The Bookseller Who Helped Transform Oxford, Mississippi

The Bookseller Who Helped Transform Oxford, Mississippi

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Back then, there was no reason to believe that Howorth would help keep the family’s literary tradition alive. He wasn’t much of a reader—or, for a long time, much of an anything. There are five Howorth brothers, and Richard is the middle of them. Two moved away, one to become a lawyer on Wall Street, the other to become an architect in New Orleans; two stayed in Oxford, one overseeing admissions at the University of Mississippi, the other running a law practice in town before serving three terms as the Lafayette County Circuit Court judge. Howorth wasn’t sure if he wanted to stay or go, and he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life.

“I was directionless,” Howorth said. “Luckily, my older brother always had these big ideas and schemes about what we ought to do, like joining the circus.” David, that brainstorming big brother, had at least one slightly more realistic idea: all throughout their childhood, he had said that the town of Oxford really ought to have a bookstore, partly because of Faulkner and partly because of the university, but mostly because any town worth living in needed to have a place to buy books. “I was never a terribly good student in high school or college,” Howorth said, “but I managed to graduate, and I kept thinking about David’s bookstore.”

“David’s bookstore” became Square Books, in 1979. Convinced it would need foot traffic to survive, Richard went looking for a retail space but couldn’t find anything suitable until another one of his aunts, Vasser Bishop, offered a second-floor walkup next to Neilson’s department store. The daughter of an English professor who once gave Faulkner a D, Bishop charged her nephew rent, but volunteered her time at the bookstore.

Lisa, Howorth’s wife, took shifts as well. Originally from Chevy Chase, Maryland, she had found her way to Oxford from San Francisco in the early seventies via a Volkswagen bus, ditching the California scene after it got “very dark and very weird,” heading South on a lark after remembering how much she had loved reading Faulkner in high school. “I didn’t know a soul here,” she said. “I fell in with a handful of hippies. They had a house near the university, an old house where we had a bunch of parties, and that’s where I met Richard one crazy night.”

Howorth wasn’t a regular at that party or any other, but he was taken by the clever, lanky girl with the house cat she had trained to do tricks. Inconveniently, he was about to take off for the very coast Lisa had lately abandoned: “I had this buddy whose sister lived out in Oregon, and we went out there and worked at a window-shade-manufacturing plant,” Richard said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t ever see Lisa again, so I wrote her this letter, saying I wanted to stay in touch, and I left it for her at the big house. And, the next morning, I get up at the crack of dawn to drive West, and there’s this letter on my windshield, and I tell my buddy that I’m not opening it until we’re a few states away.”

Howorth read the letter as soon as he crossed the third state line. Although her feelings matched his nearly enough, it still took him a few weeks to call the number she’d given him. When he came home to Oxford a few months later, the first thing he did was leave again, for Washington, D.C., where Lisa had returned to be with her family. She eventually came back to Oxford with Richard, and they got married there before settling for a while in Washington, where they got their start in bookselling, at Georgetown’s Savile Book Shop. “More stop than start,” Richard jokes, since part of what the couple did during their two-year apprenticeship was help shut the place down. “It was a great store in its day—it really was, but it was on its last legs, and when they decided to close the store we stayed long enough to close it.”

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