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If You’re Not Here, Can’t Imagine Why Not!

Book readin’, singin’ and (guitar) pickin’ in Oxford, home to Square Books and Thacker Mountain Radio


Story and Photography by Rose Marie Mercado

 

The first folks to drift into Courthouse Square are Ole Miss students escaping their dorms for free entertainment on a Thursday night. On the wide veranda of an old shotgun-style building, the book lovers of Oxford, Mississippi, are gathering at Off Square Books. Some wander in from happy hour at Proud Larry’s or City Grocery. There are the Freelands, Joyce and Tom, as well as Jack Pendarvis, the local writer who keeps fleeting office hours at Square Books and who’s largely responsible for booking the Welsh punk-folk musician on tonight’s schedule.

Inside, the tattooed girlfriend of the blues guitarist gushes with the town’s stylish debutantes collecting donations behind a rickety desk. Marlow Dorrough, the math professor from Ole Miss, and his wife smile and nod to the crowd. Dave Nelson, in town for the 25th reunion of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, drops in. And as always, there’s Mary Lou and Snooky Williams, now in their 80s, who’ve been coming to Thacker Mountain Radio tapings for a gazillion years, well, at least since the radio show started back at the turn of the century – 21st century, that is. “One day, you’ll be old like me and your brains will all fall out of your ears, but I hope you will still be as happy as I am,” laughs Mary Lou. Snooky, surveying the pre-show crowd, looks pleased and puffed up. “I can’t go with all of ’em at the bar after 10 p.m.,” he confides, “but I can come here and see ’em all – for free.”

It feels like a family gathering. Some saunter in from the alley, streaming around a “stage” no bigger than a cockpit. The platform, which someone painted golf course green a long time ago, is knee-high off the scraped wooden floor. The locals come early, knowing it means a prime seat, knowing they will be expected to push back the racks of second-hand books and publishers’ closeouts that crowd the store. Chatter and laughter fill the room as they dismantle the haphazard arrangement of folded chairs along the back wall and line up 200 of them facing the cockpit, er, stage. Out front, Mamacita, the store’s 15-year-old tabby, sits at the window, blinking and nodding like an emcee. And in the middle of it all, high-fiving old friends and greeting long-time spectators and patrons, is the affable Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books.

William Faulkner, a native, made Oxford famous by winning a Nobel Prize and a pair of Pulitzers. Famous Southern authors come and go regularly at the University of Mississippi. Pat Conroy immortalized Oxford as “The Vatican City of Southern Letters.” But Richard Howorth and wife Lisa capitalized on that reputation to turn Oxford (population: 19,000) into a literary destination on the national book circuit, drawing 150 authors a year – authors such as William Styron, George Plimpton, Allen Ginsberg, Stephen King, John Grisham, Isabel Wilkerson and, yes, Conroy. They come for the book signings, for the readings and for the appearances on Thacker Mountain Radio, an unrehearsed, homespun hour of singin’, pickin’ and book readin’ – a Prairie Home Companion for the South, if you will. Often the authors stay with the Howorths at their two-story, purple-painted 1860s house brimming with folk art, vinyl record albums and books. Besides Square Books, they also operate Square Books, Jr. for children and Off Square Books where “lifestyle” books live alongside the collectibles, the bargains and the gently read books. All are within doors of each other on the Square.

 

Plimpton, Ginsberg, Grisham: “These great writers come to town and we don’t let them leave.” 

 

At a time when even mega-bookstores are disappearing, when an e-book wins the coveted Pulitzer Prize, when Faulkner’s classics are issued only by print-on-demand, the Howorths continue to pair writers with readers the old-fashioned way. Lisa and Richard lure the big literary names, encourage local ones and connect with readers through their thoroughly modern literary salon at Square Books and Thacker Mountain Radio. Willie Morris, Eudora Welty and Barry Hannah – all Mississippi writers – are gone now.  But the queen bee of the literary beehive, Square Books, still produces honey after 33 years, creating a buzz over books. “These great writers come to town and we don’t let them leave,” Joyce Freeland says, without being a trace bit smug. It’s all the more amazing because Oxford is 80 miles from Memphis, a half-hour from an interstate highway, and not that far removed from its ugly past with desegregation. Mississippi has a great tradition of writers, but Richard Howorth saw it needed a bookstore to keep that tradition alive.

