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OXFORD MISSISSIPPI : Southern Sanctuary : William Faulkner's Mississippi hometown is rich in books, blues and engaging characters

SMALL TOWN AMERICA: One in an occasional series.

March 20, 1994|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

OXFORD, Miss. — Southern California urbanites, finding the appeal of small-town life stronger than ever, might also like the idea of vacationing in a slower, steadier, more personable world. Today, Travel begins a series of articles that will look at a handful of unscientifically selected American towns (with populations under 15,000) that are safe, walkable, affordable, not too busy and not too self-conscious.

It was a Friday afternoon when I drove into town, missed the address I was looking for, and fell to wandering. I circled the central square, and skirted the cemetery where William Faulkner is buried. I cut through the University of Mississippi campus, admiring the red-brick walls, the green-shuttered windows and the northern Mississippi hills that roll through town. Eventually, I found the 102-year-old home that held my bed and breakfast. This is a town with a population of 10,141 , I told myself, ascending the creaky wooden stairs. Slow down, or you'll run out of Oxford before dark .

But by Saturday morning, I had tasted the crawfish quesadilla at the City Grocery, on the square. I had inspected contemporary folk art in the Southside Gallery (milk jugs, melted and molded over the artist's home stove until they looked like African tribal masks). I had slipped into a bar called Proud Larry's to hear a bluesman named R. L. Burnside wrestle with his guitar and moan about slow dogs and fast women. And I had stood at the window of Square Books, Oxford's literary epicenter, where the shelves are crowded with Faulkner and half a dozen living local writers, including a fairly successful fellow named John Grisham.

By Sunday night, I was seated in a Jeep with a mannequin named Bubba and the prospective mayor-for-life of Taylor, Miss., rolling through darkened Lafayette County toward Junior Kimbrough's juke joint. Running out of Oxford, it seemed, was not going to be a problem.

Oxford may be small, but it is a haven for the bookish and the bluesy, a site of Civil War and civil rights battles, a handsome town rich in characters and fueled by grits, catfish and pecan pie. If business or pleasure brings you to Memphis, then an hour's drive dead south will bring you here.

Oxford's town square was laid out in the 1830s--many say the city's name was inspired by that other college town across the Atlantic--and at its center stands a great white courthouse, built after Northern troops burned the town in 1864. The courthouse is fronted by a monument to the Confederacy's Civil War dead. "They gave their lives in a just and holy cause," it says. In a county 25% black, the monument has stood since 1907.

A handful of restaurants and storefronts huddle around the square, having successfully endured the challenge of a monster mall that opened across town a decade ago. Most prominent among the square's commercial buildings is Neilson's department store (pronounce it Nelson's , and while you're at it, stress the fay in Lafayette County), which has been in business since 1839 and claims to be the oldest store in the South. Wiley's Shoe Shop, the Parks Barber Shop and Smitty's restaurant stand nearby, along with a handful of upscale clothing shops and a few law offices. A block down the hill on South 14th Street stands the Hoka, a raffish theater, cafe and student hangout that screens highbrow movies in a space that was once a cotton warehouse.

Some Oxonians see creeping boutiquism on the square, and note the departure of Sneed's Hardware in 1987. But as long as a $3 shoeshine, a $5 haircut and a $2.50 bowl of collard greens and hog jowls can be had in the neighborhood, it's hard for a stranger to take the threat too seriously.

The crime rate isn't likely to intimidate city people, either. In all of 1992, the FBIfound in its most recent national crime survey, Oxford reported one murder, four forcible rapes, seven robberies and 17 stolen cars.

Oxford's City Hall stands at the square, too, its red-brick walls positioned to bask in the afternoon sun. A few blocks beyond it, in St. Peter's Cemetery, lies the grave of Faulkner, who passed most of his life here, perplexing his neighbors with odd and aloof behavior, recasting them as characters in more than a dozen novels set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County. He died in 1962.

Oxford, however, remains alive with memorable characters, and since the town is so small and unhurried, a curious stranger is likely to meet several of them, then probably cross paths again before another day has passed. Look up from your Bubba Burger at the Beacon diner, and there in a neighboring booth sits your innkeeper. One day, I sat in Marie's Lebanese Cafe, reading in the Oxford American magazine about a noted journalism professor at the university, Dr. Samir A. Hosni, and waiting to order lunch. Then my waiter arrived--the good Doctor Hosni himself, husband of Marie and helper in the dining room.

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