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Inside Indie Bookstores: Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

Do you see any collective project happening as a trend in writing right now, in the same way that, say, the modernists were trying to make sense of a new world?
No, but I think there are always different schools in the same way that Updike focused on the suburban married life, and I think other writers operate in certain other niches.

How about southern writers specifically? How are they trying to make sense of what the south looks like right now?
I think Southerners are mostly concerned with just telling a good story.

The tale?
Yeah.

Since we're talking about contemporary southern writers, let's discuss the Conference of the Book. How did that start?
The Faulkner conference is held every summer. I think it started in 1974. It's always drawn a crowd—people come from California, Japan, Canada, wherever. And over the years, people would come in the store and say, "I heard about that Faulkner conference and I'd love to come back here and go to that, but I don't think I want to do Faulkner for a whole week." These are people who aren't necessarily Faulkner fans or scholars, but who want to come for the experience.

A literary pilgrimage.
Right. And at the same time, I was going to conferences like ABA [American Booksellers Association] and BEA [BookExpo America] and SIBA [Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance], where you would hear not just writers but also publishers and agents and editors talking about the process of publishing a book—all these great stories which typically were not available to the public. And I thought, "What if we had a conference in Oxford where people could get the local experience, but also a more general thing about books?"

So I talked to Ann Abadie, who was a founding director of the Faulkner conference. I told Ann, who's been a good friend for a long time, "I've got this idea. Instead of just having the Faulkner conference, why don't we do another kind of literary conference? We can just talk about books and what's going on with The Book and how it's doing today. We'll invite editors and agents and people who have these conversations, but make it for the public." And Ann said, "Yeah, maybe soon." Then, after about three or four years, she said, "Let's do this book conference thing." And so we did.

Is it focused specifically on Southern writers?
No. I was trying for it not to be just a Southern thing.

That would be too insular?
Yeah, and frankly I get tired of all this stuff about the South all the time. And I thought that the university and the community had the opportunity to create a one of a kind conference.

Where would you like to see this conference five years from now? Ten years from now?
In an ideal world it would have a larger budget to bring people in. For instance, Nicholson Baker wrote that article in the New Yorker about the Kindle. You know, that's a timely thing. He could come and do a lecture, perhaps even be on a panel with other people from the industry, people like [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos.

So you want it to explore all the different intersections, not just publishing.
Right. Everything that's going on that affects books. We want to put this thing called The Book on the operating table and cut into it and see what's going on.

With developments like the Kindle and Japanese cell-phone novels and Twitter stories, how does a bookstore stay relevant in the twenty-first century?
I think there are a couple of things. There are the technological developments, which are interesting and positive in that they offer opportunities for reading and the dissemination of literature and ideas in a way that might be greater than the way we've historically done before. As Nicholson Baker pointed out in that New Yorker article, digital transference of text is much cheaper than disseminating literature through books. So you have that, which in many ways, properly conceived, is a positive development.

But the question we need to ask is, How does the technology threaten this thing that we love so much, and has been so critical to the development of civilization for so long? And how do we, in terms of that threat, deal with and understand it? There's also the cultural threat of younger people who are growing up not reading books. The way I see it, though, I think that digital technology will go on, on its own path, no matter what. But in terms of books, I maintain that a book is like a sailboat or a bicycle, in that it's a perfect invention. I don't care what series number of Kindle you're on, it is never going to be better than this. [Holds up a book.] I don't see how it could be. I could be wrong. Who knows? But this thing is pretty wonderful—and irreplaceable.

I think they can coexist is what I'm saying. And by the same token, I think bookstores offer an experience to book consumers that is unique. To be able to go into a place physically, to experience a sensation that is the precise opposite of all that is digital, and to talk to people about books in a business that has as one of its objectives a curatorial function and the presentation of literature as another—that is, I believe, irreplaceable. Of course, the question we all recognize is how the development of technology, in reducing the industry that creates the physical book, will change bookselling. Because there won't be as many of these [books], and therefore the cost will go up.

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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