Square Books: The South From a Postage Stamp
In March of 2011, the last living descendant of William Faulkner, a niece named Dean Faulkner Wells, held a book signing for her Faulkner-inspired memoir Every Day By the Sun. The signing was held in the same theatre in Oxford, Mississippi where the town first celebrated the 1949 release of the film adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel Intruder in the Dust (Square Books). The event was sponsored by Square Books, a modern local literary empire taking over three buildings around The Square, Oxford’s historic town center, which counts William Faulkner as its greatest muse and most diligent sentry. Within the walls of the flagship store, every day is a tribute to the legacy of William Faulkner, Oxford’s most famous ghost. His portrait stands guard from the top of the main staircase and a collection of his works, along with criticism acting in response, overtakes one of the farthest corners of the store.
For Square Books, drawing people to Faulkner Wells’ book signing was an easy task. Local literarians and far-flung Faulknerphiles gathered to hear her tell tales of “Pappy,” her affectionate name for Bill Faulkner, the Oxford resident who would, after winning two Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize, become better recognized throughout the world as his writing alter-ego William Faulkner (Square Books). The literary community whispers of William Faulkner’s reclusiveness, putting aside copies of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury to gossip about the happy alcoholic and brothel-lover who hid his private life behind the gated doors of Rowan Oak, his family’s Oxford estate.
Before Faulkner Wells metaphorically threw open the doors of Rowan Oak to expose Bill, the man who would one day become William, the world had been given glimpses into Faulkner’s life in Oxford only a few times before. In 1952, he surprised everyone when he invited a broadcast crew sent by CBS to follow him through the streets of Oxford, lovingly capturing his face in profile as he recreated his memories with the help of his boyhood friends (Springer). As the narrator intones over a shot of Faulkner wiping his brow, “Here in Oxford, Lafayette County, Mississippi, we have a citizen who refers to himself as a farmer, a farmer who also writes” (Omnibus, 1952).
Thus the world was introduced to Bill, the Mississippi native and simple farmer who was rarely seen beyond the streets of Oxford.
Acting as the backdrop to Faulkner’s memories were the columned courthouse and whitewashed buildings that inspired the setting of William Faulkner’s fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County, Bill’s stomping ground and often-obsession. A decade and a half after Faulkner’s death, the simplistic storefront of Blaylock Drugstore, seen tucked behind Bill as he leads the camera through Oxford’s cobbled square, would become the flagship storefront of Square Books. Within the store’s walls Faulkner’s voice would forever echo as he tried to conceptualize the way Oxford inspired his work as William Faulkner, once claiming:
“I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it” (Springer).
On September 14th, 1979, Lisa and Richard Howorth opened the first face of Square Books on the top floor of a building on The Square that they rented from Richard’s aunt (Chamberlin). After spending two years working at the Washington, D.C. location of the struggling Savile Bookshop as a self-assigned apprenticeship, they returned to Richard’s hometown of Oxford and opened Square Books with $10,000 in savings and an equal bank loan (Square Books).
Though the building was primly placed to lure local readers and inquisitive tourists as they strolled through Oxford’s central shopping district, the main door to Square Books wasn’t even visible from the street. The Howorths painted the categories of their book offerings in bright colors up the risers of the stairs, with the hope that people might “stop and look through the glass door,” and recognize that it was “probably a bookstore” (Reisser Winburne). When geographer and historian Tim Creswell considers the way in which people perceive the world around them, he notes a difference between physical locations and their “sense of place.” In considering a “sense of place,” he imagined, we discover the “subjective and emotional attachment people have to place” (Creswell 7).
Within the space of Square Books, the Howorths worked to foster Oxford’s “emotional attachment” to the crowded shelves of their bookstore. They filled the walls with Southern literature and stockpiled copies of William Faulkner’s greatest works, paying homage to the Oxford community by respecting its most mythic resident.
Just as Square Books was building a reputation for hoarding Southern literature, the nearby University of Mississippi, located a five-minute drive from The Square, was making room for the newly-founded Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Oxford’s literary community had felt a kinship with the university since the day in 1929 when Bill Faulkner, then working on-campus as the overnight supervisor at the school’s power plant, kicked over a wheelbarrow and used it as a table to start writing As I Lay Dying (Watson).
