Square Books: Built From Faulkner’s Bones
To most of the world, William Faulkner is remembered as the author of masterpieces like As I Lay Dying and The Sound of the Fury, novels that crowd home bookshelves and earned Faulkner a Nobel Prize. But to the locals of Oxford, the small town where Faulkner lived until his death in 1962, William Faulkner was simply “Bill.” On the day of his death, community shop owners closed their doors to remember their friend, following his funeral procession as it walked through the town square (Southern Literary Trail). Decades later, Square Books, an independent bookstore with three locations spread throughout Oxford’s modern town center, continues to pay respect to Faulkner and the Mississippi land he loved. Within the space of the storefront, it seems, Oxford literature begins and ends with Faulkner.
The Square Books empire houses a vast collection of literature, with subjects from erotica to sociology spread throughout the spaces of Square Books, Off Square Books, and Square Books, Jr. The two satellite stores cater to the varied tastes of the community, offering lifestyle, bargain, and children’s literature. Yet it is the narrow rooms of the main Square Books storefront that seems truly lit by Faulkner’s literary memory.
Take a look around the interior spaces of Off Square Books and Square Books, Jr. to see how their interiors feel distinct from the inside space of the main Square Books storefront:
To the casual buyer or tourist import, the first-floor layout of Square Books likely seems confused. Stacked tables of “Just-in” hardcovers and paperbacks move customers to the back of the store. There they find antique armchairs, worn Persian-style rugs, and an assortment of stationary and journals tucked into a wall inset. Yet it is the long stretch of Mississippi literature, the first shelves passerby see through the shop’s display window, that draws the most attention. This section, coupled with the wall of mysteries that guides the readers from the cash wrap to the farthest corner of the store, gives a unique first impression. The two seemingly opposed genres offer an odd mix of regional nonfiction and escapist thriller, outwardly casting Mississippi as a land of unquestionable mystery. However, philosopher Walter Benjamin warns readers away from approaching the seeming chaos of book collections with a superficial eye. As he reminds, “a collector’s attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner’s feelings of responsibility towards his property” (660).
Understanding how Faulkner’s memory helps define the soul of Square Books, it begins to make sense that the owners offer the first floor of Square Books as an introductory tribute to the great authors who have called Oxford home. Reflected in the Mississippi literature section are glimpses into Faulkner’s famed Yoknapatawpha County, a factitious take on Oxford and its surrounding land. Buried within the wall of mysteries are books by John Grisham, a bestselling author of legal thrillers who has adopted Oxford as his home. Suddenly, we see sense in the layout of this space. At the heart of Square Books’ feelings of “responsibility towards its property” is the belief that introducing its collection with an inclusive view of the authors acting within the Oxford literary community is more important than appealing to the shopping instincts of its customers.
From a poster at the top of the first floor staircase the watchful gaze of William Faulkner looks on, beckoning readers to the upper eaves of the store. He first pulls buyers to the space of the mezzanine, where they walk under his knowing eyes into a thin landing where the store houses its collection of literature on philosophy, religion, and sexuality. Of the three floors, this space feels the most tangential, featuring an open office that dampens the literary light of the other rooms with its acknowledgement of the business behind bookselling. Unlike the rest of the store, there is no seating enticing readers to rest a minute and crack open a nice hardcover. The peripheral nature of the space is perhaps best reflected in the organization of the genres, where the opposing categories of religion and sexuality awkwardly touch each other on the shelves.
The real wonder of Square Books is found on the top floor, where Faulkner closely watches buyers as they breathe in the taste of café espresso and take in the packed floors of the bookstore’s most colorful and lit space. The more lofty, intellectual genres find a home on this floor. Square Books is a short walk from the University of Mississippi, and it’s clear from the small but packed shelves of science, nature, music, and history that the needs of the Ole Miss intellectual community define the back half of the third floor space. More so than the others, this floor seems to reflect John Tebbel’s conceptualization of early bookstores, which noted that, “By the end of the seventeenth century, the bookshop was a fixture in colonial social, commercial and religious life,” acting as “a meeting place for intellectuals” (5). There is a physical and intellectual loftiness to the highest floor of Square Books, with literary fiction predominating the front area of the floor and young adult literature, the most modest of the represented genres, occupying an awkward stretch of wall by the balcony doors. But this space is made more homey through the influence of the café, which acts as an aside to the large seating area that surrounds it. Even as this inside
seating offers a quieter place for customers to peruse their books, doors to a
balcony offer a space for louder intellectual discussion. Here, shoppers can sip coffee and talk about literature as they look out over the grounds of the Lafayette County Courthouse, located in the same square William Faulkner’s funeral procession walked decades before.
The highlight of the highest floor is the collection of literary fiction that stretches wall-to-wall in the space past the café. Interspersed with alphabetically arranged novels written by the literary likes of Richard Ford (another past resident of Oxford) and Pat Conroy are shelves offering books on Southern literature and writing technique. A special case of signed books sits between two fiction shelves, holding the autographed first-edition fiction books too valuable to get shuffled in with the stacks of other hardcovers. Yet the gem of this part of the bookstore is the simple shelf that can be found in the top rightmost corner, the furthest point of the bookstore’s collection. Here, a full bookshelf is devoted to Faulkner’s work and the academic critique written in response. Here, readers put their hands on the solid spines of his work, wonder over his descriptions of the land they can still see out the store window. Here, they find Faulkner in full.
