The famed Square Books was named the country’s “Bookstore of the Year” on Monday, April 1 by Publisher’s Weekly in its 20th year of giving the award.
Owners Richard and Lisa Howorth opened Square Books in 1979 when they put down $10,000 of their own money as well as another $10,000 from a bank loan to open up the store. Little did they know their store would bring them national attention and praise as well as two more stores, Off Square Books and Square Books, Jr.
“It has been a dream of my dad’s to open up his own bookstore since his high school years,” said Beckett Howorth, Richard and Lisa’s son who works in all three stores. “I’m very proud of what my parents have done and accomplished, and it’s only grown year after year.”
Publisher’s Weekly’s selection process for the award started with nominations from publishers’ consultants from all across the country. Square Books was put into a group of the top-5 most-nominated bookstores, which was then voted on by the consultants as well as former winners of the award.
Since its opening, Square Books has become a national landmark for the rich literary heritage in Mississippi, something that the Howorths say has a lot to do with where they are located.
Beckett Howorth said arts and literature as well as the hard work of many people trying to move forward from Mississippi’s past have also been a big part in determining who they are.
“Arts and literature as well as local culture can supersede things like race and class issues,” Howorth said. “Having a cultural identity as a city, as a region, and as a state show outsiders that we’re more than just simple people.”
Howorth cited Richard Wright, a black man who grew up as a poor adolescent in South Mississippi and became a respected writer, as an example of someone who embodies this culture.
“We have culture and art that cross racial boundaries, and the thing about literature is that anyone can be a writer,” Howorth said. “It really does help ease racial tension having a literary identity not just for Mississippi but for any area.”
Square Books draws many notable authors every year, including highly-regarded author John Grisham who owns a house in Oxford and has family in North Mississippi. Grisham is a personal friend of the Howorth family, and they regard this relationship as having a major impact on where they are today.
“Grisham’s success goes hand in hand with ours,” Howorth said. “John Grisham and Square Books exploded together, which is pretty amazing. He’s a great guy, and he’s our boy. We wouldn’t be where we are if it weren’t for John Grisham.”
Square Books has received substantial praise and support from The University of Mississippi as well as the residents of Oxford. Mayor Pat Patterson, who is a regular patron and fan of the store, agrees with the popular sentiment that the award has been a long time coming.
“I don’t know why it took Publisher’s Weekly so long to come to that conclusion,” Patterson said. “The people of Oxford have known for years that Square Books is the best bookstore in the country.”
Publisher’s Weekly Co-Editorial Director Jim Milliot agreed that many in the literary business thought that Square Books should have been recognized long before now.
“I’m truly surprised it hasn’t happened sooner,” Milliot said. “We all feel this was a very overdue award for Square Books.”
The Howorths will accept the award at BookExpo America at the end of May.