Since then, the University of Mississippi, affectionately dubbed Ole Miss, had fostered a relationship with the town, often influencing local demographics. The Ole Miss campus sprawls 3,902-acres to the west of Oxford proper with a student population that matches Oxford’s almost exactly with 24,000 students calling Ole Miss home (University of Mississippi). Locals laughingly complain about students “retiring” to Oxford after graduation, lowering average age and income statistics. While the national median age was recorded to be 35.3 years in 2010 (United States Census Bureau), statistics collected in 2013 noted the median resident age in Oxford to be 26 years (City-Data). The student population is also likely to blame for the town’s lower income figures. In 2013, the median Oxford income was an estimated $31,000 (City-Data), a steep $21,000 below that year’s national average (United States Census Bureau).
Christopher Morley once considered the way “Literature and the great personalities who commit literature start sometimes very strange vibrations” (Morley 47). As he continued, “These vibrations that great books and the personalities behind them set up, may travel a surprisingly long way” (Morley 61). As Square Books was enveloped into the arms of the Oxford intellectual community, inspired by the prevalence of Ole Miss, it found a friend in Bill Ferris, the newly-named director of The Center for the Southern Study of Culture. Working with Ferris, himself a prominent scholar of Southern culture and art, the Howorths fostered the “strange vibrations” at the heart of the Oxford literary community and attracted a parade of Southern writers to the space of Square Books, starting with Mississippi-born Ellen Douglas. Soon, the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Toni Morrison and Alex Haley were walking through Square Books’ front door, giving readings from works reacting to a Southern cultural context from within the crowded walls. Critically-acclaimed writers like James Dickey, George Plimpton and William Styron, with his newly-published literary darling Sophie’s Choice, quickly followed (Square Books).
By 1982, Oxford was being hailed as the cultural Mecca of the South (Flanary).
As the reputation of Square Books grew, so did the bookstore’s commitment to providing a collection of Southern literature that offered varying perspectives on the cultural landscape of Mississippi and the greater South. Archibald MacLeish once entreated booksellers to consider their political role as purveyors of knowledge in his essay “A Free Man’s Books,” asking that they recognize whether “in [their] honest judgment, we who dealt with books […] acted as though we thought of books as powerful influences—as instruments by which the lives of men and nations can be shaped—or whether, on the contrary, we thought of books as merchandise-as packages to be sold alongside of rubber tooth-brushes and bottles of hair tonic and packages of proprietary pills” (MacLeish 7).
William Faulkner’s work helped usher in a transformative era of Southern literature, where authors unabashedly gave voice to the racial tensions defining the region’s history, even as they piously celebrated the close community ties unique to traditional Southern culture. Writers like Faulkner broke from the shamed impulses of Southern authors writing in the years following Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 (Know Southern History). As the cotton gin forced a surge in Southern plantation owners dependent on slave labor, tensions between the North and South rose as Northern literature offered a caricature of Southern culture as lazy and cruel. In response, Southern authors adopted a tone of pastoral abstraction in their writing, purposefully mystifying setting as distinct from time and place (Know Southern History).
But Bill Faulkner, self-proclaimed simple farmer and Oxford resident, unashamedly wrote about his “little postage stamp of native soil” with an awareness of all its political tensions (Springer). Writing books that could be “powerful influences” helping to change flawed Northern conceptions of the Southern identity, he tirelessly explored all of the sociopolitical impulses of Mississippi culture.
Today Square Books picks up where Faulkner left off, offering readers an inclusive representation of Southern literature and the historical contexts that informed its many faces. Even as the store openly praises Southern culture, owner Richard Howorth is vocal about how he sees the store’s founding as a reactionary ripple to the events of October 1, 1962 (Gurwitt). On that day, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was forced to relocate 3,000 federal troops to the grounds of Ole Miss when 2,000 angry students blocked the former U.S. Air Force Serviceman James H. Meredith from entering. A black man born in Mississippi, Meredith was fighting to become the first African-American student at Ole Miss following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark rule against educational and community segregation in 1954 (History).
