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Indiana author Leah Johnson opens Loudmouth Bookstore to amplify marginalized voices

BD alum takes her next literary step
Nicole Thomas
Leah Johnson hugs Khari Dennis, a senior at University High School in Carmel, Indiana, on Loudmouth Books’ opening day Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023 in Indianapolis. Dennis brought her copies of Johnson’s books “You Should See Me in a Crown” and “Rise to the Sun” for Johnson to sign.

To Indiana author Leah Johnson, the name “Loudmouth” is an assertion — no matter who tries to silence marginalized voices like hers, she will be louder and prouder.

More than 1,200 books were asked to be removed from school libraries in 2022, according to the American Library Association. Most of these books were written by or about LGBTQIA+ people or people of color, including Johnson’s debut young adult novel “You Should See Me in a Crown.” In February 2022, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office investigated Johnson’s book and 50 others found in school libraries to decide whether these books addressing social injustice and LGBTQIA+ themes violated the state’s obscenity law.

Through her independent bookstore Loudmouth Books, Johnson is dedicated to putting challenged books like her own into people’s hands to “read dangerously” — a motto she has displayed as a neon pink sign glowing on the wall at her bookstore, which held its grand opening Sept. 30, 2023 in Indianapolis.

“The hope is [Loudmouth Books] will act as a community space where people can feel seen and heard, and their experiences are reflected in the books we select, the events we put on and the staff that works there,” Johnson said. “I want every aspect of what we do and what we are to be reflective of the diversity of the Hoosier human experience.”

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Taking back power

As a writer, Johnson said, she can’t control how readers receive her books; she can only control her own writing. She no longer felt comforted by this in May 2023, she said, when Gov. Eric Holcomb signed HB 1447, which allows parents or community members to request books they deem obscene or harmful to minors be banned from school libraries.

As Johnson heard her mother Indiana State Rep. Renee Pack arguing against passing this legislation that targets BIPOC and queer books and authors, Johnson said, she asked herself, “I should be fighting. What am I doing?”

“It made me feel powerless,” Johnson said. “One of the ways I want to take power back is by demanding loudly and proudly through the bookstore that we’re not going anywhere. These stories have always been here, and they will always be here.”

With the help of her realtor, Johnson found her bookstore’s home at 212 E. 16th Street in Indianapolis’ Herron-Morton Place neighborhood where she felt its community would welcome titles uplifting marginalized voices and experiences. Johnson turned her connections she made on her book tours for guidance on how to open a bookstore, like Emma Straub, the owner of Books Are Magic, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, New York.

“Everybody who I have asked has said, ‘What do you need?’” Johnson said. “‘Do you want me to send this to you in an email? Do you want to get on the phone? Do you want to do a Zoom? Do you want me to fly to Indianapolis and be there on opening day?’ Booksellers are the coolest, most generous people in the world. I knew that from the time I spent with them as a writer, but to be on the other side of that relationship and feel like I’m in community with them has been special.”

On June 19, 2023, Johnson announced on her social media platforms Loudmouth Books would open in the fall in downtown Indianapolis. Her posts included a GoFundMe to fundraise $10,000 for opening costs and future book giveaways. In 24 hours, Johnson met and exceeded her goal, raising nearly $15,000.

“It’s easy to allow yourself to descend into hopelessness, and that is my instinct most of the time,” Johnson said. “One of the things I am most sure of always in the midst of any moment of despair is that book people will show up when you call because we believe that stories have the ability to change the world. All those moments when I thought I was alone, when I felt like I was fighting by myself, I always had these people right beside me. It doesn’t always feel like that, but it felt like that on that day.”

Connecting with old and new friends

The book community continued to show up for Johnson on Loudmouth Books’ opening day as dozens of customers packed the bookstore. One of Loudmouth Books’ opening day visitors was Rachel Strolle, who drove three hours from Chicago’s western suburbs to support Johnson.

“[Johnson] is one of those people where you meet her and know, ‘This is an incredible human. She is going to make the world better,’’ said Strolle, a teen librarian and communications director for the book festival YALLFest. “It’s so exciting to see her dreams visualized and a great community resource.”

Emma Presnell also road-tripped to Indianapolis for Loudmouth Books’ opening day. Presnell grew up in Indianapolis, she said, but she traveled from Louisville, Kentucky, where she is a bookseller at Carmichael’s Books, the city’s oldest independent bookstore.

“To have a bookstore open so close to home — and to have an author be the person behind it — I was excited for the opening,” Presnell said. “There’s a very rewarding feeling I’ve had working for an independent bookstore, so it’s always exciting to get to see new towns and cities across the U.S. open up new bookstores.

“It’s so important, especially with [Johnson’s] whole initiative being banned books, to see her bring this to Indy. I religiously watch John Green’s TikToks [where] he talks about how his books are starting to come more under fire. It’s important for me to support local bookstores who are selling [challenged books] and make sure they’re able to get into the public’s hands.”

Khari Dennis, a senior at University High School in Carmel, Indiana, didn’t have access growing up to books with characters who share the same identities as she does, she said. When Dennis started high school in 2020, she read “You Should See Me in a Crown,” which was the first time she found a character who represented her identity and experiences.

Dennis brought her copy of “You Should See Me in a Crown” for Johnson to sign at Loudmouth’s opening and left with an armful of other young adult books she purchased.

“There are kids who were able to see representation of themselves when they were in middle school or elementary school,” Dennis said. “Then there’s me, who could only piece [representation] together through stories and characters I relate to a little bit. Now, I can say, ‘I relate to this character wholly.’”

Emphasizing community

To further its mission of increasing access to diverse literature, Loudmouth Books will host a “Clear the Shelves” event each month where young readers can take a book for free. A similar initiative for public school students at Semicolon Books, a Black woman-founded nonprofit bookstore in Chicago, inspired Johnson.

Johnson’s childhood spent reading in a bean bag chair at the Indianapolis Public Library’s Wayne Branch also influenced her drive to create a communal space at Loudmouth Books for readers to feel seen and heard without needing to make a purchase.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t go to bookstores because we couldn’t afford it,” Johnson said. “When you’re worried about whether you’re going to be able to eat dinner, you’re not also trying to pay for a $30 hardback. I can’t eat words. I went to the library because books were free, and it’s a place where you can exist without the expectation of purchasing anything.

“When I was coming up with the idea of what Loudmouth was going to be, I knew I would have an arm of the business that was designed for kids to have access to stories and not have to pay for them, explain themselves or feel guilty or ashamed.”

Johnson never thought she could own a business, she said, but she has learned there’s no limit to what she can do when she’s angry and motivated enough to make a change. In the future, Johnson hopes to host a Loudmouth Books-sponsored banned books festival to give a platform to these stories and writers.

“I want to amplify and bolster in whatever way we can the voices of marginalized storytellers in central Indiana,” Johnson said. “There’s this narrative that if you want to be an artist, then you got to go to New York, L.A. — somewhere cool. There’s so many people here doing good work, telling great stories. I don’t want us to have to leave to feel like we have a community. Let’s lean into what we have here.”

Loudmouth Books is located at 212 E. 16th Street in Indianapolis. The bookstore is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. To learn more about Loudmouth Books, visit its social media @loudmouthindy or website

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