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Bookseller celebrates 25 years as Oxford literary mecca

Anything but square

Oxford — Twenty-four years ago, Richard Howorth was having dinner with his family when he casually mentioned to his dad that he thought Square Books would succeed.

“He nodded and said it didn’t surprise him,” said Howorth, founder and CEO of Square Books, Square Junior and Off Square Books of Oxford. “I was never a terribly good student and to hear that from my dad gave me a very good feeling about the future.”

Last month, some of Howorth’s literary pals — Ellen Douglas, Larry Brown and John Grisham — and several hundred loyal customers, former employees, friends and relatives gathered at Square Books to help Howorth and his wife, Lisa, celebrate a quarter-century of business.

“We had a great time, with beautiful weather and surprise guests, some from very far away,” said Howorth. “I’d called John (Grisham) about a month before, thinking it was too short notice for him to attend, but he said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ That’s just the way John is. At the literary event, John reflected on memories of hanging around the bookstore when his first book came out, waiting to see if people would buy it, and everybody loved that story.”

Ellen Douglas recalled signing books at the bookstore’s inaugural book signing in October 1979, and read short pieces from her latest book, “Witnessing,” a collection of political speeches, reflections and essays.

“Then Larry Brown, our local firefighter-turned-fiction writer, read a piece called ‘Jimmy’s Daddy’s Go-Cart,’ with his usual cast of colorful characters,” said Howorth. “While he was reading, this colorful character came out of Proud Larry’s next door, cranked up his Hog, revving it intentionally. It had been such a quiet afternoon, and as he drove off with his muffler to the stage, Larry glared at him and waited for the noise to subside. Then he said, ‘Well, I guess that was Jimmy’s daddy right there.’ Everybody howled.”

The prequel

One of five sons born to Dr. Beckett Howorth, a well-known surgeon and long-time school board member, and his wife, Richard was the only brother who chose a non-academic career. Of the four, Beckett is director of admissions for Ole Miss, Andy and David are attorneys, and Tom is an award-winning architect.

But early on, the younger sibling knew he wanted to open a bookstore in Oxford, when the community wasn’t much more than a dot on the map and Grisham was still practicing law in Southaven.

The Howorths moved to Washington, D.C., where they spent a two-year apprenticeship in the book business, with the goal of returning to Oxford to open a bookstore that would promote the works of William Faulkner and other Southern writers. Ironically, the bookstore in which they interned, Savile Book Shop, eventually bowed to competitive pressure and closed.

“I also learned about credit holds and the signs of a failing business,” said Howorth. “That was important, too.”

Officially opened on September 14, 1979, Square Books was initially a second-floor business, with no street level visibility or window space, in a building owned by Howorth’s aunt. Their investment was $10,000 in savings. Not an immediate moneymaker, Lisa worked at the campus library to make ends meet.

“That first location was tough,” he said. “I knew if we could make it there, that if we got a better location, we could do a lot better, which turned out to be the case.”

For the first 10 to 15 years, Square Books reported annual double-digit sales increases, particularly after the bookstore relocated in 1986 to the Blaylock building, a former dry-goods store with large windows located across from the Lafayette County Courthouse. The Howorths filled it with as many coveted hardcover literary books as possible, engulfed by the breeze of whirling ceiling fans, aged Oriental rugs, plush chairs and walls adorned with photos of famous home-grown authors including Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, Ellen Gilchrist and Donna Tartt.

William Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, calls the bookstore “an anchor in the soul of Oxford.”

In the summer of 2002, Howorth opened Square Books Junior, and the sales of children’s books spiked. While shopping for a location for the children’s bookstore, he stumbled across the old Denton furniture store and decided it was “such a neat, old funky building” that he opened Off Square Books there, selling remainders and bargain books, conducting shipping and receiving operations, and hosting author events and the popular “Thacker Mountain Radio Hour.”

“That’s where all the psychotic stuff goes on,” said Howorth, with a laugh. “By taking all of that nonsense out of the main store, it allowed Square Books to be a more effective and efficient selling location.”

Within the next couple of years, Off Square Books will be moved to another location, where greater emphasis will be placed on selling used books, said Howorth.

“So far in 2004, we’re up about 7% over last year,” he said. “That’s the strongest growth we’ve had in years. I don’t buy the notion of declining readership and there’s not much change around here so we haven’t experienced marketplace pressures like other booksellers have. Oxford is a unique market, ideal for our store. When we opened, it was a small place and we’ve grown with the community. If a superstore came in here, they’d have to take away all our business and double it just to do what is expected of an average chain store.”

Since he opened Square Books, Howorth has worked hand-in-hand with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, founded in 1977, and managed by Ferris. He’s enjoyed Oxford’s burgeoning restaurant and music scene.

The bookstore remains an integral stop on John Grisham’s ever-shortening book tours, and a magnet for literary writers hoping to find a publisher. In 1980, a much-ballyhooed event with Willie Morris and William Stryon helped boost Square Books to cultural Mecca status, which has attracted best-selling authors Alex Haley, Allen Ginsberg, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

“Square Books feeds into the notion of having such a great literary presence here,” said Jennifer Downs, tourism manager of the Tourism Council of Oxford.

Howorth’s pushed the edge with surprise promotions and a dose of quirkiness that lends character to independent bookstores. And he’s also added a couple of other titles to his name. In 1998 and 1999, he was elected president of American Booksellers Association, where he helped squash the proposed merger between Barnes & Noble and Ingram national book distributors. He’s been mayor of Oxford since 2001.

“In one sense, I’ve simply been lucky,” said Howorth. “On the other hand, I’ve always tried very hard to have a close bond with this community, which I love.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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