Whether or not the store’s success came as a community response to its political impulses, by 1986 Square Books had outgrown its walls. The store moved one hundred feet down The Square to 160 Courthouse Square, taking over the two-floor space that Faulkner once knew as Blaylock Drugstore (Square Books). Off Square Books was born seven years later, housing a collection of lifestyle and bargain books in a secondary storefront on The Square. In 2003, Square Books opened its final storefront, Square Books, Jr., to house children’s literature, along with what Archibald MacLeish might label apolitical “merchandise,” including educational games and plush toys. With the expansion of the Square Books empire the space of the flagship storefront emptied of the more apolitical genres. The bookstore became representative of the cultural and social exploration idealized within the Southern Renaissance literary movement and, by extension, William Faulkner’s personal work.
Voyeurs to Faulkner’s memories, we follow the film camera as it roams over the book-filled shelves of Faulkner’s study at Rowan Oak. Faulkner opens the door for his boyhood friend Phil “Moon” Mullen and suddenly it’s easy to envision him as Bill, especially when he snarkily intones, “So you’re the one the trouble begins with” (Omnibus, 1952). What follows is a conversation between equals, where Mullen calmly chastises Faulkner for his turn from the spotlight in the aftermath of his Nobel Prize nomination. Sitting comfortably in the armchair of his study, Bill explains, “Look Phil, I don’t see what my private life inside this house, my family, has got to do with my writing and the Nobel Foundation in Sweden” (Omnibus, 1952).
Thus Faulkner voices the distinction between his identity as Bill, a down-home Oxford resident, and his role as William, the nationally praised literary visionary. Alive in this contrast is some acknowledgement of the way the educated class took ownership of assigning literary taste, defining it as above the simple palates of people like Bill. As Raymond Williams describes this shift, “taste’ and ‘sensibility,” now became a necessarily selective and self-defining area: not all ‘fiction’ was ‘imaginative’; not all ‘literature’ was ‘Literature” (Williams 1572). Even as Faulkner’s writing found a home next to works valued for their “taste” and “simplicity,” he seemed to be aware that William Faulkner could not stand in high regard if not balanced by the private simplicity of Bill.
In the same way that William was balanced by Bill, the main storefront of Square Books is balanced by its satellite stores. Though the flagship store houses a mixed collection of subjects ranging from sexuality to music studies, these genres are held as both physically and intellectually distinct from the collections kept in Off Square Books and Square Books, Jr. With lifestyle books, bargain literature, children’s texts and collectible memorabilia set apart from books of “taste,” the sensibilities of the lofty literary critic are given space to flourish. As much as Bill Faulkner might be alive within the walls of the other stores, it is William Faulkner, with his eyebrow arched, his suit pressed and his arms crossed, whose portrait hangs in the heart of Square Books.
Entering through the front doors of Square Books, the shopper takes in the well-worn carpeting and antique tabletops that direct a maze of hardcover and paperback “Just-ins.” Signed copies are interspersed in these high stacks, distinguished only by small tongues of brightly colored paper sticking from between the pages . Seemingly-endless bookshelves devoted to Mississippi literature stretch along the wall to the right of the front door, while shelves of mysteries overtake the wall to the left. A section close to the cash wrap offers the common ground between these seemingly distinct genres—Mississippi mysteries.
Within this mixed bookcase, we begin to understand the odd orientation of this space. In the bounds of the first floor, Square Books pays tribute to Oxford’s most famous exports—William Faulkner, whose metaphorical heart can be found buried in the history of his “little postage stamp of native soil” (Springer), and John Grisham, a native-Mississippian and local resident, whose crime thrillers have dominated bestseller lists for the last few decades.
Moving up the main staircase, which pays tribute to the early location of Square Books with painted risers drawing customers to the genres of the floors above, shoppers find the space of the mezzanine. Lining the narrow hallway between the floor’s two staircases is a wall of bookshelves housing religion, sexuality, and philosophy texts. The area the mezzanine encompasses is small, which, in relation to the other floors, makes it appear as a waste-bin. The way contradictory genres like religion and sexuality are set as neighbors further gives the impression that this exists as a tangential area where genres categorically considered “Literature” but distinct from the store’s sense of valuable books find a home. In Square Books, it seems, texts mirroring the philosophical likes of Foucault and Camus become caught between the seas of more grounded and lofty literature collected above and below.
There must have been a moment when Bill Faulkner looked over his “little postage stamp of native soil” and saw the many lives of Yoknapatawpha County contained in the buildings and the tulips and the cobbled stones of Oxford’s town square (Springer). Maybe he began by exploring the physical and cultural context of Mississippi, and then, through the act of writing, found the mind of William Faulkner, whose lofty “Literature” would become world-renowned.
