By Errol Castens
OXFORD – Thirty-something years ago, the new Oxford Mall threatened to empty Oxford’s Courthouse Square just as shopping centers had done to many a downtown.
Today, while the mall has ceased to be a retail-and-dining center, the Square has trouble accommodating all its visitors.
“Downtown has survived because in 1981, when the mall came, merchants around the Square got together and said, no, we’re not leaving,” said Amanda Hyneman, manager of J.E. Neilson Co., a department store in its 175th year.
In the decades since, merchants, restaurateurs, city officials and volunteer committees from planning and preservation commissions to a tourism council have worked to enhance the Square’s esthetics and its retail, dining and entertainment mix.
Three of Oxford’s last four mayors have been downtown merchants. Pharmacist John Leslie spearheaded a redesign in the 1970s, using traffic islands and one-way streets to tame chaotic traffic and hodgepodge parking, and he pushed the landscaping efforts that today win constant kudos for Billy Lamb and his crew.
Bookseller Richard Howorth, mayor from 2001-2009, strengthened the planning and preservation movements that predecessor Patricia Lamar had promoted. Howorth also shepherded the creation of the now-lauded transit system.
Current Mayor George “Pat” Patterson, a sporting goods retailer, has supported the use of security cameras and a police horse patrol, among other public safety enhancements. Parking management initiated last year may result eventually in a parking garage behind City Hall, and he’s also exploring ways to make the Square even more pedestrian-friendly.
Visitors to William Faulkner’s house often make their way to Square Books and its offspring, which feature a substantial Faulkner section, a continual parade of nationally known authors and a weekly live music-and-literature broadcast, “Thacker Mountain Radio.” Other retailers include clothing boutiques and art galleries to the venerable Neilson Co. and specialized gift, furnishings and jewelry shops.
With eateries from fine dining to regional traditions, Oxford also has become what the New York Times deemed “a mecca of Southern eats.” James Beard Award-winning Chef John Currence first put Oxford on the culinary map in the 1990s by immortalizing shrimp and grits, among other creations, at City Grocery. Bottletree Bakery, Ajax Diner, Bouré and a host of other restaurants add their own flavors.
Nightlife can crowd downtown Oxford even beyond its daytime use. Audiences gather most nights for live music at Proud Larry’s, The Lyric Theatre or other venues, and The Lyric hosts frequent charity fundraisers and other community events.
The Double Decker Arts Festival (April 26-27 this year), Lions Club Christmas parade and activities sponsored by the Downtown Council also draw people to the Square.
In the end, downtown Oxford owes much of its success to Ole Miss.
“The heart and soul of why it works is the university,” Hyneman said. “Oxford wouldn’t be Oxford without the university. It’s bringing people here every day.”