I grew up 50 miles away from Oxford, MS – the home of William Faulkner and The University of MS, although not in that order. The university was there first. Oxford is the county seat of Lafayette County – named for the French military hero and American general Marquis de Lafayette. It is pronounced “La-FAY-et”.
Next door in Louisiana, they have a parish (what they call counties) called Lafayette Parish, named after the French military hero and American general Marquis de Lafayette. It is pronounced the way the Frech would – “La-fah-yet.” We ignore this contradiction, as there is no telling what someone from Louisiana is likely to do.
We lived north of Oxford, so we ended up in Holly Springs or even Memphis when we wanted to go to the doctor or a department store, but people south of us would have ended up in Oxford for those things. It always seemed like a magical place to me – a picturesque town square and a huge university. 17-year-old me would go there on my days off and drive around the campus, fascinated by co-eds and the campus library, in roughly equal amounts. In those days, I believed college was something only rich people would do – especially a college like Ole Miss.
Many of the educated men in my life had attended college here. Most of the women, too, but they were quieter about it. The men had the Confederate battle flags that were de rigueur in those days hung from their businesses, especially during football season, and on their bumpers always.
When I joined the Marines, my recruiter was based here. I would drive here many Saturdays during my senior year as a term of my delayed enlistment contract.
Neilson’s department store is on the Square, and was in those days, too. In fact, founded in 1839, it predates the university by 5 years. But it is crisp and clean inside, and wealthy men I knew shopped there. To be clear, I didn’t know any men who were truly what I would now consider wealthy. But the men in question were business owners, insurance agents, and attorneys. Men who wore ties to work, and who got their weekends off. Whose families bought new cars, and lived in two-story homes made of brick. You know – wealthy.
I always felt special when I walked in the door of Neilsons, which has been selling goods to dirt farmers for so long that they don’t automatically judge you for the way you are dressed the way the stores in Memphis did.
When Heather and I were dating while in the Marines, we took a day trip to Oxford, walked around The University of Mississippi, and talked about how cool it would be to live there when we got out of the Marines. For 28 years now, I can’t be in Oxford without thinking about walking across the grounds of William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak with her on that crisp fall day. She was filled with derision at the monument to the Confederate dead that was on the town square, on the lawn of the courthouse. As an aside, that monument finally came down in 2020, two years after her death. It took a while, but we got there.
And then there is Square Books – a legendary indie bookstore that will always be my platonic ideal of what a bookstore should be, with multiple levels, a lovely gallery overlooking the square, and books everywhere. The loving curation there is a sign of their respect for the reader, and the owners still, 40 years later, work the counter and will ring up your sale. I went there the first time with Heather in 1991, and have returned countless times with people I have loved – my sharing it with people is one of the ways I show I love them.
So this past weekend, when I knew I was going home for Easter, we made it a point to go up a day early and spend the afternoon in Oxford. I walked the square, peered in the door of Neilson’s, and drank a cafe au lait on the gallery at Square Books, looking over the rain-soaked square before spending money on yet more books.
It was a quick trip, so I didn’t get a chance to walk the grounds at Rowan Oak, to talk to Mr. Faulkner’s ghost, and to see his muscadine arbor which should be just leafing out about now, but I’m not worried. It’s not going anywhere. And even should it all fall down, should it burn to the ground and disappear, as long as I live there will be a small piece of my heart labeled Oxford.