In the space of Square Books, Faulkner’s intellectual trajectory is replicated. In the store’s spatial orientation, shoppers are forced to start their journey by looking over the many spines of Mississippi texts before moving to the third floor and discovering the fictitious and intellectual work inspired by an understanding of Mississippi cultural context. The third floor holds the loftiest of the genres, with literary fiction and academic texts primarily serving the student and professor interests of Ole Miss taking over most of the floor. Across from the staircase is a section of African-American literature, seeming to indicate that though your introduction to the store might begin with grounded texts exploring Mississippi history and culture, these are best appreciated by experiencing the literature birthed from an understanding of this cultural context. This sense continues throughout the floor, with sections on sociology, history, nature, science and poetry overtaking the shelves surrounding the African-American collection.
The appeal of these intellectual genres are physically set apart from the Literature overtaking the other half of the floor by a café counter and a web of seating. Within this space, Square Books orients itself as a social hub, a sense of the bookstore further supported by the outside balcony, which offers an open space for loud conversation. The way the café and balcony are squeezed between the intellectual genres collected on the first half of the floor and the literary fiction and nonfiction works housed on the other, suggests that the space for conversation exists somewhere between these two impulses—with intellectualism finding a happy place within a general discussion of literary fiction.
Past the café, tucked behind sections devoted to literary nonfiction and writing technique, lies the true heart of Square Books’ flagship store. To the far right of alphabetized bookshelves holding literary fiction is a shelf devoted to William Faulkner and his literary critics. Holed up in the farthest corner of the store, on the loftiest floor, the space of this tribute seems to suggest that, at least in the space of Square Books, literature should begin and end with Faulkner.
When William Faulkner asked to be called Bill in his private life, it seems that he did so partly out of respect for Mississippi, and the manner in which its complex story was reduced when referred to simply as “the homeland of William Faulkner.” Square Books takes over where Faulkner left off, prioritizing the Mississippi community and leaving “Literature” for the upper eaves of the store. In this way, the store becomes reflective of the Southern Renaissance values Faulkner once helped foster, where Southern literature is explored in all its cruel and triumphant permutations, even as senses of community, and the way this shared history has born modern value systems, is fiercely celebrated.
Faulkner once described Oxford, Mississippi as “a kind of keystone in the universe; that, small as that keystone is, if it were ever taken away the universe itself would collapse” (Ulin). Interspersing high stacks of literature with signed copies and shellacking hundreds of autographed author photographs to the walls of the main storefront, Square Books proudly displays its literary network, its value as a “keystone” of the national literary community. Where it is seen as culturally valuable and distinct from negative perceptions of the South’s long history of racial inequality.
Though it was the Howorths who named Square Books, who bought the shelves and set the genres in physical conversation, it is Bill Faulkner’s aesthetic that orients the store’s identity. As Walter Benjamin once wrote of book collecting, “one thing should be noted: the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner” (Benjamin 67). In respecting Faulkner’s sense of Oxford as the “keystone of the universe,” Square Books allows him to act as the “personal owner.”
In the space of Square Books, we find Faulkner alive again, provoking discussions of Mississippi’s complicated history of discrimination even as he praises the sense of community fostered within Oxford’s town limits. As Bill Faulkner once realized, the cultural context of Oxford, Mississippi was so rich that he “would never live long enough to exhaust it” (Springer). Physically, for Faulkner that was true. But in the mind of Square Books, happily celebrating Faulkner and his literary vision from the center of his old stomping ground, Bill Faulkner’s memory continues to explore Oxford a lifetime later.
- Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.
- Morley, Christopher. Ex Libris Carissimus. New York: A.s. Barnes, 1932. Print.
- MacLeish, Archibald, and Bruce Rogers. A Free Man’s Books. Mount Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper, 1942. Print.
- Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking My Library.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 59-67. Print.
OTHER TEXT SOURCES
- Chamberlin, Jeremiah. “Inside Indie Bookstores: Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.” Poets & Writers. Poets & Writers, 01 Jan. 2010. Web. 07 May 2016.
- “Chapter XVI. Age and Sex Composition of the Family.” Family Growth in Metropolitan America (n.d.): n. pag. United States Census Bureau. United States Census Bureau. Web.
- Flanary, Sara L. “Oxford Remains A Cultural Mecca.” Daily Press. Daily Press Media Group, 03 July 1994. Web. 07 May 2016.
