Some towns have a special character that sets them apart–Sedona, Aspen, Palo Alto, Iowa City, etc. Oxford, Mississippi, should be on any list of distinctive U.S. towns for many reasons.
The Oxford-Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce reports this city’s population as 18,916 based on the 2010 census. Running for re-election, Mayor George “Pat” Patterson began his letter in the Chamber’s 2012-13 Directory, “Greetings, Visitors, Prospective Residents, and Newcomers….” There’s real estate and media buzz here second only to Aspen, Colorado, in my experience. Middle class to upper end residences, many historic, seem to be selling for between $300,000 and $1,000,000+. Ruth & I noted purpose-driven, news-seeking vans cruising all over town. Names like Oprah Winfrey, John Grisham, Gail Godwin, Shepard Smith, David Sedaris, etc. are woven into conversations.
At a mayoral candidate meeting held while we were there, 3 overriding issues were discussed–parking, growth, and alcohol sales. Parking is a problem. Several locals warned us not to exceed the 2 hour limit. We understood when we drifted into City Hall and were greeted by a sign–PARK OXFORD. OVER TIME PARKING VIOLATIONS TAKE STAIRS ELEVATOR TO FIRST FLOOR. Sunday sales of alcohol and increased bar hours were discussed. There are almost 40 Baptist churches in Oxford.
Dominated by the completely restored (in 1981) Lafayette County Courthouse with Confederate flag flying, Oxford’s busy Downtown Square is a total delight. Its shops include perhaps the best independent bookstore in the United States–Square Books, which has 2 branches near its flagship store. Square Books Jr sells children’s books & Off Square Books specializes in reduced-for-sale items. If you’re very lucky at Off Square, you’ll be helped by Alissa.
Among the Square’s stores is J. E. Neilson Company. Established in 1839 when it sold “everything pioneer families needed” including coffins, Neilson’s is now the oldest department store in The South. It merchandise includes distinctive clothing and specialty items that you won’t find at Walmart.
Also on the Square are 2 highly recommended restaurants. High end City Grocery attracts gourmet-types and Ajax welcomes those interested in Southern comfort food at down-home prices. Unlike Ruth, I enjoyed Ajax’s black-eyed peas side. If you engage an open-minded local in small talk, he or she might send you to Taylor Grocery, Thursday to Sunday only, to feast on catfish.
Named for the Marquis de Lafayette, French Revolutionary War aide, Lafayette County was established 1836. The next year Oxford was incorporated and named for Oxford, England. Eleven years later the University of Mississippi, more commonly known as Ole Miss, welcomed 80 students. Its presence in town today explains the unusually high number of local museums, entertainment venues, and cultural events. Smallish Oxford has a film festival, Broadway worthy theater productions, notable writers’ workshops, etc. Starbucks coffee is only available in 2 places on UM’s campus, but you’ll not risk a parking ticket if you discover High Point coffee with 2 Oxford locations.
The best historic home, among many, is William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, the best place to see art is the University of Mississippi Museum, and the best coming attraction is Burns-Belfry. See blog “Mississippi’s Yoknapatawpha County” for info about Rowan Oak, and I’ll tell you about the other 2 tomorrow.