I'm not a bookseller, but I'm married to one, and Square Books is a family. And we all know about families and how hard it is to disassociate yourself from them even if you're happy within their bosoms. I do have some bookseller cred: I worked for two years at the old Savile Bookshop in Washington when Richard and I were trying to learn the business, and I helped open the store here in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1979, working for a while when the staff was just Richard, his mother, his aunt, and me. Eventually Richard fired us for a real staff — one that didn't talk back, have lots of opinions about improvements (flowers, rugs, expanding the bridge book section, getting a bookstore kitty), and could make change in under five minutes.
Until Square Books got on its feet, somebody had to pay the bills, and I had a handy library degree (UNC Chapel Hill, '77) so I went to work as a reference bibliographer (you know — the person you used to go to for information before there was Google) at the University of Mississippi. I got another degree and taught art history there for a number of years, returning to Square Books when Richard became mayor, supposedly to be him, but that bar was way too high. I was a nuisance because I couldn't master the "cash register," which had become a computer, and the staff kids wouldn't allow me behind the counter. (They still don't.) They didn't need me: Lyn Roberts, Cody Morrison, Slade Lewis, and our motherly but prickly bookkeeper, the late Elaine Cremaldi, had things under control. So I fired myself. NBD — what I'd always wanted to do is write, and I had a specific project in mind, which became my novel, Flying Shoes. Nowadays, my only bookseller responsibilities are to read and blurb new books for our newsletter, "Dear Reader," boss people around about windows and watering plants, and entertain as many of the writers who come to town as possible.
For a writer, being surrounded by books is wonderfully encouraging in so many ways, but it can also be intimidating and distracting. There are about 50,000 volumes at Square Books, and I have a key! Every day boxes of new books come in, as well as batches of galleys. They excite me and egg me on! And if, in the middle of writing a story or scene, I need deep information on 18th century colonial life (diarist William Byrd II makes a cameo appearance in Flying Shoes), I can walk three blocks to the bookstore and poke through rich backlist. Naturally, our house is also crammed — books line every wall — so if I should happen to want to write about how hog testicles might be cooked (yes, these too have a cameo, but a very small one), I can consult my cookbook stacks.
The downside is the scary Square Books bathroom, where we shelve all the galleys for staff perusal and selection. Galleys that don't catch someone's eye are sent to the county jail. Good for the inmates, but they won't be buying those books, and each represents some writer's work and hope. A bit daunting. Then there are the moments when I'm writing and accidentally let my eyes fall on something classic on my shelves: Chekhov, García Márquez or Flannery O'Connor's stories, or The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. I'm forced to open them and they beat the literary crap out of me and steal all my confidence. Tragic! For this reason, my desk faces only my art books, but even then I'm beckoned by Vasari, Simon Schama, and Robert Farris Thompson: "Why don't you quit writing your silliness and read the brilliant things we've written?" or "Take a break and look at some great art. Check out William Eggleston, Marion Post Wolcott, Red Grooms, Caravaggio, or James Hampton. Or look at David Sandlin's fantastic Swamp Preacher for the 167th time. That should pump you up." Ha. Hours are wasted. Being surrounded by books can be a trap, I'm telling you, but I do know I'm very lucky to be so ensnared.
And I'm lucky to be ensnared in Oxford, a town where you can't swing a dead catfish without hitting a writer. Pat Conroy dubbed this place "the Vatican City of Southern letters," and for many years, I've listened to writers talk about the hard work of writing and getting published — I've had no illusions about it being easy, entering into it lightly or with great expectations. The writers here seem to take comfort from their camaraderie. They get together often and drink, eat, listen to bands, dance, talk about killing agents, editors, marketing people, or reviewers, or how much they adore and are thankful for them, and drink some more. They critique each other's work and offer helpful connections. They one-up each other, swapping true stories and lies. They politely avoid talk about advances.
And we — I'm new to the club — all live with the specters of Mr. Faulkner, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown as we try to keep our mules and wagons from stalling on the tracks those Dixie Limiteds were roaring down, to take liberties with something Miss O'Connor once said. Thinking too much about the writing of those gone Oxford progenitors can be unhealthy if you're trying to write. On the other hand, the examples of the literary success of Larry Brown and John Grisham have been nothing but inspirational: the former a fireman without a college education, the latter a young attorney selling his first book out of the trunk of his car. Dean Faulkner Wells's publication of her memoir just before her death at 70 showed that same perseverance, and that it's never too late. I've been heartened by hearing writers talk about something extraordinary they've just read, or written. I once ran into Larry Brown (who could extemporaneously quote passages from Cormac McCarthy or Jim Harrison), looking more hangdog than usual, in the throes of writing Father and Son, and he said, "I hate what I had to do to that monkey," shaking his head in genuine sadness. When your writing hits its stride, it can take on a life of its own, guiding you where you want to go. Invaluable lesson and encouragement.
Like being around a lot of books, there's... not a dark but let's say a shady side to being around a lot of writers: rivalry. If, as often happens in this town, something crazy occurs and is reported in the Oxford Eagle — say, an Elvis impersonator is accused of sending ricin-laced letters to the president and is in the aforementioned galley-stocked slammer — maybe there's a little scuffling over who gets to use the story. Just the other day there was the report of a man who found 10 half-frozen piglets and stuffed them all in his overalls to save them — future bacon? Or more recently, there was an ad by a local urologist offering discounted vasectomies during the week of March Madness, with an anatomical illustration featuring basketballs as, uh, man parts. Who might call dibs — Tom Franklin? Chris Offutt? Jack Pendarvis?
So. Trapped in Oxford — all the books, all the writers — is there anything new under the sun to write about, I sometimes wonder. But of course there is. There's a universe out there of frozen piglets, mutinous monkeys, and Elvisoid terrorists. It's called my head. I wouldn't live anywhere else.
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Lisa Howorth was born in Washington, D.C., where her family has lived for four generations. In Oxford, Mississippi, she and her husband opened Square Books (Publishers Weekly's 2013 Bookstore of the Year) in 1979 and raised their three children. She received the Governors Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1996 and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship in 2007. Her writing has appeared in Garden and Gun and the Oxford American. Flying Shoes is her first novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Lisa Howorth is the author of Flying Shoes