By Jude Burke-Lewis
It’s late morning on a cold, overcast Saturday in early February. Despite – or maybe because of – the weather Square Books is thronged with customers. Deep in their midst is Richard Howorth, the store’s indefatigable co-owner: chatting and laughing with a group of 20-somethings visiting from Jackson, helping an older customer track down an obscure title, restocking the shelves, and greeting customers old and new.
You might think that after more than 43 years in business, not to mention two terms as mayor of Oxford, Richard would want to take it easy – but in truth there’s nowhere he’d rather be.
“I like to be on the floor,” he said. “Part of my job is to make sure that our customers are having a good experience and the best way to do that is to witness it myself. And I see it all the time and it makes me very pleased.”
The idea for Square Books first germinated when Richard was still in high school; growing up across the street from Rowan Oak and seeing licence plates from all over the country from visitors who made the pilgrimage to William Faulkner’s old home he knew “there was the potential for a bookstore to do well in the town”.
He and wife Lisa spent two years managing a bookstore in Washington, DC, before returning in 1979 to open Square Books, in the upstairs of the building that now houses Square Books Jr and Rare Square Books.
The pair were helped enormously in the early years by two pivotal figures: William Ferris, inaugural director for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture (CSSC) on campus, and the writer Willie Morris, both of whom moved to Oxford around the time of Square Books’ opening. It was through their extensive networks of contacts that Richard was able to bring such luminaries as Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsburg and Alex Haley to the store for signings – events that helped to put the store on the literary map.
By 1992 Richard had enough of his own contacts to draw upon for the annual Oxford Conference for the Book, which he co-founded with Ann Abadie, long-time associate director of the CSSC, and which Square Books continues to sponsor. At that time the Faulkner conference, organized by the University of Mississippi, had been running successfully for two decades, which led Richard to think that a broader literary conference might just work. “From the very beginning we were able to get some really terrific writers but also bring with them editors and publishers and critics and book reviewers,” he said. “That helped burnish the literary reputation of the community, and also keep it from being just William Faulkner’s hometown”.
As Square Books has grown over the years – it now occupies over 10,000 square feet in four stores located in three buildings around the square – so too has its reputation. Its name regularly appears in lists of the best bookstores in the country, and it attracts visitors from far and wide.
What makes it so special? According to Richard, the store’s size is part of its appeal: small enough to be “doable” in a single visit, but big enough to accommodate a “large and diverse inventory” that “encourages people from all walks of life, both as readers and writers”.
He’s also quick to credit the others who have helped to make the store what it is, including Cody Morrison, the store’s long-term book buyer; Lyn Roberts, Square Books’ general manager for more than 30 years; and the many other staff who work across the store, from receiving to the front register.
It was this team that enabled Richard to take a step back from running Square Books for the eight years, from 2001 to 2009, when he was mayor of Oxford. His decision to run for mayor stemmed from a sense that Oxford had grown significantly in the preceding decade, which had created issues that the leadership at the time “was not responding to,” together with a recognition that his years on the board of the American Booksellers’ Association – the trade body for independent bookstores in the US – had given him the experience to do the job.
Richard won the election by just 113 votes, and then set about winning over the board of aldermen, whose support was necessary to make any of the changes he felt needed to be made. Despite some initial scepticism from some members, ultimately “we got along very well, and we got a lot of things done”. This included updating the city’s comprehensive plan for the first time since 1972, establishing Oxford’s first historic preservation ordinance, creating a public transit system, and carrying out the largest annexation in the city’s history.
Much of the time during Richard’s first term as mayor was spent laying the groundwork for these later improvements; in 2005 he ran unopposed for a second term as “I hadn’t got everything done that I wanted to do or felt that I should do”, before stepping down in 2009.
In 2011 he was appointed to the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned corporation founded in 1933 to provide economic development and low-cost electricity to the region, by President Obama.
After serving almost two terms, including two years as chair, Richard was fired by President Trump in May 2020 over a decision to outsource jobs in the authority’s information technology department in order to save costs. He’s philosophical about the dismissal. “Personally, it did not feel good, but I support the decision that we made. It was in keeping with my understanding of the objectives of the TVA itself.”
Now Richard’s focus is back on the bookstore, where you’ll find him almost every day “puttering and trying to touch things up” – and talking to the customers, of course.