As “thing theorist” Bill Brown quotes of art critic Leo Stein, “Things are what we encounter, ideas are what we project” (3). Yet in building Square Books around the framework of Faulkner’s memory, the owners of the store seem to be probing the murky space between things and ideas. In the space of their walls, William Faulkner becomes sensorily tangible. In being able to read about Mississippi on the first floor and then walk outside and touch the tulips in the town square, in being able to still feel Faulkner’s heavy eyes on your back as you sit surrounded by the breadth of his work, Faulkner feels like an encounterable “thing.” Within this re-constructed guise, Faulkner is given new life within the space of Square Books. “Bill” becomes as much of a “thing” as a memory can be.
For a deeper look into the layout and history of the store, including owner interviews, follow this link: Square Books.
Hyperlinked articles: “John Grisham.” John Grisham: Biography. Doubleday, Random House, Inc., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <http://www.jgrisham.com/bio/>. Jones, Josh.
“William Faulkner Draws Maps of Yoknapatawpha County, the Fictional Home of His Great Novels.” Open Culture. Open Culture, LLC., 16 Oct. 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.<http://www.openculture.com/2015/ 10/william-faulkner-draws-mythological-maps-of-yoknapatawpha.html>.
McCrum, Robert. “The 100 Best Novels: No 55 – As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930).” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 06 Oct. 2014. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/06/100-best-novels-as-i-lay-dying-william-faulkner>.
“Oxford: William Faulkner.” Southern Literary Trail. Southern Literary Trail, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <http://www.southernliterarytrail.org /oxford.html>.
Padgett, John B. “WFotW ~ The Sound and the Fury: COMMENTARY.” William Faulkner on the Web. John B. Padgett, Department of English, The University of Mississippi, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu /~egjbp/faulkner/n-sf.html>.
“Pat Conroy: Biography.” The Biography.com Website. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <http://www.biography.com/people/pat-conroy-278914>.
Patton, Brandon. “Richard Ford.” Mississippi Writers and Musicians. Mississippi Writers and Musicians, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <http://www.mswritersandmusicians.com /mississippi-writers/richard-ford>.
Textual Sources: “About Us.” Square Books. Square Books, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <http://www.squarebooks.com/>.
Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting.” Illuminations. New York: Schocken, 1969. 59-67. Print.
Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry Things 28.1 (2001): 1-22. Print.
“Oxford: William Faulkner.” Southern Literary Trail. Southern Literary Trail, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <http://www.southernliterarytrail.org/oxford.html>.
Square Books 30th Anniversary Video. Vimeo. Joe York, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <https://vimeo.com/6579181>.
Tebbel, John. “A Brief History of American Bookselling.” Bookselling in America and the World: Some Observations and Recollections. New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book, 1975. 3-25. Print.
Slideshow Images: http://visitoxfordms.com/assets/offSqrbooks.jpg. Off Square Books Storefront. http://3.bp.blogspot.com/–Kscy10Cc1Q/VQYhOeJAAaI/AAAAAAAADms/RZg8shNWRns/s1600/IMG_3260.JPG. Off Square Books Interior.
http://2.bp.blogspot.com/ oo1qAezk6qU/VQYhLH8LO4I/AAAAAAAADmc/TBpf6NqUetI/s1600/ IMG_3259.JPG. Off Square Books Stage.
http://deepsouthmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/bargainsouthernlit.jpg. Off Square Books Bargain.
http://s3-media3.fl.yelpcdn.com/bphoto/rJGJ6OINT9DirvT3Q9uU0A/o.jpg. Off Square Books Seating. http://gilbertford.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/squarebooks_0011.jpg. Square Books, Jr. Storefront. http://www.fromthemixedupfiles.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Square-Books-Jr.-Interior-3.jpg. Square Books, Jr. Interior.
http://hottytoddy.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/IMG_3277.jpg. Square Books, Jr. Objects. http://readlegends.com/images/12_01_15/Square_Jr_6.jpg. Square Books, Jr. Reading.
Post Images & Videos: Square Books 30th Anniversary Video. Vimeo. Joe York, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <https://vimeo.com/6579181>.
SQUARE BOOKS | OXFORD, MS. Dir. Thetypeset. YouTube. YouTube, 3 May 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2d3pYSMJpOk>.
Square Books’ Instagram (squarebooks). Looking For Faulkner?
Interactive Map Photos: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/511510470153991490/. Fiction/Faulkner. http://deepsouthmag.com/2015/01/21/mississippi-literary-road-trip-part-one/. Faulkner Close. https://shooflyfarmblog.wordpress.com/tag/oxford-ms/. Cafe. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/416371928024471348/. Cafe Doorway.
https://www.finebooksmagazine.com/issue/201004/mississippi-1.phtml. Above the Banister. http://hottytoddy.com/2013/04/03/square-books-named-pw-bookstore-of-the-year-miller-rep/. Back Store. http://gallivant.com/shop/square-books/. Back Shelves.
http://www.oxfordmississippi.com/relaxing-on-the-square-books-deck-pic/. Square Books Deck.
http://www.jmtohline.com/2013/05/square-books-in-oxford-mississippi.html. Square Deck. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/551691023073285070/. Business section.
https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g43934-d4261143-Reviews-Square_Books-Oxford_Mississippi.html. Storage Area.
http://www.oxfordmississippi.com/inside-square-books-pic/. Full View.
http://www.yelp.com/biz/square-books-oxford. Front Tables.
http://www.yelp.com/biz/square-books-oxford. Outside Square.