I’m a believer that books find you; you don’t just find them. Being a browser is like being a prospector; you’re trying to mine something that gives you something that’s unexpected, that makes it a special experience.
GERRY: What are the greatest challenges facing book store owners today? How do you address them?
JOHN: I think the most important thing today is to figure out how to maintain your upstream identity to the publishers and the value you bring to them. In 2020 the trade show was cancelled. That was where I went with staff, made the one-on-one contacts, discovered what books fit for us, what authors to befriend and/or bring to Jackson. I worked with Richard [Howorth] at Square Books in Oxford to “put Mississippi on the map.”
But so many people [in the book industry] quit because of Covid. It’s been difficult working with new people, but we have done a pretty good job. My young [staff] people are talking to their young people. But how do people perceive your authenticity when you’re doing everything by email or digitally? Online ordering became very important during the pandemic. We haven’t quite recovered from all that yet. It’s hard to explain what you think you mean to the community when someone doesn’t come in and see for himself. Ordering online has changed the dynamic.
GERRY: What do you want Lemuria’s legacy to be?
JOHN: I don’t know. I guess what legacy means is when you think about someone, what do you think about? “Well, you know, he shared this great book with me. That was his gift to me.” The connection is the book, the reading experience. And the reading experience is our own little creative art form we practice ourselves, what we’re reading and thinking about.
Also, it’s rewarding to have the third generation of families coming in the store. That makes me realize I haven’t wasted my life! Something’s being done right. That’s real.
As we were closing the conversation, John asked me a question. “You go all the way back to the Quarter,” he said. (I do indeed!) “Do you think the bookstore has maintained its essence?”
I didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, and then some.” And the three generations of readers who have now walked through Lemuria’s doors would agree.
If you read the news, no doubt you know that my home town, Jackson, has more than its share of problems. But no matter how often we deal with crumbling infrastructure or water woes, Lemuria stands quite literally “on a hill,” bringing the best of a broad range of reading pleasures to the community. If you’re ever near Jackson or willing to drive a little bit out of your way—then please: “Y’all come,” as my aunt used to call out from her porch as my parents and I drove away on Sunday afternoons. You’ll always be welcome. And if you can’t get to Jackson, do the next best thing: go online and pay Lemuria Books a visit.
Lemuria Books will host the reading/signing launch party for Gerry Wilson’s That Pinson Girl (available February 6, 2024) on March 7, 2024.
Gerry Wilson is the author of Crosscurrents and Other Stories, published by Press 53, and a Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Fiction Award Nominee in 2016. An early draft of That Pinson Girl (coming from Regal House in 2024) was a finalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition. Residing in Jackson, Mississippi, Gerry is the recipient of a Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship.