This little Mississippi bookstore brings together not just bookworms, but the whole community


A literary haven in Oxford, Miss., celebrates Southern literature and provides a community for local readers

As a young child, Richard Howorth often received books from family and friends for Christmas. His most memorable book, however, was a giant gold volume containing Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” Intended as a children’s book, it was full of wondrous illustrations, and Howorth recalls being drawn into the stories it contained. His older brother David also played a large part in Howorth’s admiration for literature. His brother often bought books, which Howorth picked up and read.

In his childhood home in Oxford, Mississippi, there was a tiny room that held a record player and some bookshelves. He spent much of his time there, leafing through books and gathering knowledge. Although he had his own small library at home, he longed for a real bookshop. Oxford was too small to support one, but that didn’t stop the Howorth brothers from wanting one. He often heard his older brother say: “Somebody should open a bookshop here.” This thought would remain in the back of his mind for many years to come. The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to make it a reality.

Oxford is known as the city where the famous writer William Faulkner lived and died. Howorth explained that he grew up across the street from Faulkner’s apartment; The Howorth family moved into the home in 1963 – a year after Faulkner’s death. “Faulkner tourists” visited Oxford hoping to gain a better understanding of the fictional worlds Faulkner created and based on the city. Tourists often stopped near Howorth’s driveway.

The Square Books main building. (White Studio creative)

Unexpected Adventures

Howorth’s love of literature led him to major in English at the University of Mississippi. After graduating from college in 1972, Howorth decided he needed a change of scenery after living most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi. He and a friend decided to go to Portland, Oregon. Shortly before leaving, he met a young woman named Lisa, now his wife, with whom he immediately fell in love. “She had just come into town,” he said. The timing of their meeting was unfortunate, as Howorth was determined to leave his monotonous life in Oxford behind. The night before he left, he decided to leave a note on her car’s windshield expressing his feelings for her. He was shocked when he received a letter back the next morning. “I told my buddy I’m not going to open this until we’re three states away,” he said. When he finally opened the letter, he found that the feelings were mutual. The pair kept in touch while Howorth worked at a window curtain manufacturing facility in Portland.

Upon returning to Mississippi, Howorth and his wife moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina so Lisa could pursue her library sciences degree. There they both decided to work in a bookstore in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. After their second year there, the two became co-managers. “It was one of five stores owned by two couples who happened to live in Chapel Hill,” Howorth said. The owners eventually decided to open a sixth location by buying an old Georgetown institution. The shop was called the Savile Bookshop, and the couple worked there from 1976 until it closed in 1979 due to financial difficulties.

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The bookstore’s walls are adorned with vintage prints and posters. (White Studio creative)

His time at Savile Bookshop was crucial, despite the many failings and setbacks they experienced. “I think there’s no better way to learn the book business, or any business, than working for one that’s failing,” he said. Based on this experience, in 1979 Howorth opened his own bookstore in his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, which he called Square Books. Soon, Mississippi writers who were making it big, like former Harper’s Magazine editor Willie Morris, moved to the city, bringing with them an influx of writers and literary enthusiasts. These people became great friends of Square Books and helped cement the bookstore’s reputation. Their immediate success would prompt Howorth to expand to other locations.

From vision to reality

Square Books consists of three separate buildings. The main store is a two-story building with a cafe and bakery on the second floor. The second bookstore, Off Square Books, is opposite the first and features lifestyle collections including gardening and cookery books. Square Books Jr. is the children’s book store on the east side of the square. Above is Rare Square Books – the newest member of the Square Books family of shops featuring collectibles and antiques, old and rare books.

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(White Studio creative)

From the beginning, the bookstore hosted book signings for local authors. “We did that within the first month or two of opening the store,” he said. At Off Square Books, which was formerly a furniture store, Howorth set up a stage with curtains and theatrical lighting so that performances could take place there. The space also hosts a special weekly radio show called Thacker Mountain Radio, where writers are invited to read or talk about their upcoming titles. Howorth explained that he got the idea when he was approached by two musicians who wanted to use his venue to host their music radio show. Howorth was initially reluctant, not wanting to use the bookstore for anything non-book related. But after some thought, he found a way to include aspiring writers on the radio show by introducing them 15 minutes before the end of the show. Since its inception in 1997, the radio show has grown in popularity, moving from being broadcast locally to airing on public radio throughout the state of Mississippi. It also recently aired in parts of Alabama and Tennessee. “It’s a great presentation for the writers and the musicians,” said Howorth.

Today, Square Books is known for its extensive collection of Southern literature, including the works of 20th-century writers such as Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Barry Hannah, Walker Percy, and Larry Brown, a novelist known for his involvement in the “grit lit.” literary movement that explored raw and rugged Southern subjects. The bookstore also offers a unique book subscription service – one book per month – for adults and children alike. The former offers signed first edition books to subscribers interested in building their own home library. Readers can opt for fiction or non-fiction titles. The children’s version curates books for young readers based on their age and interests. Square Books believes there is no better way to encourage a lifelong love of reading than by providing children with their own books.

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The bookshelves are always well stocked with great reading from all genres. (White Studio creative)

Many local writers have fond memories of Square Books – a place that shaped and nurtured them throughout their writing careers. The bookstore has housed around 2,000 authors during its tenure.

Howorth said, “Independent bookstores are an important element of the country’s literary ecosystem.” Local bookstores have a better regional understanding of their market, enabling them to select and offer books that locals will love for generations to come. They also serve as a hub for the wider community, giving new authors a voice by celebrating their achievements as if they were their own.

This article was originally published in American Essence Magazine.


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