Light in Oxford

How the vision of one independent bookseller has revitalized the heart of Faulkner’s Mississippi.

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A photograph of Oxford, Mississippi, catches the town on the gloomiest day in its postwar history. It shows the courthouse square, Oxford’s literal and symbolic heart. A couple of young white men, facing away from the camera, are hurling glass bottles at some unseen target; around them, others mill about, gazing in the direction taken by the missiles.

This was a moment in the 1962 riot aimed at preventing James Meredith from registering at the University of Mississippi. The riot itself, one of the more traumatic incidents in the long march toward desegregation in the South, had occurred on the Ole Miss campus, almost a mile away, where two people were killed and scores wounded. Afterward, federal troops pushed the crowd into town, where its more hotheaded members harried the soldiers. In the background of the photograph, you can see Blaylock’s Drug Store, with its oval “Fortune’s Famous Ice Cream” sign seeming to hang, incongruously, over the heads of the bottle throwers.

It is startling to see the photograph these days — you might have come across it in the January/February 2000 issue of The Oxford American — because of how much is still recognizable, and how much has changed. The square looks the same: You can stand where those rioters stood, and instantly identify both the ornate commercial facade of the building in front of you, and the Fortune’s sign. But the business inside is no longer Blaylock’s. It is now a bookstore. And if over the last decade Oxford has become a signal destination for travelers to the Deep South, having overcome the trauma of the 1962 riots and what outsiders mistakenly took them to mean about the town, that would be in some measure due to that store, Square Books, and its owner, Richard Howorth.

Howorth is perhaps best known these days as the president of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), the scrappy organization of independent bookstores that has sought to prevent chain stores and online booksellers from sweeping them into the dustbin of history. Tall, bespectacled, and, on the surface, disarmingly earnest — “Richard looks like your algebra teacher” is how one young novelist puts it — he is also fervid about his cause. During Howorth’s tenure, which ends in June, the ABA helped deep-six the proposed merger between Barnes & Noble and Ingram, the national book distributor; pursued a lawsuit by a group of its members against Barnes & Noble and Borders Books for seeking and receiving unfair terms from publishers and distributors; and undertook an ambitious — and so far unrealized — effort to unify some 1,200 independent bookstores through a bookselling website.

The ABA has gotten a fair amount of sympathetic publicity for all of this. For those who value books and writing, the difficulties faced by the independent bookstores are troubling, and not just because they’re pleasant places. As Howorth puts it, “When the independent bookselling market was thriving in the ’70s and ’80s, more books were being published, more people were reading books, the sales of books were higher, and publishers’ profit margins were much greater. With the rise of the corporate retailing powers and the consolidation in publishing, all of those things have declined.” At their best, independents play a bedrock role in sustaining the village of readers and writers, bringing the one together with the other and esteeming the thoughts, tastes, and quirks of both.

But what tends to get lost in the arguments over the future of retailing is that independents don’t just belong to that fanciful village; they belong to real towns and cities, too. The dangers posed to them by superstores and online sellers don’t just threaten some quaint form of distributing goods, they imperil the fabric of neighborhoods and towns. For good or ill, stores — their bearing on the street, the people they draw in, the presence they cast in the community at large — help define their neighborhoods, which is why the changes buffeting traditional retailers are not solely fodder for the business pages. As Oxford’s experience with Square Books suggests, the quality of our daily lives, and of the places we choose to live, is up for grabs as well.

Of all the faint ripples cast by the events caught in that 1962 photograph, Square Books must be one of the least likely. Howorth, now 49, was 11 at the time, and he remembers his mother’s anguish upon reading about the riots (his family was living in Memphis, though it moved to Oxford the following year). Howorth’s mother had grown up in Oxford, the daughter and granddaughter of Ole Miss professors, and most of her family was still there. “She knew,” Howorth says, “that it meant ruin for the town and the university.” Oxford and its environs were hardly free of the cramped assumptions about race that marked the rest of Mississippi — this was, after all, the community that William Faulkner wrote about — but the townspeople also felt a deep faith in it, a sense that Oxford was both of and apart from the rest of the state, a place where the children of farmers could begin to escape the ancestral shackles of their culture.

“There was a shared belief that one of these days, it would be a great university and great community,” Howorth says, “which was my parents’ view and came to be my own view.” But the riots shook Oxford’s idea of itself. “We reached bottom, commercially and emotionally, with the Meredith riot,” says Will Lewis, who co-owns Neilson’s department store, which has anchored the square since 1839.

