Place: Oxford, Mississippi – Bookstore: Square Books, x THREE!
We knew that Oxford, Mississippi would be a book town – home of William Faulkner, Larry Brown, and more recently, Beth Ann Fennelly and Ace Aktins, this town is a mecca for great writing. And we had heard over and over that Square Books is a great bookstore (it was named “Bookstore of the Year in 2013 by Publishers Weekly). What we didn’t know is that Square Books is such a great bookstore that it actually occupies THREE separate spaces, all on the main square in Oxford!
Square Books, the main building, offers up literature, including a great regional book section and a cafe, while Off-Square Books carries used books and all books on art & photography, cooking, gardening, and travel, and finally, our destination – Square Books, Jr., houses the kids’ collection. Square Books was opened in 1979, with Off Square Books joining the family in 1993. In 2003 Square Books Jr. was opened right beneath the space that housed the original bookstore back in 1979. Square Books Jr. is a bonanza, a mecca, a party-in-a-store for young readers: an entire bookstore devoted solely to kids and bookworms!
Lyn Roberts, the General manager at Square Books, walked us on over to Square Books Jr., where, as she put it, “the atmosphere is charged and loud and busy.” And she’s right! Square Books Jr. is stuffed with books, and book-related things, and it’s also stuffed with kids. The story of Square Books Jr. and its beginnings is a good one (hint – it involves muggles and the Ministry of Magic), and the store today still contains an air of excitement and yes, magic, within its walls.
Lyn introduced us to Jill Moore, children’s book buyer extraordinaire, and yes, she is – you know when you walk into a bookstore and say something like, “I need a book for an eight-year-old girl who loves magic but hates when animals talk and is crazy about the Aztecs,” and the bookseller slips the PERFECT book into your hands? Well, that’s Jill. We had the best time talking about books she loves and the kids who read them! Jill’s take on kids and reading – let them read what draws them in! Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, she told us that, “Across the world for thousands of years, people have fought for food, for family, and for their freedom…and that’s what these books talk about, in a fantastical way or a realistic way. So of course, read about it!”
Jill has noticed (as we all have) that books like John Green’s “The Fault in our Stars” are starting to draw kids away from vampires and into more realistic narratives, but at the same time she told me that she’s seeing a resurgence in middle grade right now of old-school fantastical narration in the tradition of Narnia, and even better, books that both girls and boys can read and enjoy. Harry Potter, of course, is the fantastical narration co-ed read that springs to mind, but Jill also listed the wonderful “Mysterious Benedict Society” books and the Sisters Grimm Fairytale Detectives as series that easily cross gender lines. I was really glad to hear this, because it always bums me out when parents balk at giving kids books because “he won’t read about girls,” or “she won’t read about boys.” I was also relieved because not only is “Lost Children of The Far Islands” old-school fantasy narration of the sort where children pass through the ordinary into an extraordinary hidden world, but it is also meant to be read by girls and boys alike!
Some of Jill’s major picks right now? Well we talked for so long (and could have kept going!) that the list is way too long to reprint here. But here are some highlights: Watt Key’s “Alabama Moon,” (“The one we just think everyone should read”) “Flawed Dogs,” by Berkeley Breathed (“As good as Charlotte’s Web“), “The Name of This Book is Secret,” by Pseudonymous Bosch, “Three Times Lucky,” by Sheila Turnage, and the book that Jill and I agreed would never be off the shelf in any bookstore in which we work, or bookshelf in a house in which we live: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh.
Reader, I bought them all. And why not? When someone like Jill Moore describes a book as “As adventurous as Huck Finn but with the depth of To Kill a Mockingbird,” and then adds that you could drop the author of said book off in the woods with just a hook, and he’d survive just fine, wouldn’t you buy the book? (That book, by the way, is “Alabama Moon”).
Jill, and booksellers like her, is the reason that bookstores are flourishing – Square Books Jr. looks great, and feels great, and sounds great, but it’s the people in the store that really keep kids (and their parents) coming back for more. Jill runs a story hour every Wednesday and Saturday, and for the Saturday story hour, she also plays blues guitar. While she was describing this to me, a mom who was browsing nearby called over – “It’s amazing – we never miss it!” How great is that?
Jill also runs a book club that meets once a month. The kids, as she describes it, mill around her desk and read the flaps of books and then they all vote on one book to read. The book club is meant to serve 8-12 year-olds, but Jill says a lot of her regulars keep coming around “until they’re 17 or so…” One of those kids is Paul, who grew up with Square Books Jr., and now, as an adult, works there selling books to the new generation of bookworm kids!
One of the things we have been doing on the Indie Bookstore Roadtrip is picking up tips from various bookstores about ways to flourish in today’s economy. We’ve seen (and written here about) a lot of good ideas. What we came away from Square Books with was nothing flashy – no crazy new schemes or bells and whistles. Square Books, in our view, is run on pure bookworm power – the people who work here LOVE books, READ books, and in Jill Moore’s case, also love kids and talking to kids about what THEY love to read. People like Jill perform what I see as a minor miracle on a daily basis – getting the exactly perfect book into the exactly right kid’s hand at the exact moment in their life where that book might just change everything.
Bravo, Jill, and Lyn, and the other folks selling books at Square Books (all three of them!) Thanks for an amazing stop on the Indie Bookstore Roadtrip!