What's your favorite bookstore?
Kick back with a good book in a comfortable chair at a Southern institution.
Today in issue #66:
Bold, groundbreaking new features: Polls and music!
Do you know an artist? Are YOU an artist? I might have a job for you …
Let’s get to it …
Where’s your favorite hangout of your entire life? The place where you can go, in either mind or body, and feel completely at ease, utterly at home, in tune with the world and the people around you like you’re all members of a symphony.
I’ve got a few — booths in specific bars, back decks on specific houses — and right there at the top is that porch above: the broad second-floor balcony of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. It overlooks the square of this utterly charming town, and it’s steps away from one of the finest stacks of books in the country.
The great Casey Cep has a new article in the New Yorker about Square Books and its renaissance-family owners, Richard and Lisa Howorth, and it’s well worth a read. Square Books is a testament to one man’s vision, yes, but it’s so much more than that, a symbol of a quiet way of life that still persists. Yeah, e-books are instant gratification, easier to buy and to read; Amazon-delivered books are cheaper and delivered right to your doorstep. But there’s something about the experience of going into a bookstore, laying your hands on an author’s blood, sweat and tears, and walking out with that comforting weight in your hands that no box hurled at your front door can match.
Bookstores have always been something of an obsession of mine, the same way vinyl record stores, farmer’s markets or ladies’ undergarment emporiums — hey, I don’t judge — are for others. Back when I was a kid, every time I got dropped at the mall I’d go find the Waldenbooks or B. Dalton Booksellers — this was back when both malls and mall bookstores were viable entities — and I could spend an entire afternoon there wandering the stacks, realizing how much I still had to read and learn.
Since then, I’ve ticked off bookstores the way other people tick off baseball stadiums — Shakespeare & Company in Paris, City Lights in San Francisco, Scheltema in Amsterdam, Powell’s City of Books in Portland. My routine is always the same: head straight for the local-interest section and learn what the booksellers are loving these days. Sometimes I’ll buy a novel by a local author, sometimes a history of some little-known local subject … but, yeah, I always buy something. My to-read pile now blocks out the sun.
(Yes, I always check the shelves for my books too. If you ever meet an author who says they don’t seek out their own titles when they go into a bookstore, you’re talking to a stone-cold liar.)
The South has a network of these must-visit bookstores — places like Burke’s in Memphis; Lemuria in Jackson, Miss.; Parnassus in Nashville; A Capella and Eagle Eye in Atlanta; Sun Dog in Seaside, Fla; and so many others. Back when publishers would send authors on multi-stop tours, these and similar bookstores would be the literary equivalent of a concert tour, mandatory stops an author would make to guarantee sales.
Square Books is still the #1 seed, in part because of its proximity to legend — William Faulkner lived a few blocks away in one direction, and is buried a few blocks away in another, and Oxford now probably has the greatest concentration of authors per capita in the country. Square is the platonic ideal of a Southern bookstore, high shelves and higher ceilings, autographed pictures of authors covering the walls, helpful handwritten signs tipping you off to the best reads of the moment and the past. It’s also one big raised middle finger — or, more properly, a genteel, razor-edged “bless your heart” — to every Acela-corridor dope who slags the South as an irredeemable wasteland.
And then there’s that balcony. The whole bookstore has a French Quarter tinge to it because of its orange exterior, and the balcony completes the feel. I started hanging out up there back in the ‘90s — when I really should have been buying some property in Oxford, to be honest — and every time I’m within a hundred miles of the place, I stop in, grab a Barry Hannah or Larry Brown book off the shelves, and take a few minutes to re-center. When Square re-did the balcony a few years back, they sold foot-long chunks of the pale-blue floorboards for five bucks apiece, and I’ve got one on my office bookshelf now. Don’t tell ‘em, but I would have paid ten times that for it.
You sit on the balcony at Square Books, your cares float away, and yet you also feel deeply connected to something greater than yourself. In that way, it feels a whole lot like home.
So tell me … what’s your favorite bookstore?
Poll of the Week: Barbecue!
Hey, Substack has polls now! So let’s give this new feature a try. Nothing like a high-volume, low-stakes internet debate to get the pulse racing.
Question: You roll up on a new barbecue joint. What’s the first thing you look for to decide if the place is going to be any good?
Please elaborate on your choice here, and as always, I’m open for recommendations:
Song of the Week
Old Dominion, “Hawaii”
There are certain songs that deserve — nay, demand — to be played on a boat on a lake in the summertime, and playing them at any other time is an artistic disservice akin to looking at the masterpieces of the Louvre on your phone. This tune, by Nashville new-country outfit Old Dominion, is so damn genetically engineered for Lake Life that you can smell the sunscreen and feel the splash of the wake on your face as it plays. Tap play, slip an icy cold beer into your A BAD DAY FISHIN’ BEATS A GOOD DAY WORKIN’ koozie, and enjoy a bit of lake livin’ wherever you happen to be.
“Hawaii” is one of the many songs on our ever-growing F&AB Spotify playlist, which you can like and stream right here:
Last thing: I need an artist!
Because the future of media lies in merch, I’m diversifying my line! I’m looking to commission a sweet Flashlight & A Biscuit logo suitable for stickers, t-shirts, tattoos, billboards, those giant wraps that cover entire buildings, etc., so if you’re a graphic artist, or know one, let’s talk.
Here’s an example of what I’m not looking for, courtesy of some weird AI logo-generating site:
Now, let’s be honest: those all suck. (Don’t worry about anyone’s feelings getting hurt, they were all made by a computer. A British computer, apparently, since it thought “biscuit” referred to a cookie.) If you think you can do better, reach out to me by clicking here.
See you next Saturday, friends. Stay cool till then!
This is issue #66 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. If you’re new around here, check out some of our hits:
Chili, onions, pickles, oyster crackers … too much is never enough when you’re loading up a Scrambled Dog.
An ode to an Atlanta landmark from the last days of disco
What’s in a Diablo Sandwich? Solving a “Smokey and the Bandit”mystery
What does “Flashlight & A Biscuit” mean, anyway?
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