And so in 1979, when Howorth and his wife, Lisa, left their apprenticeship as managers of the Savile Book Shop in Washington, D.C., and returned to Oxford to open their own store, they had more in mind than simply serving a market for good literature that — curiously, for Faulkner’s hometown — had until then gone largely unserved. They also wanted the store to help Oxford cast itself in a different light, as a place of culture and literacy and broad-mindedness. It was Howorth’s belief, as he says, “that we’ve been wrongly viewed so many times, at so many different historic junctures, and that maybe this will help compensate.”

Square Books was born on the second floor of a building owned by Howorth’s aunt, next to Neilson’s, with $10,000 that Richard and Lisa had saved, and another $10,000 borrowed from the bank next to where the bookstore now sits. It was not an instant success — in fact, Lisa had to get a job at the university library, since one of them needed to bring in some income — but their business quickly made an impact. “It was a bookstore, so it was a cultural focal point,” says Tom Freeland, a local lawyer. “It was certainly the first cultural focal point that wasn’t university connected.” And even the university hadn’t paid much attention to writers other than Faulkner, so when Square Books began holding readings and signings — including a jammed, electrifying event in 1980 with Willie Morris, who was teaching at Ole Miss, and William Styron, then on the hustings for Sophie’s Choice — it became clear that here was a force capable of transforming Oxford’s cultural life.

As it happened, the Howorths had arrived in town at about the same time as a young Yale professor, William Ferris, who had come to set up the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss. The three became friends and allies. The bookstore promoted the center’s work and the writers and scholars it attracted. Eventually, Square Books joined forces with the center to put on the Oxford Conference for the Book, a three-day gathering of writers, poets, editors, and publishers that since the early 1990s has helped cement Oxford’s reputation as a literary center of the South. For his part, Ferris, who is now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, helped Howorth bring in such writers as Alex Haley, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Allen Ginsberg, not only adding to Square Books’ growing reputation as the engine of Oxford’s growing cultural allure but also attracting a steady flow of customers. “I saw it as part of my mission to support Square Books in everything it sought to do,” Ferris explains. “At that time, our problem in Oxford was the increasingly insecure future of the square as an economic unit. And Square Books represented a small, modest investment in the future of the square.”

It is hard these days, when so much of the commercial life of our communities takes place in malls well outside the center of town, to understand just how deeply a town square can be embedded in the gut of a place. On one wall of the courthouse in Oxford is a plaque bearing Faulkner’s words from Requiem for a Nun, “Above all, the courthouse, the center, the focus, the hub sitting looming in the center of the county’s circumference, like a single cloud in the ring of the horizon.” The words are attached to the building, but Faulkner might as well have been writing about the square itself.

In its heyday, as Tom Freeland puts it, “it wasn’t just that the square was the center of commerce; it was all of commerce.” It had a dry-goods store in every quadrant, drugstores, hardware stores; even Oxford’s car dealerships and auto-parts supply stores sat just off it. On Saturdays, it was where everyone in town and in the surrounding county came to get a haircut, buy their produce from the farmers who set up their trucks around the courthouse, listen to preachers — white preachers in one corner, black in the other — and simply spend the day. It was, in short, the center of Oxford life.

As chain retailers and others began arriving in town, though, the square’s life began to ebb, as it did in most other Southern and Midwestern towns. Many of the merchants closed up or moved, though a few, like Will Lewis, made it clear they weren’t budging. “If we’d had to reach the point of moving,” says Lewis, “I’d just have gone back to practicing law. Leaving the square wasn’t for me.” There were others like him, but even so, by the late 1960s it looked like the square’s best days were over.

Then two things happened. One was that Oxford passed liquor-by-the-drink (Mississippi had been dry until the late 1960s), and bars, restaurants, and nightclubs began setting up around the square. The other was the arrival of Square Books.

No one in town, least of all Richard Howorth, would say the bookstore saved the square, but it certainly helped change the ambience of the town’s center, especially after Howorth bought the Blaylock’s building and renovated it. Square Books became a destination — a well-lighted, comfortable refuge on one of the square’s main corners where townspeople could meet. They thronged to readings and signings, and could hang out at the café upstairs — even the daily conclave of Oxford old-timers that has met for three decades at Smitty’s, the no-frills café just behind Square Books, will sometimes repair to the bookstore if Smitty’s gets too crowded with Ole Miss football fans in town for a game — and where they felt not just welcomed, but understood. “If I get interested in a subject,” says Tom Freeland, “I tend to read a lot of books on it. I’ve sometimes felt there were sections expanding in the store, that Richard had picked up that I was interested in something and suddenly there’d be a bunch more books on it.”

