To understate it—2020 was not Square Books' best year. Like everyone, we struggled—but we are grateful to remain in business, and that all the booksellers here are healthy. When Covid19 arrived, our foot-traffic fell precipitously, and sales with it—2020 second-quarter sales were down 52% from those of the same period in 2019. But our many loyal customers adjusted along with us as we reopened operations when we were more confident of doing business safely. The sales trend improved in the third quarter, and November/December were only slightly down compared to those two months last year. We are immensely grateful to those of you who ordered online or by phone, allowing us to ship, deliver, or hold for curbside pickup, or who waited outside our doors to enter once our visitor count was at capacity. It is only through your abiding support that Square Books remains in business, ending the year down 30% and solid footing to face the continuing challenge of Covid in 2021.
And there were some very good books published, of which one hundred bestsellers we'll mention now. (By the way, we still have signed copies of many of these books; enquire accordingly.) Many books appear on this list every year—old favorites, if you will, including three William Faulkner books: Selected Short Stories (37th on our list) which we often recommend to WF novices, The Sound and the Fury (59), and As I Lay Dying (56), as well as a notably good new biography of Faulkner by Michael Gorra, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War (61). To Kill a Mockingbird still knows how to fly (94), and some other old friends we might mention are Robert Khayat’s The Education of a Lifetime (96); Curtis Wilkie’s The Fall of the House of Zeus (97); Wyatt Waters’ Oxford Sketchbook (29); Tom Franklin, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (86); Larry Brown, Tiny Love (57); Ed Croom, The Land of Rowan Oak (81); and John Cofield, Oxford, Mississippi (30). Richard Ford’s books may be found on many of our lists over the years, and Sorry for Your Trouble (27) is there this year and last, as well; and Ron Rash, who has visited us many times, zoomed this year with his excellent In the Valley (46).
In Square Books’ earliest years, our annual bestseller list had maybe two or three local authors. You guessed it—Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, and William Faulkner. This year, no less than one third of the 100 bestsellers are by writers who live or have lived in Oxford, including all but three of our top fifteen bestsellers. One of those is by Richard Grant (who lived in the Delta), whose The Deepest South of All (9) is about Natchez; another is by Alabamian Rick Bragg, Where I Come From (8); and the third is by a very good writer who is not from the South, but happens to be a former U.S. President—Barack Obama, A Promised Land (12). The rest of the top fifteen—all of which were signed by their respective authors—include Larry Wells’ fine memoir, In Faulkner’s Shadow (15); Ace Atkins’ The Revelators (13); John Grisham, with two—Camino Winds (5) and A Time for Mercy (2), both NY Times #1 sellers ; Kiese Laymon’s revised How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (11); Jerry Mitchell’s important exhumation of unresolved Mississippi Civil Rights cases, Race Against Time (10); Oxford’s literary chef-in-chief John Currence’s Tailgreat (4); Lee Durkee’s very winning The Last Taxi Driver (7); Lee Harper’s gift of a precious Tiny Oxford (6); the dazzling World of Wonders (3), presently #5 on the NY Times list, given to us by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, whose signature is as lovely as her name is long; Blackwood (14) by Michael Farris Smith, whose just-published Nick is the first book we are willing to bet will finish in the top 15 of 2021; and, at number one, Wright Thompson’s spirited Pappyland (1), which reached as high as #8 on the NY Times list). Congrats, all.
Following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter manifested its urgency in many ways, including matters literary, with a doubling of our inventory in related books and a universal surge in popularity of books both old and new on that topic and/or by Black writers, including the haunting memoir Memorial Drive (16), by U.S. Poet Laureate and Mississippian Natasha Trethewey; Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste (42); Black Bottom Saints (100) by Alice Randall; Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy (53); this year’s John Grisham Visiting Writer, Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow (52); Jon Meacham’s biography of John Lewis, His Truth Is Marching On (89); both Sing, Unburied, Sing (45) and Salvage the Bones (82), paperback favorites by Jesmyn Ward; The New Jim Crow (63) by Michelle Alexander; White Fragility (33) by Robin DiAngelo; How to Be an Antiracist (20) by Ibram X. Kendi; and pride of Moss Point, Mississippi, and favorite occasional morning TV guest and Princeton professor, Eddie Glaude, author of the brilliant take on James Baldwin, Begin Again (55).