Tall, trim and bald by default, Richard loves being in the store, talking to readers, whether they are tourists or old-time customers. At Square Books, there’s no hard sell. Most days the 61-year-old proprietor presents himself in preppie dark chinos and a white cotton shirt. Lisa’s free-spirited bohemian style reflects her artistic temperament and interest in Southern folk art, which she taught at Ole Miss. Both Richard and Lisa possess the genteel grace of long-time Southerners who care about cultural traditions and literary heritage.

When Richard and his brothers talked about what they wanted to be when they grew up, becoming a bookseller was “always in the back of my mind,” Richard says. Dinner table conversation often centered around why Oxford, as home both to the illustrious Ole Miss and to Faulkner’s literary legacy, lacked a bookstore. The Howorth family has long had ties to the city: Richard’s father still lives in the family house across the street from Faulkner’s famous home, Rowan Oak. One of Richard’s grandfathers was an English professor at Ole Miss, a great grandfather was dean of the law school, another was chancellor. On his father’s side, Richard is a fifth-generation Ole Miss grad; his mother and wife are Ole Miss alumnae, too.

Today, Oxford is peaceful and beautiful with its quaint Square, genteel Victorian houses and Southern gardens full of golden yellow daffodils and lemony yellow forsythia. But a half-century ago, the town was a flashpoint in segregation: In 1962, federal marshals and troops descended on Ole Miss to forcibly enroll a black student, James Meredith. Riots broke out, two died and scores were injured. Oxford was tainted. It pains Richard, a fourth-generation Oxonian, to even think back to that tumultuous time of desegregation. “Beyond being an embarrassment, you couldn’t get a company to move to the state ... a tourist to visit. ... A third of the faculty left here after 1962 because the university and the community and the state were stigmatized,” Richard says. Even he abandoned Oxford for a time.

In the ’70s, Richard found himself in Washington, D.C. – a paradise for booksellers and book lovers, with the historic Savile Book Shop and Larry McMurtry’s Booked Up around the corner from each other in Georgetown. Richard, with his degree in English and sociology, and Lisa, who had the library science degree, apprenticed at Savile. They experimented with new ideas, bringing in authors to speak about their latest books – everyone from McMurtry, who disliked publicized events with lines of people, to James Dickey and Art Buchwald.

But the literary heritage left by Shelby Foote, Tennessee Williams and Richard Wright as well as Faulkner and Welty eventually lured Richard back to Oxford, knowing he was “embracing the past for all its negative reality” for a good cause. With an investment of less than $20,000, Richard moved into a second-floor location on the Square in 1979. Despite warnings from the American Booksellers Association (which claimed the market was too small), Richard had a vision of a store that would offer the Southern authors as well as Friedrich Nietzsche and Scott Fitzgerald and Mario Vargas Llosa, books on history and politics, and a broad selection of children’s books. “I wanted all of those things to work, because I felt that that was what a standard bookstore should do,” he says. “I knew part of the reason we would be supported was that people here recognized the existence of a bookstore made a statement about the quality of the community, its economic and cultural health.”

By the early ’80s, other literary forces were at work in Oxford. Faulkner’s niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, was working with her husband, Larry Wells, to bring Willie Morris and Barry Hannah to Oxford. Bill Ferris (later tapped to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Bill Clinton) arrived to open up the Center for the Study of Southern Culture where Faulkner expert Ann Abadie established the Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference to honor Oxford’s most famous son. Heady times.

Richard and Lisa copied their success in Washington, inviting local first-time authors such as Ellen Douglas and prison poet Etheridge Knight. Ferris, newly arrived from Yale, was key in attracting authors, as was Morris, a legendary Harper’s editor. Soon, the big names were piling up: George Plimpton, whose great grandfather was a Reconstruction governor of Mississippi, dropped by Square Books. Allen Ginsberg signed books for 500 people over five hours. Every book signing was like an interview, Richard recalls. “You would sit down, he would say ‘Hi’ and you would talk, What you doin’? and dada-dada and he’d start signing your book and he’d draw a picture and then you’d sorta have this conversation with him.” William Styron was huge after Sophie’s Choice. Alex Haley couldn’t get enough of the Square Books crowd, constantly engaging each person who wanted a book signed.  And Richard laughs, recalling how Ginsberg demanded to know the first – and last – names of every reader who wanted a book signed. “I sign the first name only if I’ve slept with you,” he told one woman, according to Richard.