- Gurwitt, Rob. “Light in Oxford.” Mother Jones. Mother Jones, May-June 2000. Web. 07 May 2016.
- “A History of Square Books.” Square Books: Blogs. Square Books, n.d. Web. 07 May 2016.
- “Household Income.” (n.d.): n. pag. United States Census Bureau. United States Census Bureau. Web. 7 May 2016.
- “Know Southern History :: Southern Literature.” Know Southern History. Know Southern History, n.d. Web. 07 May 2016.
- “Oxford, Mississippi.” City-Data. Onboard Informatics, n.d. Web. 07 May 2016.
- Reisser Winburne, Peggy. “Square Books.” WKNO 91.1. WKNO FM, 17 May 2013. Web. 07 May 2016.
- “Riots over Desegregation of Ole Miss.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 07 May 2016.
- Springer, Mike. “Rare 1952 Film: William Faulkner on His Native Soil in Oxford, Mississippi.” Open Culture. Open Culture, LLC., 9 May 2013. Web. 07 May 2016.
- Ulin, David L. “Oxford, Miss.: The Center of William Faulkner’s Cosmos.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 01 May 2011. Web. 07 May 2016.
- “Under the Spell of a Generator’s Thrum, a Faulkner Masterpiece Was Born.” The Conversation. The Conversation US, Inc., 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 07 May 2016.
- “The University of Mississippi.” Quick Facts. The University of Mississippi, n.d. Web. 07 May 2016.
INTERACTIVE FLOOR PLAN
- Fiction/Faulkner: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/511510470153991490/.
- Faulkner Close: http://deepsouthmag.com/2015/01/21/mississippi-literary-road-trip-part-one/.
- Cafe: https://shooflyfarmblog.wordpress.com/tag/oxford-ms/.
- Cafe Doorway: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/416371928024471348/.
- Above the banister: https://www.finebooksmagazine.com/issue/201004/mississippi-1.phtml.
- Back store: http://hottytoddy.com/2013/04/03/square-books-named-pw-bookstore-of-the-year-miller-rep/.
- Back shelves: http://gallivant.com/shop/square-books/.
- Square Books Deck: http://www.oxfordmississippi.com/relaxing-on-the-square-books-deck-pic/.
- Square Deck: http://www.jmtohline.com/2013/05/square-books-in-oxford-mississippi.html.
- Business section: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/551691023073285070/.
- Storage Area: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g43934-d4261143-Reviews-Square_Books-Oxford_Mississippi.html.
- Full View: http://www.oxfordmississippi.com/inside-square-books-pic/.
- Front tables: http://www.yelp.com/biz/square-books-oxford.
- Outside Square: http://www.yelp.com/biz/square-books-oxford.
- Mysteries: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g43934-d4261143-Reviews-Square_Books-Oxford_Mississippi.html.
IMAGES ON GOOGLE MAP
- Off-Square Books: http://visitoxfordms.com/place/off-square-books/
- Square Books: http://www.mhpbooks.com/mississippis-square-books-named-bookstore-of-the-year-by-publishers-weekly/
- Square Books, Jr: http://gilbertford.com/news/?p=438
- Ole Miss Logo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ole_Miss_rebels_Logo.svg
- Faulkner’s headstone: http://visitoxfordms.com/oxfords-top-10-tourist-attractions/
- Faulkner portrait: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1949/faulkner-bio.html
- Ole Miss Riot: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ole_Miss_riot_of_1962
- Off Square Books: http://oxfordmississippi.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/
- Square Books, Jr.: http://gilbertford.com/news/?m=201004&paged=2
- Oxford Lyric: http://www.thelyricoxford.com/about/
- Faulkner accepting NP: http://www.abc.es/fotos-cultural/20120601/william-faulkner-recibe-premio-1502877335294.html
- Faulkner’s acceptance speech: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Author-William-Faulkner-Making-a-Speech-Upon-Receiving-the-National-Book-Award-Posters_i5334191_.htm
- Blaylocks Drugstore: http://hottytoddy.com/2014/01/28/blaylocks-drugs-an-oxford-blast-from-the-past/
- Square Books: http://fictionwritersreview.com/shoptalk/poets-writers-subscription-deal/
- Richard & Lisa Howorth: http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2008/02/squarebooks200802