Inside Indie Bookstores: Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

Jeremiah Chamberlin
From the January/February 2010 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

And now he endows a great fellowship for emerging southern writers here at Ole Miss.
Correct. And he did that because he wanted to try to build on what Willie did with all the people he brought in.

Speaking of nurturing young writers, I once heard that when Larry Brown was working as a firefighter he came into the store and asked you whom he should read.

Is that not correct?
No. [Laughter.]

Was he already writing on his own?
Firemen work twenty-four hours and then they're off for forty-eight hours. And then they're back on for twenty-four and they're off for forty-eight. So all firemen have other jobs. They're usually painters or carpenters or builders or something. Larry worked at a grocery store. He was also a plasterer; he was a Sheetrock guy; he was a painter; he was a carpenter. He did all of this stuff. And he'd always been a pretty big reader. Larry's mother, especially, was a really big reader of romance novels. So Larry had this idea that he could supplement his income by writing a book that would make money. And he would go to the Lafayette County Public Library and check out books on how to be a writer, how to get your book published. He went through all of those. And I think he read that you start by getting published in magazines, so then he began to read magazines—fiction especially. He would read Harper's and Esquire. Larry was a complete omnivore of music and film and literature.

He took it all in.
Took it all in and he had an incredible memory. You would talk about a movie; he knew the producer, the director, the actor, the actresses, the location; music, the song, the group, who was on bass, the drums. On and on and on. And at some point, yes, early on, he came into the store. When I first opened the store, I was the only person who worked there. So I was talking to everyone who came in. And we started talking and, you know, I didn't give him a reading list and say, "Read these ten books and that'll make you a writer." Larry was already reading Raymond Carver and Harry Crews. Cormac McCarthy very early, long before Cormac broke out. Flannery O'Connor. So we talked about those authors, but Larry completely found his own way. He was completely self-taught. And I did later on help him in a specific way when he was kind of stuck. But he would've gotten out of the jam that he thought he was in at the time.

What was that?
Well, he had had one or two stories published and then he kind of couldn't get anything else published. He kept sending off these short stories and they kept coming back. Then he called me one day—and, you know, I hadn't read anything he'd written, hadn't asked to; I don't go there with writers unless they ask me. It was a Sunday. He said, "I don't know what else to do. I'm sorry I'm calling you, I don't mean to bother you, but I think I must be doing something wrong. Everything's coming back." I said, "Larry, I'd be happy to read them. Bring me a few of your stories. I'm no editor or agent or anything, but I'd be willing to read them."

So he came over with a manila folder. It was raining outside. We sat down at the dining room table and I opened this folder. He was sitting right across from me, and I just started reading. The first story was "Facing the Music." You know, I read maybe four pages and I said, "Larry, this is an incredible story. You're not doing anything wrong." And then I finished reading it and chills went down my spine. Because I knew that it was a great story. It still is a great story. And I told him, "This is going to be published. I don't know when, I don't know where, just don't despair." Actually I was looking the other day at a note he'd sent me. He thanked me for helping to make it better, that specific story. But I don't remember what that was. I may have said, "You might move this sentence from here to here," or something like that.

But mostly you were telling him to keep the faith.
Exactly. Also, I suggested he contact Frederick Barthelme and Rie Fortenberry at the Mississippi Review, who'd published his first serious publication, a story called "The Rich." I said, "What about this story? Where have you sent it? Have you sent it to the Mississippi Review?" And he said, "No, ‘cause they've already published me."

That's a good thing! [Laughter.]
So he sent it to them and they published it and he dedicated that story to me. And then later on I helped him meet Shannon Ravenel, who published his first book.

It seems like so many of the greatest writers of American letters have come out of the south: Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor. And, more recently, Tom Franklin, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah. All these people whose work I deeply admire. They share intimacy with place perhaps?
It often gets explained in phrases like that, but I think that for the moderns...well, Faulkner was a genius. But I think he also realized early on what he could do and in contrast to the many things that he could not do.

What do you mean by that?
Well, he was a failure as a student. But I think with someone like Eudora Welty, who was an intelligent and independent woman of that time, there were limited opportunities for things that she could do. But writing, writing was one of them. And photography was one. So I think it's tied to economics in some way, but I also think that all of the rich and conflicted history of the South has a lot to do with it, all the various tensions. Because literature is built on conflict. There's also the whole war thing, the Civil War. Being the loser in that war makes us akin to other literature-producing places—Ireland, Russia.

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Square Books

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

Hooray for Jeremiah Chamberlin

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 And go, Jeremiah, go!

Fantastic article. I looked

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.

Robin's Books in Philadelphia

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.

Inside Indie Bookstores

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.

Thank you for this warm and

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.

RiverRun Bookstore, Portsmouth NH

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 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.