By Allen Boyer
Square Books, which has anchored the Oxford Courthouse Square for more than four decades, has been honored with a Citation of Merit by the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.
The Institute wrote that it honored Square Books “in recognition and appreciation for their 40 years of contributing to the literary life of Mississippi.”
Square Books is an independent bookstore in three separate buildings on the historic city square in Oxford.
The main store, Square Books, is in a two-story building with a cafe and balcony on the second floor, where South Lamar leaves the Square. Off Square Books is at the southeast corner of the Square, and features used books and remaindered books in lifestyle sections. Square Books, Jr., a children’s bookstore, is in a building on the east side of the square.
Square Books opened on the evening of September 14, 1979, overlooking the east side of the Square – upstairs from where Square Books Junior currently operates. Richard and Lisa Howorth, the new proprietors, had worked at the Savile Bookshop in Washington, D.C., before returning to Richard’s home to open their own store.
In 1986, to expand and to secure a street-level location, Square Books moved to the former Blaylock Drug Store building. The bookstore now occupied a historic two-story building – one of the first to be rebuilt on the Square after Oxford was burned in the Civil War. (A blue sign for Fortune’s Famous Ice Cream, a relic of the old drugstore, still hangs above Square Books’ front door.)
The opening was a community celebration that included readings and remarks by Willie Morris, Richard Ford, and Barry Hannah.
Square Books boasts quietly the first place in Oxford to serve espresso when a cafe was installed upstairs between the history and fiction sections. Today customers enjoy reading and drinking cappuccino on the long wooden second-floor balcony above South Lamar.
Square Books began hosting book signings and readings as soon as the store opened, with Ellen Douglas in October 1979. Around the same time, the Center for the Study of Southern Culture took over Barnard Observatory on the Ole Miss campus. Bill Ferris, the Center’s first director, was a great friend of Square Books, and brought to the store such writers as Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Alex Haley, and Alice Walker.
Willie Morris, the first writer-in-residence at the University, was another great friend. Morris brought to town James Dickey and William Styron, the first visiting writer whose signing event saw a line of buyers (“Sophie’s Choice” was on the bestseller list). Square Books’ early years also saw the arrival of Barry Hannah, whose students and visitors included Donna Tartt, Amy Hempel and Richard Ford.
A young lawyer in Oxford also began holding book signings at Square Books. The first was a family-and-friends affair, for his 1988 debut novel, A Time to Kill. As John Grisham wrote more books, the lines began to stretch out the door and down Van Buren.
In his bestseller “Camino Island,” which revolves around the heist of manuscripts by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Grisham took time to trace the history of a successful resort-town bookstore. His long flashback was a study in crisp narrative and significant detail.
“He pushed the closing time back from seven to nine and put in fifteen hours a day. He worked the front like a politician, memorizing the names of the regular customers . . . . He removed shelves of old books mainly classics that were not too popular, and put in a small café. Closing time went from nine to ten. He cranked out dozens of handwritten notes to customers, and to writers and booksellers he’d met on his coast-to-coast adventures. At midnight, he was often at the computer, updating the Bay Books newsletter. He wrestled with the idea of opening on Sunday . . . .[In] September he said to hell with it and opened at 9:00 a.m. Sunday, with the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Chicago Tribune hot off the press, along with fresh chicken biscuits from a café three doors down.”
For readers who know Grisham, and who know Square Books, it was no surprise that an afterword to “Camino Island” thanked Richard Howorth for his insights on the bookseller’s trade.
Square Books looks out on Oxford’s springtime Double Decker Arts Festival and is a cornerstone of literary events, including the Oxford Conference for the Book in the spring and the university’s Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference in the summer.
Square Books originated and continues to host the popular Thacker Mountain radio show, as well as more than 150 author events a year. With Lemuria Books in Jackson, Square Books has anchored what has been called “the I-55 book tour.” An alumnus of Square Books founded TurnRow Books in Greenwood.
The bookstore is known for its strong selection of literary fiction and intelligent nonfiction, books on the American South and by Southern writers, used books, a large inventory of reduced-price remaindered books and quality books for children.
“When you go to a bookstore, you think of it as a lonely outpost, but this is the opposite of a lonely outpost,” author Roy Blount once told the New York Times. The reporter noted that Blount had posed for author photos wearing a Square Books baseball cap.
Square Books and its role in the life of Oxford and Southern literature have drawn interest from national news organizations, including the New York Times and Washington Post.