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A Literary Light In Oxford, Mississippi: The Square Books Story

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Richard and Lisa Howorth opened Square Books in 1979 with $10,000 they had saved up and $10,000 they borrowed from a bank. The couple rented an upstairs space in a building Richard’s aunt owned on the town square in Oxford, Miss. It didn’t even have visibility from the street.

“We painted on the risers of the stairs the categories of the store—mysteries, cookbooks, so forth and so on—so that if people did happen to stop and look through the glass door they would see that it was probably a bookstore,” Richard Howorth said.

More than three decades later, Square Books has three locations on the square, and last month Publishers Weekly named it Bookstore of the Year.

The main location of Square Books sits on the corner where Courthouse Square meets South Lamar. Across the street, a statue of a Confederate soldier stands guard in front of the Lafayette County Courthouse.

Inside, the noise from passing traffic is background for the pleasant greetings of the regulars who stop by for coffee or a chat.

Steve Stricker is one of those regulars. At about 9:45 a.m. on a recent Thursday, he was sipping coffee and reading the paper at a table in the small café upstairs.

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Books line the shelves upstairs at Square Books inviting visitors to linger.

The smells of coffee and freshly baked cookies draw folks like Stricker upstairs. The tables and chairs, oriental rugs, soft lighting, and overflowing bookshelves invite them to sit, sip and read.

“I catch my breath here,” Stricker said. “It is just one of those places where you walk in and immediately are at home.”

Square books owner Richard Howorth wouldn’t have it any other way, “We want people to be as comfortable and at ease in this bookstore as you would like for your visitors, who come in the kitchen at your house, to be.”

Writer Tom Franklin stopped in around mid-morning, and seemed to know just about everyone in the store. Franklin and his wife came to Oxford from Illinois in 2001, when Franklin was picked for the John and Renee Grisham Emerging Southern Writer program at Ole Miss. They never left.

He checked out the table up front where his latest novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is displayed with other new and notable works. “It’s fun to come in and see it here,” he said.

Franklin said he stops by the store a few times a week, “It’s a great place to come and hang out. You see friends here, you drink coffee upstairs, you browse the stacks. I’ve never lived in a town with a bookstore like this before, and it really is a center of the town.”

Franklin also believes the store’s allure stretches way beyond the town. “Every writer that I know knows the legend of Square Books and wants to come here. For writers, this bookstore here makes it a mecca,” he added.

Square Books owner Richard Howorth knows the literary history of the region is a draw. “Most self-respecting writers who come here know that this is ground zero for William Faulkner and that this is where Yoknapatawpha was created and that that did not just happen for no reason,” he said.

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Inside Square Books at 160 Courthouse Square, almost every open space is covered with books.

Bookselling Editor for Publishers Weekly Judith Rosen said Square Books “represents the best of what a rural bookstore can be,” and that’s the reason the publication named it this year’s best bookstore.

“It’s sort of a beacon of civilization and culture, and that’s a big part of why people here have supported it. It also has a lot to do with our community’s specific history,” explained owner Richard Howorth, “because Ole Miss and Oxford were stigmatized by the riots in 1962 over desegregation of the university, a lot of people have worked overtime, if you will, to try to counteract the perception that this is a place of ignorance and bigotry.”

Howorth should know. He’s served two stints as mayor of the town.

Square Books showcases not only the literary history of the region, but the present and future of literature with book signings, author talks, the Thacker Mountain Radio show, and even a four-day book camp for adults. Camp Square Books is set for later this month.

The three locations aim to please any reader. Square Books is cozy and quirky with an extensive selection of literary fiction. Down the block, Off Square Books has lifestyle books, cookbooks, discount and used books, and space for public events. Square Books Jr. is around the corner in the building that housed the original store. It has children’s books, toys and a play area.

Just after 5 p.m. on a recent Thursday, New York author Ben Greenman prepared to take the podium at Off Square Books to talk about his new novel The Slippage.

It was Greenman’s first trip to the store and to the area. “It has a great reputation,” he said. “It has been a bookstore that I’ve always wanted to come to.”