Regionalism aside, bestselling books across the world found ways to our list, too. New in hardcover, we recently discovered Katherine May’s timely Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (85); Such a Fun Age (47) by Kiley Reid; Transcendent Kingdom (50) by Yaa Gyasi, who mentioned Megha Majumbar’s A Burning (67) as “a stunning debut”; What the Eyes Don’t See (74) by Mona Hanna-Attisha; The Guest List (69) by Lucy Foley; Lily King’s excellent Writers and Lovers (58); Ready Player Two (65) by Ernest Cline, which stormed the bestseller lists only weeks ago; screen idol Matthew McConaughey’s Greenlights (36); The Splendid and the Vile (17) by Erik Larson. The one that just won’t go away is perhaps how rival publishers think of Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing (18), which is fine by us, and there are Jeanine Cummins’ much-discussed American Dirt (19); a couple of fine bird books—David Sibley’s What It’s Like to Be a Bird (24), followed closely by Jennifer Ackerman’s enlightening and entertaining The Bird Way (38); Hidden Valley Road (93) by Robert Kolker; Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (22); Untamed (35) by Glennon Doyle; Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (87); and, had we been able to keep it in stock it, would be much higher—Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse (23); and, for the second year, Tara Westover’s Educated (48).
Many books on the list last year or the year before now appear on our list in paperback editions. Superlative as a literary work as well as in popularity is The Overstory (27) by Richard Powers, which settled in on the list before it won the Pulitzer Prize nearly two years ago. Other paperback favorites include Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (90); Circe (54) by Madeline Miller; The Glass Hotel (39) by Emily St. John Mandel; The Nightingale (92) by Kristin Hannah; The Tattooist of Auschwitz (40) by Heather Morris; Little Fires Everywhere (34) by Celeste Ng; The Woman in the Window (66) by “A.J. Finn”; All the Light We Cannot See (43) by Anthony Doerr; Sally Rooney’s Normal People (49); Frank Herbert’s classic, Dune (75); and—who could resist it?—The Liberal Redneck Manifesto (51), by Trae Crowder n’them.
Back to Oxford, and to Mississippi—where we’re crazy for William Boyle and his books, this year it’s City of Margins (41); Wright Thompson’s Pappyland gave quite a boost to an earlier work in paperback, The Cost of These Dreams (25); old times here are recalled by Donald Miller’s great Civil War account of Vicksburg (62), as well as in Allie Stuart Povall’s Rebels in Repose (60); Nico Walker, who’s in the territory, along with the staying power of his Cherry (83); Greg Iles’s Cemetery Road (79); Lisa Howorth and Summerlings (99); and John T. Edge’s paperback of The Potlikker Papers (78).
2020 was nothing if not a year for political books, though one imagines they didn’t do so well sales-wise as a ratio of sheer tonnage; still, these made the list: a bio from Jenna Bush Hager, who generously signed some of our copies of Everything Beautiful in Its Time (84); Bob Woodward’s Trump smack-down, Rage (77); and John Bolton, who was in The Room Where It Happened (73). There is plenty of Mississippian Stuart Stevens’ wisdom in It Was All a Lie (44); and Mary Trump was totally in the room, with Too Much and Never Enough (31).
There are Don Winslow’s Broken (80); Private Cathedral (32) by a Square Books friend, James Lee Burke; Squeeze Me (88) by Carl Hiassen; and another from John Grisham, Camino Island (98); David Sedaris gave us The Best of Me (64) and David Hill, The Vapors; no one knows the Southern Lady Code (68) like Helen Ellis… Off Square contributed much to this list, some previously mentioned as well as Elizabeth Heiskell’s What Can I Bring? (26); Modern Comfort Food (70) by Ina Garten; and The Art of the Host (71) by Alex Hitz.
A delightful surprise for us arrived late this year in the person of Professor Richard S. Balkin, Assistant Chair in Leadership and Counselor Education at the University of Mississippi, with his book from Oxford University Press, Practicing Forgiveness (76), which has had a very nice reception from colleagues, students and acquaintances, and is finding new readers here every day, for who can claim to be above such wise counsel?
Finally, two books we report here with sadness for the loss of their respective authors: My Own Words (91) by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who gave our nation immense wisdom during a time when it was much needed; and Julia Reed’s New Orleans (72), by Mississippian Julia Reed, a dear friend who gave us many books over the years that brought forth her great spirit, spunk, sass, sense of style, and exactly what was on her mind. We’ll miss these two great women, both of whom wrote—and lived—so very well.
Thank you, again, and here’s to ’21!—from all the Gang at Square Books.
– Richard Howorth