In 1979, Richard Howorth moved back to Oxford, Mississippi, to open a bookstore. He had more than simple commerce in mind. Oxford was home to the University of Mississippi and William Faulkner's native turf, yet it remained a cultural backwater, remembered around the country, if at all, as the site of anti-desegregation riots in the early 1960s. Howorth, who'd grown up in Oxford, saw his store as a place of culture, literacy and broad-mindedness that could help the town nurture those values in itself.
He succeeded, and then some. Square Books--located on a prime corner of Oxford's courthouse square--became one of the South's preeminent bookstores and helped spark the commercial revival of the square from which it drew its name. By the mid-1990s, the store had helped establish Oxford's reputation as a literary hub, and the square--a lovely, classic Southern commercial district--had become the centerpiece of Oxford's growing attraction to tourists.
Which, in a way, is why Howorth eventually felt compelled to do something quite out of keeping with the book business. He became a politician. This June, he challenged the incumbent mayor of Oxford and got himself elected by 119 votes. As far as anyone at the American Booksellers' Association knows, he is only the second bookstore owner in recent times to hold such an office; Neal Coonerty, the owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, was mayor of that California city for one year in the early 1990s.
Howorth, who is 50, didn't even file for the office until a few minutes before the deadline--"History is full of decisions that were made relatively impulsively," he says--but nobody who knew him could have been entirely surprised by his decision. Oxford has grown rapidly in recent years, pushed by its national reputation as a serene, cultured place for people to retire. During that time, Howorth made no secret of his discomfort with the costs of its success: inflated housing prices, big-box retailing on the town's periphery, and development pressure on the square itself. Then came the town's decision to make a deal with Wal-Mart to hasten work on widening a road that would bring cars to the mega-retailer's door. That was what finally pushed Howorth into political action.
The irony was that Pat Lamar, Oxford's Republican mayor, had won office four years before in part because she had sided with growth- control advocates, before Wal-Mart came on the scene. Now Lamar was backing a scheme not only to cut down a lot of trees but to do so at the behest of America's preeminent symbol of retail avidity. "To a lot of people," says Ole Miss sociology professor Vaughn Grisham, "this symbolized this uncontrolled growth and lack of attention to aesthetic matters."
Howorth took the lead in organizing a group of Wal-Mart opponents and collected signatures to place a challenge to the road-widening on the town's ballot. In a controversial decision that cemented many residents' belief that town government was operating behind closed doors, the city rejected the petition, challenging the legality of some of the signatures and claiming it fell 12 signatures short. The petition activists became the nucleus of Howorth's challenge to Lamar.
If the election made one thing clear, though, it is that Oxford is deeply divided over questions of growth. Not only did Howorth just squeak through, but several like-minded candidates for the board of aldermen lost narrowly. Howorth, who lost 15 pounds campaigning door- to-door, is keenly aware of the challenges he faces in forging some sort of community consensus about how to grow. Yet he is also convinced that his leap into politics makes sense. "My business has always been built around a very strong personal mission and identity," he says. "This is not that big of a change in terms of my mission and ideology. It's really no change at all."