When the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” came out in 1991, Jaime Harker read the novel and loved imagining the possibilities of a future free of discrimination. Although the characters Idgie and Ruth are not explicitly labeled as a lesbian couple, their relationship is accepted by town residents.
“I remember thinking, maybe there is a way to be like this in the world, and it’s not all tragic,” she said. “It will just be a part of who you are.”
Today, Harker is owner of Violet Valley Bookstore in Water Valley, a store she recently opened that welcomes the LGBTQ community.
Harker, who grew up in Seattle, was given the name “Jaime” because it means “I love” in French. She later attended high school in the Torrey Pines community of San Diego before earning a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from Brigham Young University and a doctorate from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Harker studied English because she loved books and landed a job at the University of Mississippi. In 2016, she married Dixie Grimes, executive chef and part owner of the BTC Old-Fashioned Grocery in Water Valley. Violet Valley Bookstore is located next to her wife’s restaurant.
“I fully support my wife with this bookstore,” Grimes said. “I was a gay kid in Mississippi, who for a long time, had no idea there were others like me, and how it would have felt to know a place like this existed. Each day, when I look at what she has accomplished by just getting this bookstore up and running, I am constantly amazed at what one person with a dream can do.”
Harker describes Mississippi as “beautiful, sometimes puzzling, really welcoming and alienated.” She said Water Valley is a nice town dealing with friction from change and growth. Once a railroad town, it changed in the 1950s and has endured challenging economic times.
“LGBTQ is an umbrella term for people who don’t identify as heterosexual,” she said, “and it makes me think about being part of a strong supportive community.”
Harker said the bravest thing she’s ever done is tell her parents she is gay and wasn’t planning to live the live they had planned for her.
“I had to figure out how to be in the world that I was told I wasn’t supposed to be in,” she said.
Harker said her parents weren’t completely surprised, but they were upset that her life didn’t match the future they had imagined. She said it was difficult, but they acted supportive.
With the bookstore, Harker said she wanted to create an inclusive place that welcomed people who felt like outsiders.
“I wanted to have a place they knew they were accepted,” she said.
Grimes said the bookstore has affected Harker on many levels. “I think the most profound thing would be that she understands how important it is for there to be a space that is inclusive for everyone in Mississippi, and she is now providing that space,” she said.
“It’s tough to be a gay kid in Mississippi these days, or a kid with blue hair, or a young, African American kid who wants to be a poet,” she said. “By creating Violet Valley, Jaime has made that space possible. ‘You are welcome here. We want you,’ I have heard her say time and time again, and if this bookstore helps or saves one kid who thinks he doesn’t belong, it’s all worth it.”
Harker said she’s received many book donations from around the country. “I still check the mail and receive packages of books from people who want to help out,” she said. She has also received letters of encouragement. “It’s been really heartening to see people support me and to know that the store means something to them,” she said.