“The store is my crack,” says Richard Howorth, co-owner of 34-year-old Square Books in Oxford, Miss., and former president of the American Booksellers Association. That’s a good thing for the town immortalized by William Faulkner as part of Yoknapatawpha County and for the University of Mississippi, because Howorth feeds his addiction with 150 author events a year, several conferences, and Thacker Mountain Radio broadcast on Mississippi Public Radio, which he describes as “a cross between Prairie Home Companion and The Gong Show.”
Authors and literature are part of the fabric of the store in other ways, including walls covered with framed promotional photos of just about every writer who has spoken there since it opened in 1979. Some are covered with personalized notes: “You are civilization, you are also fun,” wrote a young Allen Ginsberg.
“Square Books is the heart and soul of a very literary town,” wrote John Grisham in a note to the PW Awards Committee in support of the store’s nomination. “I love the place. When you walk in the front door you can smell books. Time stops, and you want to browse and read and gossip and drink coffee upstairs on the balcony for the rest of the day.” What Grisham is describing is the main 4,000-sq.-ft., two-story building with a cafe that served the first espresso in town. Square Books moved to its current location in 1986, directly across from the County Courthouse, which Howorth regards as “community ground zero.”
Since it settled in to its current location, Square Books has continued to expand to 10,000 sq. ft. and a trio of storefronts within 100 feet of each other, all on Oxford’s square. In 1993, Off Square Books opened with sidelines, lifestyle books, used books, and remainder titles. Display tables at the store are mounted on platforms with casters, so that they can be moved out of the way to seat 150 people or more, who attend the Thursday night radio show, which is run by a nonprofit. On air author readings on the show, frequently by first-time writers, are booked by the store. The back room, behind the black out curtain, is occasionally used for author signings, and downstairs the store handles receiving and storage. In 2003, Square Books created a separate children’s bookstore, Square Books, Jr., in the same building where the original store got its start.
Howorth wanted to be a bookseller for many years before he opened Square Books. The inspiration for the store is also what he regards as “the defining themes” of his life: civil rights and race relations—particularly the 1962 riots in the wake of Ole Miss’s admitting its first black student, James Meredith—along with the state’s literary heritage. “To a large degree the community has supported Square Books as a way of demonstrating that Oxford is not the sort of place that it has been perceived to be,” he says. “The other reality is the incredible literary heritage of Mississippi; no other state has produced as many notable writers.”
And few stores have been as willing to foster writers’ careers. Locally it boosted the careers of Larry Brown, John Grisham, and Cynthia Shearer. Next year it will likely play a key role in launching another debut novelist, Howorth’s wife, Lisa, whose semi-autobiographical novel, tentatively titled Flying Shoes, will be published by Bloomsbury.
“Over the years Square Books has helped us launch writers like Charles Frazier, the Great Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan, and Karl Marlantes. In sum, if there is a Platonic ideal of a bookstore, Square Books fits the bills,” says Grove Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin. Over the years some writers have expressed their appreciation for general manager Lyn Roberts, buyer Cody Morrison, and bass player/floor manager Slade Lewis, who make up the store’s executive team, in other ways. Morrison and Lewis make a cameo appearance in Grisham’s novel, The Racketeer, and look for a fur trapper named Morrison in Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly’s fall release, The Tilted World.
By staying true to its literary mission and offering customer service based on the premise that “our customers leave our store feeling happier about having spent their money here than any place else they go,” Square Books has been financially “successful” from the start, says Howorth. Last year was the store’s best; sales inched up 1% over 2011. Owning two of its buildings and a part of Square Books, Jr.’s building has also helped keep the store profitable. Still he describes financial growth since 2003 as “very challenging.” Among the factors he cites are: market maturation, the economy, and the rise of digital books.
Square Books sells some nonbook items, but this spring it added its most unusual one, 9-in. pieces of its balcony with a Certificate of Authenticity. As of mid-April, the store had sold more than 500 pieces at $5 each to help defray the cost of redoing the balcony to meet code. As Howorth wrote on the store’s blog, the balcony encapsulates the store’s history: “It’s where writer Josephine Humphreys once remarked, ‘This must be the center of the universe.’ There have been plenty of book signings up there—one with Willie Morris accompanied by tunes from Charlie Jacobs and Fish Mickie, others with John Grisham, Larry Brown, Buddy Nordan, and Barry Hannah. There’s a photo in the upstairs office of Gary Fisketjon and Donna Tartt, gazing off into different directions, on the balcony.”
The main store generates more than half of Square Books’ sales, with Square Books, Jr. accounting for 30% and Off Square another 15%, according to Roberts. Although she used to be a “purist” when it came to carrying sidelines, Roberts said the store’s philosophy has changed over the years, particularly with Square Books, Jr. “We want people not to think, I need a book for a kid. But I need something for a kid,” she explains. One thing that Square Books customers won’t find is e-books. “We’ve tried to keep our toe in the water,” says Howorth. “We participated in Google. One of the hardest decisions I’ve made in the last couple years is Kobo. The Kobo model is not adequate. I hate to say that. There’s so little money in Kobo.” He fears that if he starts selling devices his customers will think: “Howorth is selling e-book’s. It’s okay to buy a Kindle.”
Although Lisa cofounded the store with Howorth after the pair spent two-years apprenticing at Saville Book Shop in Washington, D.C., she never worked in the store. In the early days she took a job as a librarian at Ole Miss, so that Howorth could reinvest his salary in the store. Then she went back to school and returned to Ole Miss to teach art history and southern studies for a decade before leaving to raise their three children, one of whom now works at Square Books.
For more than a decade Howorth has also held other jobs. After serving on the ABA board for 11 years, he ran for mayor of Oxford—“running the ABA board is not very different from a municipal governing board,” he says—and was elected for two terms (2001-2009). During that time, he was not allowed to run the store, but it didn’t stop him from straightening stock, something he does almost reflexively, or changing window displays. Then in the summer of 2011, Howorth was appointed to a five-year term on the TVA Board by President Obama.
As for the future of Square Books and for independent bookstores overall, Howorth says, “it’s clear that things are shaking out a bit. But physical books are not disappearing. There are lots of opportunities for bookstores like this one to succeed. There are a lot of underserved markets.” Quoting a note he received from bookman Charles Haslam encouraging him when the store first opened, he says, “Bookstores grow where their owners want them to.”
That early vision continues today. As the store’s executive committee explains in its nomination packet to PW: “Our guiding fundamental philosophy always has been that this bookstore belongs to the community. Yes, Lisa and Richard legally own it, but their belief is that they and the booksellers who work here are stewards of a business owned by the community. This is abundantly evident at Square Books, Jr., where anytime one enters that store it is quite clear that the children who are there understand it is their store.”
PW wants to thank this year’s juries and Donna Paz Kaufman of The Bookstore Training Group of Paz & Associates. Bookstore of the Year Judges Matty Goldberg, Perseus Book Group Ruth Liebmann, Random House John Mendelson, Candlewick Craig Popelars, Algonquin/Workman Wendy Sheanin, Simon & Schuster Michael Kindness & Ann Kingman Rep of the Year Judges Pam Cady, University Bookstore in Seattle Sarah Goddin, Quail Ridge Books Wendy Hudson, Nantucket Bookworks Meghan Goel & Elizabeth Jordan, BookPeople Roberta Rubin, The Book Stall