Arts & Culture

Four Decades of Oxford’s Square Books

Mississippi writers celebrate one of the South’s most beloved bookstores, which opens a new rare book shop this weekend

Photo: Maude Schuyler Clay

On September 14, 1979, Richard and Lisa Howorth opened Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, above an arm of Neilson’s Department Store overlooking the town square. During the next forty years, the store became known as one of the best independent bookshops in the country, relocating to a larger building across the square and opening two more nearby branches: Off Square Books, which houses lifestyle and used books and hosts events such as the weekly Thacker Mountain Radio show; and Square Books, Jr., for Oxford’s littlest readers. Ever since William Faulkner’s time, leading literary figures and their admirers alike have flocked there, and Square Books has received them with open arms, hosting more than two thousand writers, including such icons as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and James Dickey, and acting as a home base for local literary superstars including Willie Morris, Larry Brown, and John Grisham.

“The work itself comes naturally,” says Richard Howorth, who still runs the shop’s day-to-day operations. “We just love books and putting books in the hands of readers.” This weekend, the store comes full circle, opening what Howorth calls a “fourth and final—at least for me” iteration: Rare Square Books, located above Square Books, Jr. “The space is exactly where we opened forty years ago,” Howorth says. “Our focus is signed first editions and other rare finds. As with our other stores, we lead with Mississippi and Southern writers, but have a little bit of everything.”

Photo: Josh Gibson

Readers gather on the shop’s upstairs porch overlooking the square.

To honor the anniversary and the newest member of the family, all of Square’s locations will host celebrations on Saturday. Hear young-adult author David Yoon reading from his latest novel, Frankly in Love, at Off Square Books. And catch a rousing story time at Square Books, Jr., featuring Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat. Naturally, birthday cake will be provided. Lucky booklovers may even stumble upon a secret happy hour or two. “We’re trying to acknowledge and say thank you to everyone who has supported us over the years,” Howorth says.

For Oxford readers and writers, that appreciation is reciprocated. Read on for six authors’ tributes to their beloved hometown bookstore.

John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, G&G contributor, and author of The Potlikker Papers, among others
 “When I moved to Oxford over twenty years ago, I knew no one. To integrate myself into the town, I took a job at Square Books. Behind the upstairs coffee counter, I began a conversation with an editor that led to my first magazine essay. Working the downstairs register, doling out Sunday copies of the New York Times, I made friends that endure. At author signings, I heard Willie Morris hold forth on the idea of home, and Mark Richard recite his brilliant short story, “The Birds for Christmas.” At that register, I met Lucinda Williams, whose music I idolized, and I got to know John Egerton, whose books I idolized. Later, after I left my Square Books gig, after I began to write, when I married Blair, we hosted our wedding reception at Off Square Books. The Treme Brass Band played that night, and friends, old and new, led a second line out the doors and around the square. Onward Square Books…”

Kiese Laymon, English professor at the University of Mississippi and author of Heavy: An American Memoiramong others
“In a way, I’m almost embarrassed to admit, I would not have come back to Mississippi a few years ago without Square Books. They love readers even more than they love books and they’re always doing creative things to get more of Mississippi reading, writing, and communing over what we’ve read and written.”

Beth Ann Fennelly, Mississippi poet laureate and author of Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, among others
“What if there were a place you could go most any time of day that would leave you feeling better than you currently feel. What if you could go there and be alone if you felt like being alone, or find friends if you want friends, because there are always friends there: the human kind, and the kind found in beloved books. What if it were pretty to look at. What if you could go there seeking a specific treasure and leave satisfied, clutching it in your hands. What if you could go there hungry for God knows what and be guided to the new flavor you didn’t even know would satisfy. What if it were no charge to enter, what if it were welcoming and open to all. What if felt like church should feel. What if there were coffee. What if heaven were in walking distance.”

Jonathan Miles, G&G contributor and author of Anatomy of a Miracle, among others
“Square Books was the headwaters of my life as a reader and thus as a writer. The books it provided were just part of it. More important was the community it nurtured and continues to nurture: a diverse and rowdy-minded crowd of people who set literature at the center of their lives and taught me to do the same.”

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Professor of English at the University of Mississippi and author of Oceanic, among others
“When I think of Square Books, I think of people who love and honor books and the people who make them. And where the staff knows what book I need before I do. I travel all over the country but I’ve never seen a bookstore be a kind of cultural heartbeat of a whole town like this— and the entire staff operates with a deep and loving awareness of this great responsibility.”

Wright Thompson, senior writer for ESPN and author of The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business, among others
“I’ve been going to Square Books since before I could remember. The other day, [my eighteen-month-old daughter] Wallace took her plastic toy shopping cart and walked out of the house. We followed her, and she walked herself to the square—somehow, she knows how to get there herself—and took herself to Square Books, Jr., where she goes every week for story time. I’m floored that it will anchor her life as it has anchored mine. It’s the spiritual home of one version of this town that feels more and more under threat. It’s the idea of what a town like this in Mississippi could be.”

Photo: Courtesy of Wright Thompson

Wright Thompson’s daughter, Wallace, looks up at Richard Howorth inside Square Books.