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Inside Indie Bookstores: Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

You grew up in the midst of that.
Correct. I was thirteen when Goodman and Chaney and Schwerner were murdered [in 1964] and buried in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and I was eleven when the riots at Ole Miss occurred. I remember my mother crying when that happened. Her father taught English at the university for years, and she knew that it was a tragic event.

As someone who's spent most of his life in this town, how did you see the place after having been the mayor?
My view of the community is essentially no different from what it was before I was mayor. Except, I would say, I really appreciate all the people who work for the city. A lot of good public servants.

When you talk with writers about places they hope to visit someday, they always name Oxford. Partly that's because this is Faulkner country—his house is here, and his grave is here, and so on—but how did this place become such a literary destination in the last several decades?
You know, it's a lot of things. Beginning with Faulkner. But there were people preceding Faulkner connected to the university, mostly. Stark Young was a novelist and a New York Times drama critic and an editor at the New Republic who helped Faulkner a little bit. Phil Stone was a lawyer here, educated at Yale, who introduced Faulkner to Swinburne and Joyce and a lot of the reading that was so influential to him when he was very young. And primarily because of the presence of the university, there's always been something of a literary environment. But I think because Faulkner's major work dealt with this specific geography and culture so intimately, and because of the mythology he created, that makes for a very particular kind of literary tourism. Hemingway didn't quite do that with Oak Park. It wasn't a little native postage stamp of soil. And in Mississippi in general there were also Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty—these great writers of the twentieth century.

More recently, Willie Morris moved to Oxford in 1980, within a year after we opened the store. He was from Yazoo City, Mississippi. He was the editor of the [University of] Texas student newspaper, and from there got a job with the Texas Observer, where he became editor at a very young age. He was hired by Harper's Magazine to be an editor, and a few years later, in 1967, became its youngest editor in chief. And while at Harper's, he really changed the magazine and was on the ground floor of New Journalism. He published David Halberstam and Larry L. King; he published Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night" [originally titled "Steps of the Pentagon"], the longest magazine piece ever to have been published; and he published Walker Percy.

He also wrote a book called North Toward Home, which was his autobiography, published in 1967, that kind of dealt with this whole ambivalence of the South and being from here and loving so much about it—stuff about growing up in Yazoo City, and his friends, and his baseball team, and his dog, and his aunt Minnie who lived next door—but also the racism. The murders and the civil rights movement. And he had to get out of the South 'cause he loved it too much and hated so much of everything that was going on.

That sense of conflictedness.
Right, right. The book expressed all that and was a touchstone for a lot of people my age. Then he got fired from or quit Harper's, depending on the story. He got in a fight with the publisher and submitted his resignation, believing that he wouldn't accept it. But he did. [Laughter.] So he continued to write, but none of his subsequent books were quite as big as North Toward Home. And Willie was a big drinker and he had kind of run out of gas in the black hole, which is what he called Manhattan. But Dean Faulkner Wells, William Faulkner's niece, and her husband, Larry, raised money to give Willie a visiting spot here at the university. So he came here that spring as a writer-in-residence. And he immediately befriended us and the bookstore. He said, "Richard, I'm going to bring all these writers, all my friends. I'm going to bring them down here and they're going to do book signings at your store and we're going to have a great time."

The summer I came back to open the store was also about the same time that Bill Ferris, who was the first full-time director at the newly established Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the university, came here. Bill was originally from Vicksburg; he'd been to Davidson [College in North Carolina] and got a PhD in folklore under Henry Glassy at Penn, taught at Yale. Bill was a tremendous guy and very charismatic and bright and enthusiastic and full of ideas. Bill had a tremendous influence on the university and the community and our store. On the South as a whole. What he did was, despite this whole business of the South's being known for racism and bigotry and poverty and illiteracy and teen pregnancy and all the things we're still sort of known for [laughter], he took Creole cooking and quilt making and basketry and storytelling and literature and the blues—all these aspects of Southern culture—and made it fascinating to the public. So Bill had a tremendous influence on the community and the bookstore. He also knew a lot of writers. The first book signing we did was with Ellen Douglas, the second month we were open, October 1979. She had a new novel coming out called The Rock Cried Out. The second person to do a book signing at the store was a black poet who was originally from Corinth, who had taught himself to write while doing time at the Indiana State Prison: Etheridge Knight. [Laughter.] Bill knew Etheridge and he got Etheridge to come here. Bill also knew Alice Walker, got her to come here. Knew Alex Haley, got him to come here. And Willie got George Plimpton and William Styron and Peter Matthiessen. All these people were coming and doing events in the bookstore. So, really, from the time that we opened, we had this incredible series of events. Then the store kind of became known. And in those days the whole author tour business was nothing like what it soon thereafter became. In the seventies and early eighties, publishers would send an author to San Francisco and Denver and Washington and Atlanta. Maybe. But primarily they were there to do interviews with the press and go on radio and television. Publicity tours, not a book-signing tour. They didn't go to bookstores. We weren't by any means the first store to do this, but there weren't many who were doing this at the same time as we were. The Tattered Cover [Denver] and Elliott Bay [Seattle] and the Hungry Mind [Saint Paul]. I think that's kind of how the circuit business got started.

Then Barry Hannah moved here in 1983 to teach creative writing. And his personality and writing style particularly contrasted with Willie's. Because Willie, he was kind of a journalist. And even though he could be critical of the south, part of his method in being critical was to get to a point where he could also be a cheerleader for the south. And Barry I think kind of looked down his nose at that sort of writing. You know, Barry was the Miles Davis of modern American letters at that point. There would've been kind of a rivalry with any writer, any other writer in town, I suppose. Plus, both of them had to struggle with Faulkner's ghost—there was that whole thing. But it was an immensely fertile period in the community's literary history.

