Though Mississippi ranks 50th in virtually every economic index you look at,” said Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books in Oxford, Miss., “I wouldn't want to be a bookseller anywhere else.”

The state, which has a population just shy of three million, has the lowest annual average household income—just $32,466 per year—in the United States.

As a consequence, the large national bookstore chains have not saturated the state: Barnes & Noble has just two stores, Borders has five and Books-A-Million has 11. Wal-Mart is the largest bookseller, with 72 locations.

When Howorth first opened his store in 1979, he calculated that there needed to be at least 12 families in town that wanted to buy books for the store to remain open. Howorth proved a popular resident—he's now in the middle of his second term as mayor—and his store thrived. Square Books has since added two more locations, Square Books Jr. (a children's store) and Off Square Books (an annex that sells remainders and is used for events).

Oxford has the national reputation—due in part to the presence of Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, and the town's fostering of a variety of famous writers, among them John Grisham and Barry Hannah—but the true beating heart of Mississippi literary culture is Greenville, a city of 41,000 people in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, according to Hugh McCormick, owner of McCormick Book Inn, founded in 1965 and the oldest independent store in the state.

“Greenville has more writers per capita than anywhere else in the state,” said McCormick, citing Shelby Foote, Walker Percy, Julia Reed and Brooks Haxton as some of the dozens of writers with Greenville connections.

Still, McCormick admitted, “Demographics alone would not sustain a bookstore in Greenville,” adding, “We're only still here because we're obstinate.” McCormick's secret is to create local bestsellers. His most recent success has been with Greenville writer Gayden Metcalfe and co-writer Charlotte Hays's Official Southern Ladies Guides, Being Dead Is No Excuse and Somebody Is Going to Die if Lilly Beth Doesn't Catch That Bouquet , which together have sold more than 3,500 copies at the store.

Down in the capitol of Jackson, Lemuria Books owner John Evans also cited the need to “self-generate” buyers as a key to success. “If it's an Oprah book, I don't even buy it,” said Evans. “Let Books-a-Million and Wal-Mart sell that at a 50% discount. Our focus is on the reader that prioritizes their reading and wants help picking out their books.”

Evans, who grew up within walking distance of his store, opened Lemuria in 1975 and it, along with Square Books, has become one of the premier destinations for author readings in the country. That's why Lemuria and Square Books are both able to sell a deep selection of signed first editions.

Together, Evans and Howorth have influenced a generation of booksellers—most notably, Tim Huggins, who modeled his (recently sold) store, Newtonville Books on Lemuria, and Jamie Kornegay, a former events manager at Square Books, who opened TurnRow Book Company in August 2006 in Greenwood.

Greenwood (pop. 18,000) is the home of Viking Range Corporation. TurnRow was opened as part of a citywide revitalization program funded by Viking owner Fred Carl, in part to attract students to the Viking Cooking School.

“We didn't come because the market was begging for it; in a way, we're begging for the market,” said Kornegay. He added, “At least we have it virtually to ourselves: there's not a chain bookstore within an hour and a half drive.”

Bookselling Health Index
Household Income: $32,466

Population: 2,903,000

Independent Bookstores: 42

Chain Bookstores: 18

Total Bookstores: 60

Big-box Stores: 76

Total Stores: 136

Stores per Capita: 1 per 21,345

Per Capita Rank: 16