Our Kind of Place

The Magic of Square Books

A writer’s ode to a storied little Mississippi bookstore

Photo: Maude Schuyler Clay

Open since 1979, Oxford's literary temple still stands tall.

I was one of the fortunate ones who never intended to become a writer. I wince sometimes when I meet adults who as children were precocious authors-in-training—who knew all their lives that writing was their path. When I meet these children, I want to counsel No, why not be a physician, a teacher; why decide so soon to observe the worst of the human condition with such necessary intimacy? For to take maximum delight in the sweet little luminous details of being human, there should be at least a correlative attentiveness to the dark writhings of souls asleep, souls in collapse. It’s nothing you’d wish upon anyone you cared about.

I first experienced Square Books, in Oxford, Mississippi, back in the last days of when I was still just a reader—in the last hours, really, in my mid-twenties, when I lived in Jackson, a couple of hours to the south. And Square Books is a reader’s bookstore. That’s kind of a silly thing to say; aren’t all bookstores supposed to be for readers? Well, yes. But some wobble and wander from their mission, and succumb to the temptation to become bakeries, child-care centers, quilting salons, Internet providers, video rental outlets, cigar purveyors. In trying to become funky and soulful, they lose their soul. Just show me the books, as many as possible, and fill the walls and floors with them, as if in a padded cell of bliss.

It was pretty much like falling into the pie. What a feast it was for me, back then (I was hunting for oil and gas in North Alabama and North Mississippi), to roam the spooky hills of Vicksburg and the National Military Park and to wander up to Oxford to browse the shelves at Square Books, to consume, ravenous, all of it new—words, ideas, stories, sounds, images, and the great lineage of Southern writers in the chain of American literature. Like John Evans at Square Books’ cousin-in-spirit Lemuria Books in Jackson, the store’s owners, Richard and Lisa Howorth, helped me with my slow learning curve: helped me learn to write without my knowing that was what was happening. They did it simply by handing me books to read.

I do not think there could have been a better way of learning for someone who is impulsive on the surface, but very slow, down deep. I hardly ever learn anything the first time, or quickly. But in my defense, I am good at learning multiple facets of the same thing. Sitting on that outside porch upstairs at Square Books in that little breeze, in the spring or even summer, looking down on the town and listening to its sounds, and to the creak of floorboards in the store, people coming and going, people moving faster than I was, and thinking faster thoughts—well, it was perfect.

Eudora Welty was still kicking—was still writing—and Barry Hannah, ever supportive of young writers, had settled in Oxford. Local firefighter Larry Brown was just about to become a writer—rather, was just about to succeed—and became a dear friend too; nights in his Cool Pad remain among my fondest memories of my years in Mississippi, and it seemed that Square Books was always the meeting place for his and my outings. Riding in his shiny little truck in the gloaming, with him pointing out the places he had written about, as well as places where he had rescued, or not rescued, people. A fire here, a swimming hole there. Bobcats crossing the road in our headlights; bullbats, frogs, fireflies. The scent of books upon us, the Fort Knox of books, right there where we were living. A young John Grisham coming into the store, with his first book, something called A Time to Kill.

The man who would later become my publisher, Seymour Lawrence, adored Square Books. It was and still is a family. Store manager Lyn Roberts and funny and irreverent Doug and their daughter, Cecile. Later, my friends Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly.

Call it blasphemy, but I’d pick those days over even the fabled days of Faulkner. I couldn’t have been luckier, particularly for not having studied writing in school. These people taught me how to write and helped teach Larry the same. I wonder how many others they’ve taught, and how many they will yet.

That said, now may be the best time to be a reader or a writer. The core of the store, on the Square, has expanded—there’s another store, Off Square Books, where the weekly variety show Thacker Mountain Radio is broadcast. There’s a children’s bookstore, Square Books, Jr., too.

When did the store become a legacy? Surely there’s no set date, no one certain hour. But it has become one. It’s hard to tell quite when legacies begin, and, if there’s ever going to be an ending to one, you’re certainly not aware of it. You just keep going on.

For as long as Square Books exists, I think people who visit it, and who hang out there, will be inspired to quit their jobs and follow their hearts: to dive down into the life of the mind. There aren’t a lot of legacies finer, in my opinion, and while I’m poor as a church mouse, I thank them for my own education.

My younger daughter, Lowry, now college age, is proving to be handy when it comes to pen and paper; both girls are, but I think my older daughter, Mary, is going to be able to stay clear of writing. Lowry, I sometimes worry, not.

On a trip back south a couple of years ago, it was a great treat to bring Lowry to Square Books and introduce her to the Howorths. She arrived a little too late to meet some of my gone-away friends, but Richard took her into his office and found a little book by Larry, and gave it to her.

“You should read this,” he said, and smiled, studying her carefully, then laughed his big laugh.