Publisher Sam Lawrence named the journey that authors make between Lemuria Books in Jackson and Square Books in Oxford for book signings and readings the “I-55 Tour.”
But the connection between bookstore founder, owners John Evans (Lemuria) and Richard Howorth (Square Books), “Soul Brothers” by their account, runs much deeper than the roadway connecting the two Mississippi towns.
Different in personality and style, operating in radically different markets, the two entrepreneurs each started with a vision for enriching cultural life in their hometown with a community-centered, independent bookstore. With Square Books in its mid-30’s and Lemuria approaching 40, Howorth and Evans still share authors and books, editors and publishers, strategies for outwitting the competition and good stories.
Both booksellers are recognized nationally, with the more politically-inclined Howorth taking industry leadership roles, and both are besting threats from digital publishing and Amazon marketing by adding value for their customers.
Howorth, whose family moved to Oxford, his mother’s hometown, when he was 12, and Evans, who grew up in Jackson’s Fondren neighborhood, were acquainted as students at the University of Mississippi, both graduating in 1972. Evans, who “identified with the counterculture” that Mississippi caught up to around 1969, returned to Jackson after graduation. “I lived in a condemned house with a bunch of people, and did odd jobs for enough money to go hear music and buy books,” he said. Married in 1975, Evans’s alternative lifestyle expanded to an alternative business style when he “decided to open a bookstore and try to influence the culturein Jackson.”
The start-up bookseller “signed a lease on a converted apartment in the Quarter (on Lakeland Drive) between the best bar in town and the best ladies’ dress store.” With $10,000 in capital — $5,000 in savings from each partner in the marriage — John and Mel Evans created a bookstore out of the space, bought $8,000 worth of “good books,” and opened in October 1975. Waiting tables at the neighboring bar to make ends meet, Evans one day looked up to see Jackson’s literary luminary, Eudora Welty. He said, “Miss Welty, I just opened a bookstore behind this bar and I’d
love for you to come see me.”
In 1977 Lemuria moved to upscale Highland Village, tripling space, broadening inventory and adding signings by authors like Ellen Gilchrist to its Quarter fare of countercultural poetry readings and avant-garde music. Eudora Welty finally came to call, and “we bought 500 copies of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty,” published in 1980, said Evans. “One Writer’s Beginnings came out in 1984. By then she was well on her way to loving the bookstore.” During this period “the
malling of Mississippi” accelerated, bringing “five bookstore chains to Jackson within a five-year period.” Nonetheless, Lemuria sustained growth.
“But I knew the box-storing of America was coming,” he said. “I needed to enlarge my store to compete.” When Highland Village declined to lease Evans more space, he became a non-investment partner in a group developing Banner Hall, Lemuria’s current home, into retail space. “Moving to the other side of I-55 then (1988) was like moving to East Berlin,” said Evans.
In April 1988 Evans held his first signing in Banner Hall with “my favorite author, Jim Harrison.” By then he had “figured out how to get people to read good books,” often by “sharing the story behind the book.” The countercultural Evans had also accepted, “I’m not just a bookseller, I’m a retailer.” He created a signing area for visiting authors like Barry Hannah, Willie Morris, Ellen Douglas, Larry Brown and Richard Ford, “the endless wonderful talent that Richard and I were synchronizing our businesses to support.” With the move to Banner Hall he also started a first editions room, “the biggest leap financially,” and Oz Children’s Books, “a store in itself.”
Two external forces enhanced five more years of “noncompetitive growth” (1988-1993). “Willie Morris moved to Oxford. Bill Ferris made the Center for the Study of Southern Culture culturally strong. And Richard had changed his hometown culture. That triangulation of energy influenced the whole state,” he said. Lemuria sold 1,000 copies of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, published in 1989, co-edited by Ferris. “That was huge for a $65-book.”
Then in 1991 John Grisham’s first bestseller, The Firm, was published, selling 1,000 copies to Lemuria customers. Grisham “brought the impact of national commercialism to our local market,” reflected Evans. Leveraging growing advertising allotments from publishers, Lemuria sold around 3,000 copies of The Pelican Brief, then 4,000 of The Client. By 1994 demand for signed copies of The Chamber stretched the capacity of author and bookstore.