So that convergence of events helped create the foundation you would build the store upon.
Right, right. And then, you know, Larry Brown emerged from the soil. His first book came out in 1988. John Grisham: His first book was published in 1989.

Had John been living here the whole time too?
No, he'd been living in north Mississippi, by South Haven. He was in the state legislature. But when he was in law school at Ole Miss, he heard William Styron speak. Willie had invited Styron down for the first time, and that was when he got the bug. That's when John said, "Wow, I'm gonna do something with this."

Reader Comments

  • John-Michael Albert says...

    Thank you for this opportunity to recommend an independent bookstore that is a vital part of our community. In the early 00's, when the likes of Amazon.com and the big stores finally managed to eradicate the last of the old fashioned indies from the New Hampshire Seacoast, many thought the battle was over. That's when RiverRun Books appeared on Commercial Alley in Portsmouth. Such good news traveled fast: a bookstore with unpredictable merchandise, merchandise you'd actually want to browse, merchandise you could believe would feed your curiosity, your thirst for something other than someone's top ten or drugstore/airport lit. And the owner, Tom Holbrook, was totally about the local reading and business communities. There was a prominent section dedicated to local authors, and a large part of that dedicated to local poets--the area being a hotbed of the 21st century poetry Renaissance. Soon, chairs were being schlepped down from the second tier for authors' signings, book discussion groups, and poetry readings several times a month. A part of everyone's social planning--everyone I know, anyway--became a discussion of "what's going on at RiverRun this week." Tom had the business acumen and tenacity to hold on and to flourish on Commerce Alley, and the reading community rewarded him. When he had the opportunity to move into a new location on Market Square, four blocks from his old location, a hundred people gathered and formed a bucket brigade and passed the contents of his old store to his new store. But the old space wasn't abandoned. Tom turned it into Second Run Books, a much needed used bookstore, with the same critical eye for intellectual value, with a strong appeal to those of us who can't always afford "first run" prices. But that hasn't been the limit of Tom's commitment to the Seacoast community. He has been a leader in the "Buy Local" movement, promoting other local businesses and forming an association of businesses that make sure the members of the buying public know they have the resources to get what they wants and need while keeping their dollars in the community, where they'll do the most good for them and their neighbors. In a time when every independent bookstore is asking itself, "How can we offer a viable alternative to the big box stores?," Tom has the answers: deep community involvement, a friendly, intelligent, techno savvy staff that actually reads and is prepared to discuss contemporary literature, the resources to chase down what you want quickly, if nothing in stock pushes your buttons, and a "clean, well lighted place" to meet with others with your interests and keep the original idea of 'the book as social glue' alive.

  • Julie Schoerke says...

    Thank you for this warm and wonderful article about a magical place. As a book publicist, I am a huge fan and booster of independent bookstores. There are so many great book shops throughout the country. Square Books has a special place in my heart and I leap at every opportunity to travel with my author clients when we have an event in Oxford.

  • Susan Gregg Gilmore says...

    As a novelist, I traveled 18,000 miles with the release of my first novel. The point of logging all of those miles you might ask - to meet readers, yes, but to meet the owners of the independent bookstores. One of my first stops, Square Books. It was one of those treasured moments. To be in a book-loving town like Oxford is special in and of itself but to spend some time in Square Books is like peeking inside heaven. Thank you for the day-to-day effort of sharing books with the world.

  • jom5781 says...

    I would like to put a word in about Robin’s Book Store, Philadelphia’s oldest independent book store and my favorite. Founded in 1936, Robin’s has been active in many free speech causes, along with carrying books that large chains would not touch, including the Beat poets in the 1950’s, African-American authors, Malcolm X, Mao Tse-Tung, erotica, and political works from the far left to the far right. In 1964, Robin’s Books challenged the Philadelphia District Attorney’s effort to ban /Tropic of Cancer/ from sale in the city; the publicity from the court case helped sell 7,000 copies of the book. Robin’s also gave out anti-war literature and the Black Panther Party newspaper during the 1960’s, and in 1983 Larry Robin, the current owner, founded Moonstone, Inc., a non-profit corporation to promote the literary arts in Philadelphia. Robin’s is also a venue for literary readings, writing workshops, concerts, and other artistic gatherings. Writers that have participated in these readings have included Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, Walter Mosley, Terry McMillan, Rita Dove, Charles Fuller, and Eleanor Wilner. Today, their retail book business has gone, due to competition from the big chains, but they still have their used book store and their meeting space; you can still order current books through them. Thank you.

  • CarolynB says...

    Fantastic article. I looked for it after reading the first one about Canterbury books in your Nov/Dec issue. We love to find great independent bookstores when we travel and have added Square Books to our list. Thanks for a wonderful column and look forward to the next one! Cheers from Sydney. www.mysydneyparislife.wordpress.com

  • sbyates50 says...

    Hooray for Jeremiah Chamberlin and his mission in this series of articles. And I am thrilled he saluted Square Books so early in the process! As one who sells to Mississippi independent bookstores for living, let me recommend the individual miracles literary travelers can find throughout our state. Please see http://www.squidoo.com/Mississippi-Bookstores And go, Jeremiah, go!

  • elliotpw says...

    This article makes me want to go to Oxford. Just to visit Square Books.

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