Feel the magic in Oxford, Mississippi with literary, culinary and shopping gems
Erin Austen Abbott, (born in 1976), grew up in Oxford, Mississippi before moving to Florida in 1985. She lived in the Tampa Bay area until graduation from the University of South Florida. After graduation, Erin moved to Boston to attend the Museum School of Fine Arts and then to Seattle to attend the Photographic Center Northwest. Erin has had gallery shows of her work in Tampa, Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Memphis, Oxford, MS, Water Valley, MS, Berlin, Milan, and Basel. Aside from having work published in many national publications and on blogs, she is also a freelance writer for Design Sponge. She has her first book coming out in the Spring of 2017. Erin lives in Water Valley, Mississippi, and runs her shop, Amelia (ameliapresents.com), in Oxford, MS.
As a little girl, growing up in Oxford, I remember feeling like it was this magical place. You walked down the street or went into a store and you always saw someone you knew. In the summer, you could stay out until dark, playing in the street with the neighborhood kids or work on your fort in Baily’s Woods, catch fireflies at dusk then lay in the grass watching the stars until you fell asleep. Each season brought a new sense of magic. When I was nine, the magic ended when we moved. I didn’t want to leave Mississippi and the oasis I called home.
I moved around for years after college, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Memphis… and everywhere I moved, I compared it to the feelings I had for Oxford as a child. Those cities were great, but they weren’t Oxford. Twenty years, almost to the day, I moved back to the area, quickly realizing that it was still a magical place. The town had grown and made some changes, sure, but it was still as I remembered. The feeling didn’t change. Now, as a business owner, on the same Square that I shopped as a child, I’m comforted knowing that I’m getting back to my roots.
Oxford has always been a literary town. As a child, I attended book events for Richard Ford, Eudora Welty, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Ellen Douglas and so on. At the hub of these events was a little book store called Square Books. It was up a flight of stairs and just three little rooms. Fast forward to present day and Square Books is one of the country’s leading independent bookstores, hosting weekly events at one of their three locations, all in a two block radius. Writers from all over the world, are now vying to get a spot on their calendar or have their new release be a “staff pick”, because that could mean more sales nationally. They are a tastemakers’ book shop.
The proximity to The University of Mississippi only helps matters. Ole Miss attracts writers from all walks, for the MFA program or to teach on campus. Many of the these writers end up staying in Oxford, putting down roots here, like Ace Atkins, Tom Franklin, Beth Ann Fennelly, and Jack Pendarvis, to name a few. Our most renowned resident, was of course, William Faulkner. You can tour his home, Rowan Oak, and the grounds of his estate, now managed by The University of Mississippi Museum, that inspired him to write works like The Sound and the Fury, Intruder in the Dust and As I Lay Dying. It’s also worth mentioning that the university has an extensive art collection, always astounding rotating exhibits and free sketch classes open to the public once a month.
One thing I recall, as a child, was that we didn’t eat out much because the choices were slim. We had the Hoka and Smitty’s but past that, I don’t remember many other spots of note. Today, Oxford is on the map alongside much larger cities, as a culinary haven. Favorite restaurants include Ravine, Taylor Grocery and Proud Larry’s. We have James Beard recipient John Currence, who now has five different restaurants in town, City Grocery, Lamar Lounge, Big Bad Breakfast, Boure and Snack Bar.
I find myself gravitating to the same two places often, Saint Leo and Canoodle by The Oxford Canteen. Walking into Saint Leo, I feel transported to a big city, without losing the small town hospitality and service. The design is modern, with no detail left undone. The marble bar is inviting. The tables are intimate without being too fancy. And most importantly, the food is spot on. Wood-fired pizza, topped with local vegetables and cheeses and in-house cured meats. The food arrives, still sizzling from the oven.
On our last visit, my husband, son and I got the potato and leek pizza, then added in a few sides—white beans, organic carrots and grilled bread. The pizza melts in my mouth, cooked to perfection. The potatoes have a crispy layer, which goes perfectly with the sweet leeks and the pork jowl, which was locally raised. I never leave Saint Leo without getting dessert. We wanted to try several, but opted for the chocolate pot de crème. It’s rich, and the portion makes it perfect to split.
My other go-to is Canoodle by The Oxford Canteen. This is how Vietnamese street food found its way into the hearts of the Oxford locals. It’s clever. Think food truck concept without the truck. Walk down the side ally of The Lyric Theatre to find a window where you place your order. Everything is packaged to-go, which is great for a picnic, or eating at the counter along the wall. The menu is full of noodle dishes, Pho, banh mi, and daily specials. The sweet potato and tofu banh mi has become my “usual”, followed by the dang dang noodles. Walking down the ally, the smells from the tiny kitchen spill out of the window, where often a group has gathered, strangers, all talking and asking each other what the other ordered, all eager to try everything on the menu.
Shopping the Square in Oxford
Like most Southern towns, life in Oxford happens on “the Square”. That’s where you get back-to-school clothes, new furniture for your home, or a gift for a friend. Centered on Oxford’s courthouse, life is bustling around the Square and the four streets that off-shoot the roundabout. It’s a lively and inviting place, with a “How ya’ doin’?” from everyone you pass.
The oldest department store in the South is here, in Oxford, Neilson’s Department Store. As a child, this was where we got our Girl Scout and Boy Scout uniforms, new shoes to start the school year and our new Easter clothes. It’s still a staple in town.
Boutiques and gift shops fill in many of the gaps around the Square, like Belles and Beaus, Nella, Cicada, Hinton & Hinton, and Amelia. Belles and Beaus is the Southern children’s fashion mecca, complete with monogramming and smocked dresses and john-johns (short overalls). The clothes are traditional for the region and classic in style. The smocked designs change with the seasons at Belles and Beaus.
Amelia is my own shop, where the focus is on handmade design. I stock more than 200 artists, from around the globe, ranging from paper goods and stationery to housewares and jewelry. I’m in the store all the time, so feel free to stop in, say hi or let me tell you about the latest new place that might have opened. I’m always happy to send you in the right direction. It’s both surreal and special to have a shop in the town that I loved so much as a child, helping my son carry on the tradition of finding the magic here too.
Oxford may be a small town, but it’s still filled with magic, all these years later and more wonderment is exposed every day.
Get wrapped up in the charm of Oxford, Mississippi and discover your own magic.