OXFORD — The walls in this Oxford, Mississippi, bookstore are covered with pictures of authors. One by one, Richard Howorth comments on them, as if this place were an open book narrating a multitude of unfinished stories. With his wife, this keen-eyed slender man with a dry humor has owned and managed Square Books, housed in a 19th century brick building, since 1979. In the era of Amazon and e-books, the store in a corner of Oxford's central square is like an oasis that refuses to yield to the drought of a creeping desert.
"It's a difficult environment,” Howorth admits. "We've been feeling the recession since 2008. The competition from Amazon is fierce." But despite the adversity, Square Books is a Southern success story.
In 2013, the bookstore had an exceptional year. "One reassuring fact is that 97% of the people who own an e-book reader, like the Kindle, come and buy books anyway," Howorth explains. "It's physical. They need to touch the object." But that's not the only reason behind the bookstore has survived when so many others haven't.
Square Books is a melting pot of America's contemporary literature, a crossroads between the state capital of Jackson and the Mississippi Delta. And just an hour away is the city of blues and barbecue, Memphis, in neighboring Tennessee. Virtually all of the most important and successful writers in the United States — from Toni Morrison, Jim Harrison and Allen Ginsberg to Richard Ford, Barry Hannah and John Grisham — have visited Oxford's bookstore.
The New York Times has described this literary mecca as "one of the most influential independent bookstores in the United States." The compliment, however, hasn't gone to Richard's head. He's a welcoming and humble man, always ready for long conversations, like right now at the table of City Grocery restaurant near the square.
A former mayor of Oxford, he aspires to something that goes beyond the mere sale of books. "It's a place that reinforces the feeling of belonging to a community, that wants to be open to the world and culture," he says of Square Books.
His wife Lisa, who just published her own book, doesn't contradict him. If she met her husband in Oxford, it is only because she was so literally in love with William Faulkner that she wanted to settle down where one of the greatest American writers lived, leaving behind her hometown of Bethesda, Maryland.
The couple immediately found help from Bill Ferris, a great expert of Southern culture, from Willie Morris, who at the time was editor-in-chief of Harper's Magazine, and also from African-American poet Etheridge Knight. All three of them opened their address books to Richard and Lisa. Soon, Oxford — home to the University of Mississippi, better known as Ole Miss, and famous for its 1962 race riots — became a buzzing literary scene.
Where Faulkner lives on
At Square Books, William Faulkner is present both spiritually, like a tutelary figure, and physically, with a large section dedicated to him. "Any self-respecting Southern writer studies Faulkner, his way of telling how the South was rebuilt after the Civil War, Howorth says. "His impact was and still is considerable. When he was alive, people would travel from Japan, Europe and Russia to come and see him." The bookstore owner admits, however, that Faulkner is not easy to read.
Faulkner was misunderstood in Oxford. He had tried without success to enlist in the British Royal Air Force and in the Canadian army. "When he came back to Mississippi, he would walk barefoot," Howorth says. "That was his bohemian phase." His relationship with the local authorities was rocky, to say the least. They tried to make amends in 1997 by erecting a statue of him in front of city hall.
They also boast about his home, Rowan Oak, which is located just a half-mile from Square Books and is now a museum. The room where Faulkner used to write is austere. On the wall are sheets of papers summarizing the plot of one of his books. One document exhibited in the museum says it all. "My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food and a little whiskey." The writer, who with his friend Henri Cartier-Bresson also shared a passion for the Leica camera, was particularly fond of Four Roses Bourbon and port, as well as the French wines he discovered during his stay in Stockholm, where he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949.
But if William Faulkner still haunts Southern writers, it is not always for the reasons we imagine. As Flannery O'Connor once put it, writers don't want to attempt waxing on the South's identity since Faulkner already cornered that market. "On the contrary, writers do everything they can to avoid him," Howorth adds. Mississippian Barry Hannah indeed found some distance by creating his own style, while Richard Ford deliberately chose not to work in the South.
On "Southern" writers
But Howorth's remark raises the question of whether there still is such a thing as Southern literature and writers. For him, the very concept of a Southern writer is too narrow to describe today's literary world. "From a geographical point of view, yes, there are writers from Mississippi," he says. "But with globalization and mass media, part of the meaning was lost. The language has become less specific in this part of the country, although there still are regionalisms. There is an incredible diversity in the South, between the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico. More than among the New England states."
The South is renowned for its black humor, and religion is still deeply influential. Faulkner named several of his works after the King James Bible. "A very bad connotation comes attached to the idea of a Southern writer," Howorth says. It's as if to claim that title, a writer must drown himself in alcohol, sitting on his front porch.
In 35 years, the Howorths have developed an emotional relationship with American authors who have converged in Oxford. Richard remembers having to pick up three of them from the police station after they got themselves arrested for misbehaving in the streets of the university town. Visiting writers often stay with the couple in their Victorian home, which Lisa has turned into a permanent literary salon. There, far from New York and Washington, they talk about the South, the North, bourbons and world affairs.