Oxford Ersatz to Memphis Christmas

Jack in Oxford

The “Booking Down the Road” Christmas expedition continued as we ambled from Pontotoc to Oxford, MS. The town square in this university-fed economy radiates money and charm–and supports three book-selling locations amidst a fluff of boutiques and coffeeshops.

Square Books, with its two offshoot stores Off Square and Square Jr., are all run by Richard Howorth a tall, thin, kindly-countenanced man. (Another pattern emerges: Lady bookshop owners are 5’3″ and well-rounded; the gentlemen are wispy guys who probably didn’t play football in college. Hmmm….)

Square Books is so beautiful, it’s awe-inspiring: sweet little corners with armchairs tucked into them, a coffee bar upstairs, recessed shelves along stair landings, books signed by the great and good topping every display. Jack and I were  impressed, bordering on cowed. This was a bookstore’s bookstore, something to aspire to.

Since we were in his shop at 10 a.m. on the last full shopping day before Christmas, we could see that it was not the best time for Richard, who had his arms full of calendars and his attention pummeled by questions from staff and customers every couple of minutes. He was nevertheless amiable and gave us his card, and I suspect sitting down with him over a cup of coffee post-season would be very enlightening; we may come back when the Natchez Trace Parkway is in bloom and meander on down to his place again. He’s kept one of the few shops selling new books going–since 1979! When he and his wife opened the store, they had worked a couple of years for other retail bookstores, so knew what they were doing.

Yet another pattern emerges; for second-hand shop owners, desire motivates, then desperation teaches; retailers either practice first, or… well, there aren’t so many nowadays, are there? Another, sadder, pattern emerging…..

We wandered into a coffeeshop before leaving Oxford, a chain masquerading as an independent, its deep and comfy leather couches carefully coordinated to match its wooden tables and chairs. So earnestly ersatz was the place, I had the feeling the lad at the window, wearing an Ol Miss sweatshirt and typing away at his laptop, had conjured us all as characters in his novel. When anyone left the shop–the elderly men with the Dickensian Christmas scarves ’round their necks; the cute twentysomething couple, she wearing the white puffy ski jacket and alpine hat, he sporting school sweats and a pompom beanie; the woman with twin babies in the pram, one in pink, one in blue–we would all flatten back onto the pages the student generated.

Wendy and William Faulkner talk books

I told Jack to enjoy his coffee, because like Jostein Gaarder’s “Sophie,” we would have to escape our destiny as literary pawns in the student’s brain. Jack suggested we might need to take a break from driving, as I had clearly become overtired, but I still think Oxford, MS doesn’t really exist; it’s a perfect projection from someone’s mind of how a town should work with itself to organize something lovely around the old courthouse square.

To clear all that sweetness and light away, we headed up Highway 51, stopping in small towns along the way in a vain search for bookstores–or even life. You know that “town centers are dying” thing? No, they’re mostly dead. Railway lines with beautiful houses on one side and a row of tiny, adorable store fronts on the other, every last one of them empty, only one even trying with a desultory “for rent” sign hanging from the door: that was Como, MS.

In Sardis, the Internet promised “The American Book Exchange.” This turned out to be a warehouse for an online seller, guarded by two trucks, a hound dog lying on its closed front porch. The dog raised its head and eyed us in a “don’t make me get up” kind of way as we turned in the dirt parking lot. No humans appeared.

So it went, up the road to Memphis, the Mecca of EIGHT(!!!) bookstores–five used and one independent new. Book Traders turned out to be the only one we managed on our way to find Jack an Indian curry; we chatted with the college student working the shop, as the owner was away for the holidays. The lad had worked there several years, and stayed on after graduation because “it looked like the best job going.” A paperback store very like others in the strip malls of Franklin and Tupelo, it was casually organized and catered to the Patterson, romance and western crowd. The newly-minted grad and I talked book gossip–had Larry McMurtry really reneged on his promise to donate the castoffs of his bookstore to his local library–instead of store policy, and as we left Jack commented that, while all our conversations these past few days had been about books, they’d been about the selling of them. Not our favorites, or new authors we were expecting good things from, but the minutia of how we sold them. People do think a bookstore is all about lovely literary conversations, but fairly often it’s about sorting, lifting, and cleaning the dead spiders from boxes of someone else’s reading detritus. And so it goes.

Interestingly enough, this young’un was the only person thus far to ask, “What is the title of your book?” (Of course we’d been mentioning that little news everywhere we go. Jack even told a waiter.) I suppose it’s only natural that people who deal in books all day every day would not want to get into conversation with someone they’ve never met, who announces she’s got a book coming out. It could be self-published–the literary world still isn’t sure what it thinks about that, although it really does seem to be the wave of the future. The person could be delusional; mentioning St Martin’s Press certainly helps there, since they’re such a respected house. For whatever reason, he was the first book staff to ask, and he even made a note on a scrap of paper when I told him  (WAY too proudly) The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap.

After one of the best Indian meals ever at Bombay House (thoroughly recommended) we tucked ourselves into the swank hotel gotten through a Christmas half-price deal online. We feel a bit guilty about parking here until Dec. 26, as some staff are going to have to feed and care for the  six guests in this 300-room hotel, but as one attendant told me, “We get double pay, so it’s not that bad.” This is probably where I should pontificate on commercialization, but never mind.

Creativity comes in many forms...



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3 responses to “Oxford Ersatz to Memphis Christmas

  1. Cathy Rickey

    Two questions: Was Jack REALLY trying to make a phone call? What did Willie F. have to say to you? I’ll bet he flirted; that’s always my mental picture of him! Enjoying every minute of your journey.

    • No, he just liked the call box. And I swear Willie F smiled at me as I told him all about my hopes regarding publication. He definitely liked that St. Martin’s Press had bought it at auction, and I think he wished me well, though he didn’t say much.

      Thanks! We’re having a grand time too.

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