Sunday, April 1, 2007

Book Tour: Oxford, Mississippi

By Nancy L. Horner

Some of us are weak enough in an average town with a run-of-the-mill bookstore or two. Plunk us down in a place like Oxford, Mississippi and it’s a given that we’ll end up perusing for hours in the local independent bookstore and its branches, more than likely carrying home a bag full of pastry and an armload of books. And, who wouldn’t want to soak up the bookish atmosphere, rub a gentle store cat’s sleepy head, walk where famous authors have walked on the sidewalks of a town square awash with brilliant spring sunshine? Surely no bibliophile can resist the charms of Oxford.

With a population of approximately 14,000, it’s surprising that Oxford, Mississippi has such a rich literary history. William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County was modeled on real-life Lafayette County, the fictional city of Jefferson on Oxford itself. Barry Hannah, author of Airships, teaches at The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). Larry Brown and John Grisham called Oxford home, and Donna Tartt attended Ole Miss for a short time. In 1980, Willie Morris served as a writer-in-residence at Ole Miss.

The annual Oxford Conference for the Book draws a stunning array of well-known writers. This year’s conference was dedicated to the writings of Larry Brown. The Annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference takes place in July. There are frequent readings and book signings in Oxford; author readings and funky local musicians can be heard on Thacker Mountain Radio.

William Faulkner’s breathtaking Rowan Oak estate is in Oxford, masked by large stands of trees. One would never have the vaguest idea that he or she is actually within the city limits, such is the privacy and tranquility of Rowan Oak. You can walk the brick paths, view the outline of the Pulitzer-prize winning novel A Fable, written on his office wall, peer into his library, dining room and bedrooms and stroll the grounds. You can view a virtual tour of Rowan Oak, here.

On a recent trip to Oxford, where my eldest son works and attends Ole Miss, my family stopped at Rowan Oak. We came in from a rather odd direction; Rowan Oak is no more obvious from the road than the city is from its grounds, so we ended up walking across a grassy area, stopping to photograph flowers. We sauntered around the house, admiring the outbuildings, and then rounded the corner and started up a brick path. At that moment, a beautiful border collie by the name of Huckleberry appeared. He dropped a Frisbee at my feet and hunkered down, waiting for the toss. I threw his toy and then snapped a few photos as my son took over.

Huckleberry was a visitor to Rowan Oak, as were his owners, but he seemed to fit the place. I could easily imagine William Faulkner tossing a stick for his dog to fetch, patting its neck and sitting outside to type beneath the trees.

In town, we walked the town square, as we always do when visiting Oxford. First stop is always the irresistibly inviting Square Books. Oxford’s beautiful town square lends its name to the lovely independent bookstore, established in 1979. With frequent book-signings and readings, Square books is a happening place. Upstairs, a section dedicated to William Faulkner - both works by Faulkner and those written about him - fills an entire side of one shelving unit. Southern writers have a special section dedicated to their works near the cozy coffee bar. Walls are covered with autographed photos of authors and comfy chairs are scattered throughout. Tall windows flood the store with light and quirky touches keep the eye moving. Even if you happened to be a confirmed book-hater, Square Books would be an interesting place to visit. Mugs with fun, book-related quotes are available as souvenir items and a wide range of autographed books are always propped up, here and there.

Just down the block is Off-Square Books, my personal favorite of the three independents under the same ownership. Off-Square is warm and inviting with dusty wooden floors, gift items, and used and remaindered books. The store cat, Mamasita, spends her time sleeping in a window basket or on the chairs, sometimes even on top of the books, chasing a little red rubber ball around the store or lapping up the attention store customers love to lavish upon her.

On another side of the square is Square Books, Jr., a store dedicated entirely to children’s books. Painted on the front window are the words, “Teacher’s Rule!”

The food in Oxford, alone, would be worth the trip. A stop to enjoy good food and unique atmosphere is part and parcel of the Oxford experience; my husband uses food as an excuse to stop the book gluttony but I think of the excellent dining as a way to recharge between bookstores. In the town square, Ajax restaurant sells traditional Southern fare; and, waiters will mix guacamole to your specifications from a rolling cart with a drawer full of ingredients at Madre. Around the corner, fresh bread, soup, sandwiches and pastry are available at Bottletree Bakery. The atmosphere alone is worth the visit, but their soup is to die for. And, if you’re in search of a fantastic catfish dinner, head down the road to tiny Taylor, Mississippi for good food and live music. Alton Brown stopped for a visit in Taylor and gave their catfish a big thumbs-up. You can get a t-shirt with their cute slogan on the pocket: “Eat or we both starve.”

A visit to Oxford is inexpensive, in comparison to a trip to just about any large city and definitely a great place for a weekend jaunt. I advise timing visits to steer clear of football games, unless you like a crowded party atmosphere.

For more pictures of Oxford, click HERE.

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