Inside Indie Bookstores: Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

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

So what is the future for independent bookstores? If their role is curatorial, will they become more like art galleries? Should they have public funding? Or will bookstores become nonprofit entities?
I don't know. I hope not, though. It's a very difficult business. But in many ways, I like the fact that it's a difficult business. Otherwise, people who want to make money—by selling crap—would be trying to get into the book business. [Laughter.]

This store specializes in literature, especially southern literature, as well as books about this region and this place. Do you think that specialization is part of the reason for your success?
I don't really think of it in terms of specializing. I think of it in terms of giving our customers what they want. If Nietzsche had been born here, our philosophy section would probably look a little different. [Laughter.]

So what are bookstores that are succeeding doing right?
Well, I think a lot of it has to do with adaptation. The business's ability to adapt in all kinds of ways to its own market, to be innovative, to not ignore the technological developments and, in some cases, take advantage of them. Thacker Mountain Radio was kind of an innovation.

How did that come to be?
Ever since the bookstore opened, there've always been people coming in wanting to have their art exhibit in the bookstore, or to stage a play, or do a music performance.

So that really meets your vision of a community place.
Yeah, except that I learned fairly early on that you have to make it relate to selling books. You can't just be an all-purpose community center; you've got to make it conform to the mission of selling books and promoting writers and literature. Because I did have art exhibits and it was just sort of a pain. So I kind of got away from that. What happened, then, was two graduate students who had been trying to develop a little kind of a music radio show that wasn't really working at one of the local bars, came and wanted to use Off Square Books as a venue. I told them that I'd done enough of this kind of messing around to know that I wasn't going to do something like that unless it could promote writers. I said, "Maybe if we did a radio show that incorporated both music and writers it could be something." And that's how that got started.

It's been good for our book business, mainly because writers really want to be on the show. And a lot of publishers want their writers to be on the show because it's broadcast on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, so it reaches a large audience. Which is always appealing, as you know, to publicists.

Do they just read? Do they do interviews?
Depends on what the book is and how they want to present it. They can read; they can talk about it. We've had a lot of writers come up there and just tell stories. It's performed, recorded, and broadcast live on local commercial radio. Then we edit stuff for time, do all the production work on the disc, and send it down to Jackson where they rebroadcast the show.

It's often really great. And a lot of times we have musicians who've written books come on the show, or we have writers who are musicians who like to play on the show. There's almost no writer who, given the choice early in their career, wouldn't have rather been a rock musician. [Laughter.]

Now that you've finished your two terms as mayor, you're returning to the bookstore full time again. What are you most looking forward to? What did you most miss?
I just missed being here. I missed being around the books, going down to the receiving room and seeing what's come in each day, talking to the customers, knowing which books are coming out, being able to snag an advance reading copy of something that I know I'm gonna be interested in. The whole shooting match. So what I'm doing now is really kind of returning to my roots. I'm just going to be on the floor. I'm not going to resume buying; I'm not going to be doing all the business stuff; I'm not going to go running around to every store trying to control staff schedules and training. I just want to—

Be around the customers and the books.
Yeah. There may come a point when I want to do something else. I don't know. But that's the plan now.

Where would you like to see the store ten years from now? Is there anything you still want to achieve with it?
No. But returning to that whole future of books conversation, one of the things that I should've added has to do with what's happened at Square Books, Jr. We're selling more children's books than ever. The level of enthusiasm and excitement about books from toddlers to first readers to adolescents and teens...if you go in there and hang around for a few hours, you would never even think that there might be such a thing as a digital book.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.

What were your best-selling books in 2009?

John Grisham signs books for us—lots of them—every year, so his book is usually our number one seller. Our best-seller list is dominated by local and regional titles—books about Oxford or Mississippi or about or by Mississippians. Other than Grisham's The Associate, I think our top 2009 sellers are The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Devil's Punchbowl by Greg Iles, and In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White. All three writers are from Mississippi, and Neil lives here in Oxford. Two of the books are set in Mississippi.

What books did you most enjoy selling in 2009?
Lark and Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips, A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, and Waveland by Frederick Barthelme.

How do you compile your Staff Picks section?
There are no constraints on staff picks, except the book has to be in print, of course. And, after a time, the recommendation has to have made at least a sale or two. Doesn't have to be paperback, but they always seem to be. Anybody can recommend anything using any language, although I recently made one staffer change his recommendation because he'd written in big letters, "It's great! I'm serious! Just buy it!" It was the exclamation points that really did it. I told him to see Strunk and White.

Any books you're particularly excited about in 2010?
I'm excited about Jim Harrison's new book, The Farmer's Daughter; that big, wonderful new novel The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova, who has agreed to come to our store; and Brad Watson's new book of short stories, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, which has one of the best stories I've read in years, "Vacuum."

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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.