Square Books: Southern literature at its finest, I reckon.
In 1962, during the peak of the civil-rights movement, former U.S Air Force serviceman James H. Meredith was accepted into the University of Mississippi, only to be declined when the university learned of his African-American roots. The issue found itself inside of a federal court, where the judge ruled in favor of Meredith, and ordered the university to accept Meredith as one of their students. Meredith attempted to enter the university, however a blockade led by Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett stopped him for a second time. Again, the federal court got involved, and the Governor was forced to stand aside. The next time, Meredith attempted to enter the university alongside U.S Marshals, but a massive riot erupted. Two men were killed, 300 injured, and it took over 3,000 federal soldiers to subdue all of the protesters; segregationists, anti-segregationists, and angry college youth. On October 1, 1962, James Meredith became the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi. A few years later, Meredith attempted to walk from Tennessee to Mississippi, but was unlucky put into the hospital by a sniper’s bullet.
In a time of social evolution, Oxford appears as a place stuck in the stone ages. As a place, Oxford appears ignorant and divisive, similarly to how one may caricaturize the south as a whole. The riot of Ole Miss, while it may be considered a back step in attempts for a more inclusive nation, also served as the spark by which Square Books became a bookstore. The name even comes from its location; the Courthouse Square.
On September 14th, 1979, both Richard Howarth and his wife Lisa opened Square Books with the intent of expressing what they considered to be the true southern identity; less racist, and more literary. With $10,000 from their savings, alongside $10,000 they borrowed as a loan from the bank, the couple rented the upstairs space located in the top of a building that Richard’s aunt owned. The bookstore was not even visible from the street. Still, the couple “painted on the risers of the stairs” each category, just so if people happened to “stop and look through the glass door”, they’d see that it was “probably a bookstore”. With their unique collection of Southern fiction, they lined the walls, and encompassed the entirety of the store in southern literature, most notably their collection of works by William Faulkner. Square Books, as a place, is just beginning to settle its roots into its southern environment, even though both Richard and Lisa are long standing members of the community. It is a place that is recognizable by its owners, and not by its name. Square Books at this point, as a place, is quaint, and familiar.
Square Books takes on similar characteristics to W.G Rogers’ interpretation of the Gotham Book Mart, in his piece, “Wise Men Fish Here”. Frances Steloff, who runs Gotham, at one point in her life was a clerk in another bookstore, much in the way that Richard was a book collector long before he opened a bookstore. Steloff is met with books outside of her comfort zone, such as “plumbing”, “electricity”, and “chemistry”, which she regards as equal to other books, but ultimately not significant enough to put in her own bookstore (Rogers 77). Richard and his wife share this predicament, where they want to stock the shelves with literature that is important to them. This desire, however, is futile, due to there being differing opinion on what constitutes good literature.
In 1986, Richard and Lisa Howarth were able to move Square Books from out of the corner, to 160 Courthouse Square, slab-dab in the heart of the Courthouse Square. One may consider just how a hole-in-the-wall bookstore raised enough money to in under ten years to move to prime real estate, and the answer is simple: overwhelming community support. Most citizens of Oxford know who both Richard and Lisa are, as the town is not all too big. Apart from their neighborly advantage, Square Books promotes not only Southern authors, but literature that has originated in both Mississippi, and Oxford specifically. Let us not forget the “mom and pop” style of the bookstore is aesthetically pleasing.
To paint a picture, imagine walking into Square Books. You will immediately see a vast amount of author signatures hung upon the far wall. At a simple glance, there are hundreds of them, and they seem to take up all of the space on the walls that is not already taken up by books. The signatures groove along the staircase, which are uniquely labeled with the names of genres contained on the second floor. At the top of the staircase lies a massive section with an artistic sign depicting William Faulkner—simply entitled “Faulkner”—which contains nearly all of Faulkner’s works. Not too far from the display, is a balcony, and a café that is actually unlike Starbucks. It seems relaxing, and intoxicating, and at the same time the legacy of a southern writer is etched into memory. Culturally, the Square Books is less intimate than its former days, but it still retains aspects of its home-like atmosphere, through their artistic design, and food options.
In 1993, Square Books made the bold decision of opening another storefront, dubbed Off-Square Books, located down the block at 129 Courthouse Square. The building itself is one story, with an adequately high ceiling, which makes for breathable room during any kind of event. Whereas the main Square Books bookstore specialized primarily in all things books, Off-Square Books could, too, sell books, while at the same time utilizing the location for the community. There are weekly public readings held at Off-Square Books, such as the most recent reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, another southern classic. Readers stand at the podium, atop the carpeted floor, as others sit and listen, awaiting their turn to read, or leisurely enjoying the activity of communal reading. Off-Square Books also buys and sells used books. One can trade in used books for either cash or store credit, though word or mouth seems to indicate the latter as being the wiser decision.
Off-Square Books opened its space up to the Thacker Mountain Radio show in 1997, facilitating itself as a venue that could encompass a broader spectrum of individuals. The Thacker Mountain Radio show, known back then as the “Words and Music”, is a live radio show that offers weekly author readings, as well as a plethora of musical performances from the Courthouse Square. The structure of the show consists of an author reading, music by a visiting band, and then several songs by the native Oxford house band to end the show. Several notable names that have appeared on the show since its first installment are former National Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway; American blues slide guitarist, Kenny Brown; and Elvis Costello. All of those individuals—apart from Costello—are native to Mississippi, which is just another way in which Richard expands the southern identity. The Thacker Mountain Radio show is free, and airs on the Mississippi Public Radio here.
By the mid 1990’s, the store distinguished itself amongst other bookstores in the South, and in doing so revived the Square as a place of culture. Naturally, due to the bookstore’s growing fame, tourists began flocking to Oxford in search of Square Book’s legendary collection. Apart from the frequent literary geek, Oxford also has a reputation for being a “serene, cultured place for people to retire”. With these two facts in mind, it comes to no surprise that Oxford became over-populated, which in turn inflated housing prices. In response to these problems—as well as problems with certain city officials—Richard Howarth of Square Books decides to run against Pat Lamar for the position of mayor of Oxford. Surprisingly, in august of 2001 Howarth clinches the vote, and is named the new mayor. Square Books, as well as the audience that frequents Square Books, now have political influence. The space that Square Books encompassed before this moment was solely rooted within the courthouse. Now, the store has even farther reaching significance, as it is not only a famous southern bookstore, but also the bookstore of a mayor.
In the early summer of 2003, Square Books Jr. became the third bookstore on the Square courthouse, and with it, Richard and his wife finally achieved their dream of opening a store dedicated to children’s literature. During the year of its birth, the children’s series that most have come to love—Harry Potter—became popular, not just in one location, but nationwide. Square Books Jr. held a special event for the new installment in the series on June 21, in which participants were led to the old store location, where a map was conveniently placed. Using this map, much in the same way that Harry does in the thrilling magical realm, individuals were led along a treasure hunt, where the final destination was Square Books Jr. itself.
Consider all three bookstores as a space in which cultural revolution occurs. As a somewhat small chain of independent bookstores, Square Books stands in opposition to major bookstore chains. As Creswell points out, these “places” are built in order for such groups of like-minded individuals to “live differently from the masses” (61). Those that choose to come to any branch of Square Books is, in some way, choosing an activity that feeds a private sphere, in an otherwise dominate public, capitalistic sphere.
- Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.
- Rogers, W.G. “Wise Men Fish Here”. New York. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. Print