Meanwhile, the big-box bookstores had arrived. In 1993 Books-A-Million opened a 40,000-square-foot store across I-55 from Lemuria, taking 13 percent of Evans’s annual sales. Barnes & Noble followed in 1998, claiming 25 percent. “Until then, we had controlled the market,” said Evans. The recession that began in 2008 “took 25 percent of my business.”
Being “surrounded” by the big-box bookstores and contending with e-books just fueled Evans’s fires of reinvention, though he clung stubbornly to an inventory of “good books.” He remodeled the building next to Banner Hall and in 2003 opened his “dot.com store,” warehouse-style space for author readings and special events, complete with Literary Brews, a beer bar. It houses rare books and first editions, and space for processing LemuriaBooks.com orders. Evans and his employees embraced social media to draw in Lemuria’s fragmented market.
In 1977, the year Evans moved Lemuria to Highland Village, Richard and Lisa Howorth Dement apprenticed themselves to Savile Books, an independent bookstore in Washington, DC’s Georgetown neighborhood. “Opening a bookstore in Oxford had become the plan” while Lisa was completing her master’s degree in library science in Chapel Hill, said Howorth. “We wanted to learn how to operate a bookstore,” hence the Savile detour.
The idea of opening a bookstore in Oxford wasn’t new to Howorth. “A subject of discussion in our family had been, ‘Why isn’t there a bookstore in Oxford?’” he said. “David, my oldest brother (of five Howorth brothers), was always full of ideas for us.
When we were teenagers, he wrote to the U.S. Department of Commerce for a little pamphlet, ‘How to Open a Bookstore.’” Lisa and Richard Howorth learned the nuts and bolts of running a bookstore during two years at Savile Books, which was “on its last legs,” said Howorth. “There’s probably no greater learning opportunity in business than working for one that is in trouble.”
Returning to Oxford in the summer of 1979, Howorth “knew we wanted to be on the Square, the hub of the town.” An aunt who owned a building on the Square rented upstairs space for Square Books, “a crazy place to put a retail business.” He enlisted his carpenter-now-architect brother to build display cabinets, hung a banner from the balcony and painted book categories on steps that passersby could see through a glass door.
The categories of books found their niches, none more prominent than the Faulkner section in the front room. Just as Welty was the preeminent literary personage in John Evans’s Jackson, the late author William Faulkner has a strong hometown presence in the Howorths’ bookstore.
Learning that “if you can count 12 families of readers who will buy your books, you might make a go of it,” Howorth surveyed his market. Carolyn Staton (University of Mississippi provost 1999-2008) “came to my family’s house for dinner and said, ‘If you open a bookstore, I’ll spend $800 a year,’” recalled Howorth. “Bill Ferris said, ‘The Center (for the Study of Southern Culture) will be Square Books’ best friend,’ and helped bring authors like Etheridge Knight, Alice Walker, Alex Haley, Toni Morrison and Allen Ginsberg. Willie Morris said, ‘I’m going to bring my pals down for signings,’” “pals” like William Styron and George Plimpton.
Square Books opened on September 14, 1979. Ellen Douglas (pen name of Jo Haxton, a classmate of Howorth’s mother) came to sign The Rock Cried Out a month later. The town was galvanized in support of its bookstore.
Reflecting on the times, Howorth said, “The 1962 desegregation crisis (at UM) and earlier challenges created a core of people who sought to overcome those obstacles. They knew the bookstore would be an asset to the community’s cultural life.” Square Books not only came to represent the town’s and the state’s literary culture, it also nurtured talent by actively encouraging such writers as Barry Hannah, John Grisham and Larry Brown, who in turn became deeply loyal friends.
An excerpt from Polly Dement’s book, Mississippi Entrepreneurs. Published by Cat Island Books LLC and distributed by University Press of Mississippi. Mississippi Entrepreneurs, which includes profiles of over 80 of the state’s diverse and visionary enterprise creators, can be ordered online at www.upress.state.ms.us/books/1642 or purchased from independent book stores.
Mississippi Entrepreneurs: Two Bookstore Giants Are 'Soul Brothers'
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