By 1985, the Howorths needed to expand and bought an old shotgun-style building, taking on the cost of renovation at the same time as a new baby. “All I could see not having a long view was Omigod, we are going to be in debt for the rest of our lives,” Lisa says, “but anyway he had it all figured out and he wasn’t going to let go of that idea.”  By the early ’90s, Richard and Ann Abadie at Ole Miss teamed up to found the Oxford Conference for the Book. Renee and John Grisham started funding the Grisham Writer in Residence program at Ole Miss.

The New Square Books became a factor in the revival of Oxford’s Square. In 2008, The New York Times came to pay obeisance to Richard’s Yoknapatawpha Salon and Inn, reeling off some of the big authors – from Roy Blount Jr. to Ann Patchett – who have stayed in the couple’s home during book-signing tours. (Yoknapatawpha was the fictional county of Faulkner’s novels.)  From 2001 to 2009, Richard served as mayor of Oxford. Smithsonian Magazine is touting Oxford these days as one of “The 20 Best Small Towns in America” and Canada’s second largest newspaper, The Globe and Mail, currently cites Square Books on its list of “The Best Bookstores in North America.” “He has made affection for books and writing and writers a ‘civic matter,’ a gesture of one’s sense of community and an integral part of the public weal and the future of the state,” says Pulitzer-winning novelist Richard Ford, a Mississippi native.

Sitting in the upstairs office of Square Books today, Richard Howorth is surrounded by precious signed copies and first editions. On the walls are pictures of authors who’ve come to sample the Southern charm of the Howorths and to sell books: Nikki Giovanni, Ha Jin, Eudora Welty, Jeffrey Eugenides, Richard Flanagan, Daniel Woodrell, Jayne Anne Phillips. “There are older stores and bigger stores ... I won’t say better stores,” says Richard. “The beauty of the independents is that they are all different.”

Square Books serves its diverse readership – in Oxford and beyond – with a small crew. They recommend books based on what they have read and loved, as well as what their readers have loved in the past. “What other business do you have products that change so constantly, with such volume ... that require a major investment of time to understand what they are, and connect them to what’s usually a very limited number of readers or likely purchasers?” Richard wonders. They champion new writers at the start of their careers: Think John Grisham, George Saunders, Charles Frazier.

Nurturing local talent, as well as attracting the big names, has paid off for Square Books. One morning, Richard greets Rheta Grimsley Johnson, a weekly columnist for King Features Syndicate who lives in Iuka, a two-hour drive northeast from Oxford. She is in to push her ex-husband’s book. Author William Gay used to drive in from Tennessee after discovering Square Books and the cultural scene around the Square. “We immediately took him in as one of our own,” says Richard. When Gay passed away this spring, Richard put a white poster board in the display window honoring him. As Richard dusted books and rearranged stacks that day, a local businessman paused in the threshold, read the notice, and came in to talk to Richard in hushed tones about Gay. Creating that bond between author and reader is what ensures Square Books’ survival as an independent bookseller.

Lisa still can’t fathom their success in Oxford. “You still can’t get here!” she exclaims. “There’s. No. Way. To. Get. Here. Without driving your car. You can’t fly here. You can’t take a train here. You can pay two hundred and some bucks and take a taxi. There’s no interstate here. It’s 80 miles from a major city (Memphis), 50 miles from a small city. It has just kind of amazed me that people still find it.”

You don’t have to drive there, of course. You can find them on the radio dial.

