The following article was written by Jerry Mitchell and published on August 2, 2014 in the Clarion-Ledger.
Photography by Ken Murphy
In a day where many prognosticators regard bookstores as forgettable relics and e-books as the unstoppable future, one bookstore is defying the odds and publishing its own $75 book.
That bookstore is Lemuria, which is releasing a 183-page photo book about Mississippi’s capital city this week.
If there is another bookstore in the U.S. going into the high end of publishing like this, Richard Howorth, past president of the American Booksellers Association, doesn’t know about it.
Decades ago, some bookstores did dabble in publishing, he said. City Lights bookstore in San Francisco became a publisher. So did the Beehive in Savannah, Ga.
But that was before department stores gave way to mall stores and then to megastores and ultimately to online bookstores, such as Amazon.
John Evans was born in 1950 — 14 years before Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
In his early 20s, he spent much of his time buying records and books in his native Jackson. “I didn’t have much direction,” he said.
After Be-Bop Records opened in 1974, he decided to take his own shot at a business, he said. “I thought I might as well open a bookstore.”
He began writing book publishers and asking his friends to suggest books to order. Soon, sales representatives filled his small apartment.
Lemuria (named after the mythic civilization) was born, he said. “I formed the company two weeks after I was 25.”
By 2002, it had become such a beloved independent bookstore that when author Elmore Leonard decided to hold seven book signings in North America, Lemuria was one of them.
The fall of the economy and the rise of e-books began to devastate bookstores. In 2011, Borders closed its remaining 400 stores.
To survive, many bookstores moved beyond books to sell all sorts of other merchandise, and some even embraced e-books. Evans loved physical books, and that’s what he stuck with, he said. “I saw all that as opportunity to say, ‘We are a real bookstore, and we will live or die by that.’ “
Looking for ideas to rebrand Lemuria, Evans read “The New Rules of Retail” by Robin Lewis and Michael Dart.
In that book, authors suggested retail in 2020 might look most like Apple, with a product created, produced and marketed by the same company.
Would there be a way, Evans wondered, of producing a product that neither Barnes & Noble nor Amazon could sell? If so, that could become a way to redefine Lemuria, he thought.
Not long after, photographer Ken Murphy contacted Evans to get his opinion on whether he should do a sequel to his successful book that featured photos on Mississippi.
In studying that book, Evans noticed only a few photographs from the capital city and suggested to Murphy there was more of a need for a photo book about Jackson than a second statewide book.
They eventually decided to do just that, he said. “I didn’t want it to just be a book of photographs. I felt like there needed to be a photographic plot, a stream of consciousness.”
For the next year, Evans juggled his two jobs of running Lemuria and editing the photo book. “From a cash flow perspective, it was difficult — cash flow and having the energy,” he said.
The printing, including a planned second printing, cost six figures.
While Evans remained busy, something happened in the book industry.
Over the past year, the sales of hardcover books rose 9.5 percent, and the sales of e-books fell 0.5 percent, said Howorth, who once taught Bezos at a class for prospective bookstore owners. “That helps to explain why Amazon’s stock is down 10 percent. We’re reaching a plateau.”
Jamie Kornegay, owner of Turnrow Books in Greenwood, praised what Lemuria has done and said he hopes it becomes a model for what others can do.
He sees his job as the battle to preserve the physical book, he said. “If we cede e-books to this generation, that’s it.”
Evans doesn’t believe he retains as well when he sits and reads at a computer. “I think the jury is still out on how memory works,” he said.
He sees many in this new generation favoring the tactile over the virtual. “My best young bookseller is choosing to read physical books,” he said. “They’re real.”
By the time Evans arrived in May at the Book Expo in New York, word of what his little bookstore in Mississippi had done had spread.
Some booksellers told him it was a great idea.
He shot back, “It’s a lot of work.”
Evans believes the physical book will not only survive but endure.
“Yes, a physical book takes a little more effort, but the opportunity you have to read a physical book is about as pleasurable as any experience you can have,” he said. “It’s irreplaceable.”
Contact Jerry Mitchell at (601) 961-7064 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @jmitchellnews on Twitter.
Jackson: photographs by Ken Murphy is available now for purchase. To order a copy, call Lemuria Books at 601.366.7619 or visit us online at www.lemuriabooks.com.