An Interview with Richard Howorth

With the Tuesday release by Doubleday of Camino Island, a crime thriller about the heist of rare book manuscripts from Princeton University–and the cast of characters that sets out to find the robbers, recover the manuscripts, and ensure justice for all in just under 300 pages–Grisham will hit the road again on a much-anticipated book tour that will include a stop at Square Books on June 20. While much has changed since that initial book signing event in Oxford 28 years ago, Square Books owner Richard Howorth looks back fondly on memories that link Square Books to Grisham’s early career, and the special regard each still holds for the other. Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (June 4). Click here to read the interview, or click the "read more" link below.

Tell me about your background, and how Square Books began to take form.
I graduated from Oxford High School in 1968 and the University of Mississippi, as an English and sociology major, in 1972–same class, by the way as (Lemuria Books owner) John Evans. We knew each other then but didn’t become the good friends we are today until we were both in the book business.

Before opening Square Books in 1979, (my wife) Lisa and I worked in the Savile Bookshop in Washington, D.C. with the express purpose of learning the business in order to come home to Oxford and open a store. I was born in Marks, Mississippi, and lived in Memphis 10 years before moving here in 1963. Oxford is where my mother was born and much of her family lived, including my grandparents, and much of my father’s family also has close ties to the University of Mississippi.

Briefly tell me about the history of Square Books.
We opened in the upstairs of a building on the Oxford Square, above where Square Books Jr. is now. Lisa and I had saved $10,000 and we borrowed another $10,000 to get it started. I worked in the store by myself for at least a year, while Lisa worked as a librarian on the UM campus. We moved to the building where the main store is today in 1986; opened the annex, Off Square Books in 1992, where we had remainders and used books and a space that was well-suited for author events; and opened the children’s store, Square Books Jr., in 2003. When people say, “Man, you have an empire,” I respond, “Yeah, I’m the king of overhead.”

Why did you get into the book-selling business?
Growing up in Oxford, the absence of a bookstore here was an occasional topic of family conversation, so the idea was in the back of my head a long time. As I got older and Lisa was finishing her master’s degree in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I was 26 and decided it was time to give it a try.

Why has Square Books been so successful in Oxford? The two seem to be inexorably intertwined!
From day one we had great local support. Many people in the Oxford/university community wanted Square Books to succeed not simply because they wanted a place to buy books, but because they knew a dynamic bookstore would make a positive statement about both the economic and cultural health of the community.

There is the undeniably grand tradition of Mississippi literature, with Mississippians taking such pride in its great writers. Obviously, William Faulkner’s presence here and his work’s particular nexus with Oxford and Lafayette County–Yoknapatawpha–has long been, and remains, an attraction for book lovers from all over the world.

Please tell me about your relationship with Grisham–how long have you known him, how did you meet, have you found yourself somewhat in the role of adviser to him over the years as he’s transformed from lawyer to beginning author to an internationally successful writer?
I first met John when a mutual acquaintance, a lawyer who knew John, called me one day and told me he wanted me to meet John, who was soon to have a book published. Within a few days, the two came to Oxford. We sat down, and this young lawyer was intensely interested in how Square Books might help him sell lots of books. So, the only advice one could say I ever gave John Grisham was to warn him of the difficulties of selling books. He clearly wasn’t listening to me.

One thing I remember saying to him was how hard it is for us to sell a book that no one on our staff has read, that we have to develop some genuine enthusiasm for a book in order to make it work. A few days later, he brought me a cardboard box containing an unbound copy of the proofs of A Time to Kill [Grisham’s first novel, published in 1989]. By 2 o’clock the following morning, I had nearly finished it.

How would you describe the years Grisham and his family spent living in Oxford? Was he writing full time by then?
He was writing full time. I think his plan upon moving to Oxford was to write full time, which meant ending both his political career–he had been in the Mississippi Legislature prior to coming here–and his legal career. He was as determined to “make it” as a writer as anyone I’ve ever known.

They lived here approximately six years, pretty much from the time A Time to Kill was published through the next five or six books. John was a very active and well-liked person in the community. He and (his wife) Renee were active in their church, the public schools and PTA, and John was a Little League baseball coach and a soccer coach.

Did he always have signings at Square Books when a new one came out? What were his book signings at Square Books like?
Yes. I mentioned to you his first book signing, for A Time to Kill. Our event for The Firm, his second book, was big–it was on the bestseller list not long after it was published–but, at least upon publication, he still had not quite hit the big time, although the fact he sold the film rights to the book before the book was published was very big news. Once The Firm was out, then the movie was out, and, by the time his third book, The Pelican Brief, was out–our events were huge. Soon people were lining up the night before the book signing the following day, and stretched two blocks long. We learned a lot about managing events in those years.

Camino Island, Grisham’s 30th novel, revolves around a character who owns an independent bookstore in Florida–and who gets himself in deep when his little-known dealings in the rare books market set the stage for drama when he goes after a set of original manuscripts by F. Scott Fitzgerald. What is your impression of Grisham’s portrayal of the world of independent book stores, and its day-to-day realities?
He definitely gets it right. His bookstore owner (in the book) is more charismatic–also more sketchy–than most I know, but I have a definite, clear mental picture of the store based purely on Grisham’s descriptions.

What are some of your favorite Grisham works, and why?
A Time to Kill, The Pelican Brief, The Firm–I remember many of those first novels so fondly mainly because it was exciting to see John’s career take off like a rocket. Not to mention the fact we were selling lots of books. Happy days.

Have you ever written a book, or considered writing a book?
I invested what might have been, what one time I thought would be, a writing life, into the bookstore, and have no regrets about it. I do have a few stories I aim to tell, but time is getting short, my memory worse, and staying away from this bookstore is the hardest dang thing in the world for me to do.

What do you like to read?
Mostly fiction, probably. I always enjoy trying to find a great writer through his or her first book. But I enjoy nonfiction, too, having just finished Curtis Wilkie’s new book on JFK (The Road to Camelot), and am presently reading a book that will come out in September, Nomadland (by Jessica Bruder), which is about the thousands of older Americans who’ve recently found themselves in dire straits and, because they can’t afford the rent, have taken to traveling around the country in an old van or RV, picking up seasonal and part-time work. The economic story is frightening, but the spirit of determination and even liberation that many of these people find is heartening.

How has the bookselling business changed since you opened your doors at Square Books? What is your biggest challenge, and what do you enjoy about it most?
It’s been through all sorts of changes of which everyone’s well aware. I often say the book remains one of humankind’s great inventions, like the bicycle or the sailboat. But my friend John Evans once said it best–“I’m a real person selling real books in a real bookstore!”