 

Every week, the lights dim inside Off Square Books at 6 p.m. “You will be amazed,” says Mary Lou. “You get to holler. You get to clap. You’re gonna wanna shout when he plays the piano. And you gotta go to the bar at City Grocery afterwards. Everybody goes there.” Mary Lou’s delight soon gets lost in the honey-dripping baritone of emcee Jim Dees. “Welcome to Thacker Mountain Radio. If you’re not here, can’t imagine why not!” The audience claps wildly and starts stomping their feet while The Yalobushwackers, the Thacker Mountain Radio house band, opens with the show’s theme song, “Put Your Hands on the Radio.” Outside, the last pink ray of a setting sun fades behind the standing-room-only crowd clustered beneath the open windows. It’s a timeworn Thursday night tradition, played out over the last 15 years compliments of the Howorths and Square Books.

 

Prairie Home Companion ... The Gong Show ... There was something  ‘crudely vaudevillian’ about Thacker Mountain.

 

In its early days, Thacker Mountain Radio was “a cross between Prairie Home Companion and The Gong Show,” Richard admits. “There was something crudely vaudevillian about the whole thing.” Thacker Mountain Radio started with two local musicians who wanted to use Off Square Books for a radio show because they didn’t like the acoustics at the bar where they played. “I told them right off the bat I might be interested, but only if the radio show included writers, books, talk, something that dealt with promoting books and reading,” Richard says.

When no author was available, Richard and the company relied on the resourceful Oxford community. “We’d create skits. We had a biology professor talk about native plants in Mississippi. It was called ‘The 2-minute Plant Doctor,’ or something. The middle school Latin teacher and all of her students did a skit in Latin – on the radio from Oxford, Mississippi, if you can believe it. They did it all in Latin, so nobody knew what was going on,” Richard laughs. “Especially the people listening at home.” At the end, the Latin teacher would explain. “Because all the students were on, performing – quote, performing – all their parents would come and you would have an extra big audience,” he says, laughing.

Richard’s marketing instincts helped build the show’s talent, too. At first, the musicians came free, with supportive bar owners figuring the radio performance would lure listeners to their venues after the show. The authors came free, too, even though the listening audience is about 1,200 people. Even at that, it’s a massive headache, with mercurial musicians and staffing often shorthanded. “Getting the people up on time, and down, and the timing and all that stuff, and the sound, and the lights, everything. It’s show business, like they say,” Richard says, drawing a long sigh.

These days, Thacker Mountain Radio is also rebroadcast over Mississippi Public Broadcasting. “It really is community-owned, community-based, community-generated,” says Richard. He never has managed to make money on it. “In spite of losing money and creating headaches and stuff, I never killed it because I knew people would kill me. I would not be the guy who created Thacker Mountain, but the guy who killed it.” 

After the taping, around 8:30 p.m., the post-Thacker Mountain Radio crowd is shoulder-to-shoulder over drinks at City Grocery. Lisa and Richard stroll across the Square into the mellow atmosphere of the Ajax Diner. Richard chooses one of the red vinyl booths midway into the airy dining room. The diner boasts down-home soul food and 30 brands of beer. The swill plus the camaraderie equals creative minds letting loose. The repartee comes in bursts, along with guffaws that dial up the room’s wattage.

In the booth behind Richard, emcee Jim Dees slides in to share the table with Thacker Mountain’s author of the evening, Patrick deWitt, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Screenwriter Chris Offutt, newly appointed as an assistant professor of English and screenwriting at Ole Miss, is at the table, too. “Chris is another writer I caught on his first book, The Same River Twice,” says Richard. “He came down here, stayed in our house.”

Ambling in minutes before the kitchen closes is ESPN sportswriter Wright Thompson and his magazine editor wife, Sonia, who sit across from the Yorks – Joe the documentary filmmaker and Kathryn, Thacker Mountain’s stage manager. Novelist Lee Durkee pulls up a chair. Magazine magnate Bob Guccione Jr., the first editor-in-residence at Ole Miss’s new Magazine Innovation Center, introduces a guest. 

Square Books today has an international clientele on the Web as well as its local supporters. Sometimes, Lisa grows wistful about the early days. ‘‘You know, we had no guarantees about what was going to happen in Oxford,” she says.Although the Howorths sell electronic books via Google, online e-book sales are “a trickle” of Square Books’ revenue.

“The book is the better invention,” says Richard. “There are few perfect inventions – like the book, the bicycle and the sailboat. There will always be a place for the book.”

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Book readin’, singin’ and (guitar) pickin’ in Oxford, home to Square Books and Thacker Mountain Radio
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