It is hard to pick apart the precise alchemy by which a bookseller turns good business practices into a vital community presence, but it is clear that in Square Books’ case, its success as a store is inseparable from its impact on Oxford. With its shelves crowded with books by Eudora Welty, Willie Morris, Walker Percy, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, John Grisham, Ellen Gilchrist, Donna Tartt, and other writers with a Mississippi connection, it’s a place where Mississippians can take instant pride in the state’s literary strengths. Howorth’s eclectic approach toward buying books makes it a place where a wide range of readers can feel comfortable. “If people come in and they want a book by David Duke or even something like The Southern Dog (a new book of photographs that Howorth recently ordered) and I don’t have that book, or I appear to be condescending, then I don’t think those people should have much respect for me,” he says. Its readings and its weekly radio show featuring visiting authors and local musicians have made it a hometown cultural institution. And Howorth’s willingness to champion writers he or his staff admire has made the store a national literary magnet, a fact that gives the townspeople pride. “Square Books really is an anchor in the soul of Oxford,” says William Ferris. “If anything can be seen as the legacy of Faulkner and the wonderful literary traditions of the community, it’s the store.”

And so, with Square Books as a model and an anchor, others have followed: furniture sellers, restaurateurs, clothiers, a record store, art galleries. The square is not the egalitarian gathering place it was in Faulkner’s day — on the whole, its stores are too upscale for that now — but it is still the center of town, and it is still vibrant, night and day. “There’s always life here,” says architect Tom Howorth, Richard’s younger brother. “Physically, the square has a wonderful scale, a sense of enclosure with abundant activity at the same time. One day I was looking out the window and saw John Berendt (the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) on one bench, and looked across and there goes Barry Hannah into the bookstore. So part of it is physical, part is that there are smart, interesting people that you might bump into on the street, and part of it is that there’s still this old-fashioned, county-courthouse culture going on.”

Thanks in part to the ambience Square Books helped bring into being, the center of Oxford is a wonderful place, vital and at the same time somehow unhurried. And over the past decade, the rest of the world has taken notice. These days, a simple search can find a raft of travel articles about Oxford, all of which comment on its easy charm and cultural riches. Most of them prominently mention Square Books. The town is perennially on lists of desirable places to retire, with a reputation as “a surprisingly urbane and energetic place,” as the Chicago Tribune put it a few years back. “We wound up on everyone’s hot button,” says Max Hipp, the town chamber of commerce’s executive director.

And so Oxford has been growing, booming, in fact, at least by Southern small-town standards. Out on the edge of town new retail establishments are popping up at a dizzying pace. Real estate prices are climbing, nowhere more rapidly than around the square; most of Howorth’s employees can no longer afford to live within walking distance of the store. Developers are scurrying to snap up available parcels, including sites just off the square that are slated for condo projects; one will replace the last independently owned grocery in town. It is possible to get quite gloomy about all of this. A while back, the town council created a historic preservation committee to look into what ought to be done about the courthouse square. When word got out that the committee was planning to recommend the creation of a historic preservation district around the square, thus shutting off development, Oxford’s property owners and developers besieged town hall. As a result, the council rescinded its preservation statute and disbanded the committee. People who like Oxford as it is fear the recent developments. “If growth is unrestricted and uncontrolled,” says Ferris, “it essentially destroys the very heart of the place that made people want to move there.”

This is pretty much where Howorth finds himself. “The town was built on a scale,” he says, “and for the first 150 years of its life, it existed at that scale. The store itself fit well within that scale. But that’s what’s falling from our grasp. There was a time when I was sort of in control of my destiny, and I had a hand in the destiny of the community. Now I’m just not sure. The community’s becoming something different.” Still, it’s worth remembering that the community has been in the process of becoming something different for decades — indeed, as Tom Freeland points out, “You can find Faulkner writing letters to the editor of the Oxford Eagle about the decline of the square in the 1940s.”

Communities are constantly reinventing themselves; sometimes they do it with grace and imagination, as Oxford has demonstrated with its courthouse square. So just as Square Books is, in a fashion, part of Oxford’s problem — having helped create the atmosphere that makes the town so attractive — it may also be part of the answer. Even now, Howorth has his eye on a piece of nearby property, into which he might move his main store, while keeping his current location to specialize in books about the South. Typically, he has mixed feelings about expanding: “In fear of the next wave of development,” he recently wrote to another bookseller, “I become what I fear.” But vital neighborhoods need vital stores to anchor them, and even a larger Square Books will still stand for the importance of ideas and reading and writing and lively discourse to a community’s quality of life. Even as Oxford becomes a busier, more crowded place, that’s an encouraging set of values to have sitting at its heart.


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