Oxford, Mississippi’s Got a Whole Lot of History

When Square Books began, it was a small store, which stocked mainly literature on Mississippi and the South.  Richard Howorth and his wife Lisa struggled against the odds to open the bookstore at the very beginning.  The Mississippi Creative Economy noted, “This seemed like a risky plan to some, including a loan officer who told the couple that the town’s residents didn’t enjoy reading, and representatives from the American Booksellers Association, who thought the market was too small to support an independent retailer. Nevertheless, with an initial investment of approximately $20,000 or less, they opened Square Books on the second floor of a building that Richard’s family owned on the town square” (Broun 36).  The amazing thing about Square Books was that the little store only grew.  The store remained in that second floor space from 1979 to 1986 until they moved to the former Blaylock Drug Store building, where the main store is today at 160 Courthouse Square in Oxford Mississippi.

Beyond the move in 1986, Square Books opened Off Square Books in 1993 at 129 Courthouse Square, and Square Books, Jr. in 2003, at 111 Courthouse Square.  It went from being a business that people thought would not last and turned into three successful bookstores as well as becoming an important part of the Oxford community.  Laura J. Miller quotes from a 1914 trade publication, “Wherever the bookseller is located, in small towns or large cities, he is an intellectual center that works for the benefit of the community. He is generally the guide and counsel to others as to their reading, their study and improve ment. The good he does can not be estimated. Any community without a bookstore is nearly as badly off as without a church or school” (Miller 58).  This is something that Square Books accomplishes wholeheartedly. The store rooted itself in its southern history and gave people a comfortable environment to shop.  Richard Howorth is a part of the American Bookseller’s Association, plays an active part in the community of Oxford, and was mayor of Oxford for most of the last decade.

Over the years, Square Books welcomed many notable authors such as William Styron (Sophie’s Choice), James Dickey (Deliverance), Barry Hannah (Airships),and Richard Ford (Rock Springs short story collection) who I remember reading for my Intermediate Fiction writing class.  Since the store’s opening in 1979, over 2,000 writers appeared for readings and/or signings at Square Books. (You can find more authors listed on the store’s history page)

Beyond Square Books, the Oxford area has a rich history, which includes the author and Nobel Prize winner, William Faulkner .  Ann Abadie, the associate director of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture remarks, “Faulkner used to be the one writer in town. There were a few others…but really we were William Faulkner’s town” (MCE 36).  OxfoFaulkner Benchrd was home to Faulkner and his family for over 40 years at the Rowan Oak house and Faulkner based all but three of his stories (Pylon,  A Fable, and The Wild Palms) in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, which he based on Oxford, Lafayette County.  Faulkner made Oxford, Mississippi a hub for all writers to live and visit.  Faulkner’s Rowan Oak home, seated statue, and place of burial are common places for book lovers and other tourists to visit when they come to Oxford. Faulkner was buried in Saint Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford just outside the square. There is also a statue of Faulkner at Oxford City Hall (above).

Literary history aside, Oxford was also a center for the Civil Rights Movement in 1962 when state officials prevented James Meredith, the first African American student to enroll at Ole Miss.  This act began the Ole Miss riot of 1962, where 2 people were killed and some 300 injured.  Police and military units were present at the University of Mississippi to maintain order (see video).


The 1962 riot scarred Oxford and Ole Miss with the intense violence that occurred during the those few days in September, which inspired the song “Oxford Town” by Bob Dylan.

The lyrics for “Oxford Town”….

Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev’rybody’s got their hats bowed down
The sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford Town.

He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town.

Oxford Town around the bend
He comes to the door, he couln’t get in
All because of the color of his skin
What do you think about that, my frien’ ?

Me and my gal, my gal’s son
We got met with a tear gas bomb
I don’t even know why we come
Goin’ back where we come from.

Oxford Town in the afternoon
Ev’rybody singin’ a sorrowful tune
Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon
Somebody better investigate soon. 800px-James_Meredith_sculpture_OleMiss

This song, like most of Bob Dylan’s songs written about the Civil Rights Movement (most notably “The Times They Are A’Changin’- 1964) is self-explanatory.  It centers around James Meredith with lines like “All because his face was brown” and “All because the color of his skin as well as the the riot itself with the “Guns and clubs followed him down”.  It also make a reference to the two men that died during the riot.

James Meredith went on to graduate from Ole Miss and became an active member in the Civil Rights Movement.  He’s written many books including his memoir, Three Years in Mississippi.  There is a statue of Meredith at the University of Mississippi, which was put in 40 years after his acceptance into the school.

The destruction of Oxford did not start with the riot of 1962, but the area was invaded (1862) and the town square was all but destroyed in in 1864 when, under the authority of Major General Andrew Jackson Smith, the buildings in town square, including the courthouse were set on fire.

Part of the allure of the Saint Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford is also where the remains of a confederate general (as well as a Revolutionary War veteran) can be found in the circle of cedars in the cemetery.

In my last post on the present place surrounding Square Books, I mentioned that I’d like to visit the area if I every found myself down south.  The reason for that is similar to that of the other tourist who come to Oxford.  The events that took place in this town in history connect to the wider world.  William Faulkner is a well known writer even if you haven’t read a single book of his, (which doing all this research kind of made me want to) you still know who he is and that he had a tremendous impact on the literary world.  The Civil Rights Movement and the icon that was Bob Dylan has ties and connections to this town and it’s a place of historical significance when it comes to that movement.  The Civil War tore America apart and this town didn’t go untouched by it.  The had to rebuild the entire town square because of the destruction caused by the war.

Laura J. Miller says something interesting about the connection between the bookstore and its consumer.  She writes, “An explanation of the conflicting responses to the effects of rationalization in retailing needs to be more thoroughly grounded in both history and culture.Criticisms of rationalization in bookselling have focused on the perceived ill effects of impersonality, standardization, and bigness. Independent book sellers hold themselves up as guardians of local solidarity, local character, and local interests, while the large, corporate, standardized chain bookstore is seen as fostering impersonal social relations, effacing the distinctiveness of local communities, and using its clout to crush its competitors” (Miller 13).  This is in response to the idea that consumers want a bookstores personality and culture attached to them instead of the coldness of large chain bookstores.  And this is why stores like Square Books, Off-Square Books, and Square Books, Jr. are able to thrive in a town like Oxford, where everything is so in touch with its roots and its history.


Written Online Sources:

“A History of Square Books.” A History of Square Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. <http://www.squarebooks.com/history>.

Broun, Dan, ed. “Business Creativity and the Creative Economy.” Mississippi Creative Economy (n.d.): 36-39. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. <http://mscreativeeconomy.com/docs/vignettes.pdf>

I used this one to get some of the basic history of Oxford and it was a good starting point:

“History – Visit Oxford MS.” Visit Oxford MS. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. <http://visitoxfordms.com/about-oxford/history/>.

“Ole Miss Riot of 1962.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ole_Miss_riot_of_1962>.

“William Faulkner.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Faulkner>.


Book Sources:

Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.


Video Sources:

James Meredith University of Mississippi 1962 Integration Riot Newsreel PublicDomainFootage.com. YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8VvNkTXVCM>

Oxford Town. YouTube. YouTube, 8 Nov. 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1AT3NThCP0>