Interview with a Bookstore: Square Books
Selling Books in Faulkner's Hometown
In 1979, Richard and Lisa Howorth thought William Faulkner’s town should have a bookstore, so they opened Square Books on the second floor of a small building facing the square. Oxford was a small town, but they thought that if there were eleven families who would shop at the store, they could make it. Those eleven families came to the store and more, and many writers visited for readings and signings from the beginning, including Ellen Douglas, Willie Morris, Bill Ferris, and William Styron. After a few years they bought the building that housed a drugstore across the square and in 1986 moved into what has become the iconic Square Books.
Square Books is a general independent bookstore in three separate buildings (about 100 feet apart) on the historic town square of Oxford, Mississippi, home of the University of Mississippi and many great writers, including William Faulkner, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, and, for a time, both Willie Morris and John Grisham. The main store, Square Books, is in a two-story building with a cafe and balcony on the second floor; Off Square Books is a few doors down from the main store and has lifestyle sections such as gardening and cookbooks; and Square Books Jr, the children’s bookstore, is in a building on the east side of the square. Square Books is known for its strong selection of literary fiction, books on the American South and by Southern writers, a large inventory of reduced-price remainders, and its emphasis on books for children. The store hosts the popular Thacker Mountain radio show and over 150 author events a year.
What’s your favorite section in the store?
Beckett (bookseller): Staff picks.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Lyn (general manager): Put in more books.
Richard (co-owner): Fugitaboutit.
Karen (bookseller): If I had infinite space in the bookstore I would hand write/paint the first and last chapter of every book I have loved on all the walls and ceilings and tables.
Adam (bookseller): A bar.
Who’s your weirdest regular?
Richard: For years a guy would come in and browse and when he left, we would find a china figurine or tchotchke on top of the bookshelves—unicorns, praying hands, angels, birds, you name it. We never saw him, but he left more than 50 over the years.
Beckett: The co-owner, Lisa Howorth.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Adam: I don’t think we are necessarily better at anything, but we welcome people not only to our bookstore, but to our town. When you walk in Square Books, not only are you going to get help finding a book, but you are going, more than likely, to be talking to someone who can help you with things to do, where to stay, where to eat, etc. Almost like travel agents, or ambassadors of the town.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Richard: The main store has a balcony with potted plants. One day some kids were horsing around out there, knocked over a plant and some dirt fell on a lady’s car below. There was no damage, but she was irate and came storming into the store demanding reparation. I went with her to the local carwash, only to find it out of order. So instead, I had her drive to my house where I pulled out a hose, bucket and soap and washed her car for her.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Norma (bookseller): My favorite memory of visiting a bookstore as a child took place when I think I was ten. The owners’ daughter was babysitting me and we were running errands and she told me that we needed to stop by somewhere on the square. We got out of the car and went up to a storefront whose windows were covered in brown paper and there were no signs out front to tell me where we were. She unlocked the door and we walked in, and she told me that this store was going to be Square Books, Jr. A few weeks later, at 6 a.m., Square Books was having a party for the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and a crowd of pajama-clad children followed signs posted around the square to the previously unmarked storefront; now there was a sign out front with “Flourish and Blott’s” painted on it, and all of us children were told that we were getting a bookstore for our own books. We didn’t have to share with the adults anymore! Most of us spent the next hours parked in different spots around the store reading the new Harry Potter. That was the only book in the store at that point, and it was displayed on all of the newly painted shelves. Of course, that was the only book that any of us cared about that day, so we didn’t mind the limited selection at all.
Paul (bookseller): My honest to goodness, first memory of Square Books is attending a signing at Off Square Books with my father. I couldn’t have been more than ten years old. We get to the signing and I’m expecting to see a bunch of people sitting around quietly (like a library). Instead, what I find is a crowd of rowdy people who seem to all know each other. It was the first time in my life I’d seen a crowd of “grown-ups” laughing and goofing off the way these folks were. Having since attended a signing in my adult life, I know now that the likely culprit was wine and spirits. In a way, it was my first indication that if you wanted to have a good time, Square Books was the place to be.
If you weren’t running at a bookstore what would you be doing?
Richard: Writing a book.
Lyn: I can’t imagine!
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Jill: The dedication of the staff and the customers to each other, the written word, and the store.
Richard: There is never nothing to do, and it never gets old.
SLIDESHOW: Square Books Staff Recommendations