I'm kicking off a new series of mini travel guides written by friends and tastemakers scattered all over the country who are passionate about where they live, and eager to share their hidden gems with us. "My America" means no agenda, no advertisers to please; just pure love for a place, so that if you ever find yourself in their towns and cities, you'll know exactly what to do. Like: Where can you grab a drink after dinner on Saturday night and a decent plate of eggs on Sunday morning? They've got you covered.
First up is Erin Austen Abbott who lives in Water Valley, Mississippi and works 19 miles north in the iconic American town of Oxford. Erin runs Amelia (1006 Van Buren Ave.), a charming shop on the Oxford Square which she describes as, "A place where the new wave of craft culture meets design and makes it an art." Her shelves are stocked with everything from unique home goods to baby items and jewelry, like handmade mugs from Paper & Clay and organic cotton T-shirts from Winter Water Factory. Erin's also known around town for her annual "One Night Stand Motel Art Series," where she literally transforms the motel you see at the top of this post into a gallery, giving artists a chance to showcase their work in a non-traditional setting. I've long-admired Erin's beautiful photos, many of which illustrate this piece; she posts frequently about her work and her life in Mississippi on instagram at @ameliapresents with the tags #aportraitofmississippi and #mymorningswithtomotis (Tom Otis is her adorable two-year-old son who makes regular cameos). Thank you so much, Erin! Can't wait to visit your southern gem soon.
Your shop is so lovely. If someone were to pop in right now, what would you point out?
This buttery-soft leather clutch with scalloped edges by Matine. I've never seen another clutch like it. Turns out the maker, from D. C., is only sold in four other shops in the world, three of which are in other countries.
What brought you to Oxford?
I'm actually from here. We moved away in 1985, but after living in some of the best cities in America, I couldn't shake how much I missed it. We moved (back) to Water Valley in 2005.
Can you share with us a place that even the locals don't know about?
The Taco Shop (1921 University Ave) in Oxford. My friends and I have named nicknamed it Secret Taco because it flies that far under the radar. They have wonderful tacos, food truck style. Also, the cheeseburgers at Sylva Rena Grocery and Bait Shop (11 County Road 279, Water Valley). They are AMAZING! The best around. And I only know like five people that know about this place, outside of Water Valley.
What's the absolute best single dish at a restaurant?
The Croque Madame with truffle fries at Snackbar (721 North Lamar Blvd). It's run by the City Grocery owner, but it's a different feel altogether. It's low lit and cozy. Also, they have one of the best drink menus in town.
Where do you grab a drink before dinner?
The City Grocery balcony (152 Courthouse Square). You can people watch on the square while possibly sitting next to some of the best writers of today's literary world.
Where do you find yourself going for breakfast over and over again?
The B. T. C. Grocery (301 North Main Street, Water Valley). They serve locally milled grits, eggs and milk. Everything is so fresh and so good! It has so much charm as well. We go there every Sunday morning.
What's the best spot for an after dinner drink?
Lamar Lounge (1309 North Lamar Blvd.). I love it for the juke box alone, which makes for a great nightcap.
Okay, let's say someone had just three hours to spend in Oxford. What would you recommend they do?
I've created a choose your own adventure tour guide. If you're into shopping and taking in the local flavor, follow route A. If you prefer the literary and arts route, follow B. If you like both (and have more than three hours) pick up the other route at the middle ground, End of All Music Record Store.
A. Start out having breakfast at Big Bad Breakfast (719 North Lamar). Afterwards, head to the Square. Drop into my shop Amelia Presents (1006 Van Buren Ave.) to say hi to me and have a quick look. It's only 187 square feet, so I won't hold you up too long. Make your way seven doors down to Square Books (above; 160 Courthouse Square), voted the best bookstore in the country. Sit on the upstairs porch for a great view. Walk around the Square, pose with the statue of Faulkner in front of City Hall (so you can say you savored some of the Faulkner spirit while in Oxford). Maybe by now, you've worked up an appetite. Have lunch at Oxford Canteen, which is in the ally next to Amelia. Once you're done with lunch, hop into your car and drive through the Ole Miss campus, then make your way to End of All Music (1423 North Lamar Blvd.).
B: Start out at End of All Music on North Lamar. After you have browsed the endless collection of new and used vinyl, hop into your car and head to Rowan Oak (916 Old Taylor Rd.), which was William Faulkner's home. Walk the grounds and take the home tour. It's $5 and really interesting. Then head to the University Museum for a quick look at one of the best university museums in the country. After the museum, drive through the Ole Miss campus and then over to Faulkner's grave, just off the Square. Finish your visit on the Square. Grab a bite to eat at Ajax Diner (118 Courthouse Square) or Proud Larry's (211 South Lamar Blvd.).
What's the most impressive thing about Oxford?
I'd say for it's size, there's an amazing amount of things to do. There's always a book reading or a touring band playing. A cool art show or a pop-up restaurant from one of the south's most amazing chefs. Small town with a city vibe.
This goes for Water Valley: Beer just became legal in 2008, but wine and liquor were allowed long before that. As for Oxford, cold beer in grocery and gas stations just became legal this year. It's still warm in Water Valley.
That is indeed bizarre. What's the most surprising?
The cost of real estate in Oxford vs. Water Valley. Only 19 miles away and a house in Water Valley could cost $400,000- $700,000 less than in Oxford for the same house. That's weird.
Okay, turn on the radio. What song is playing?
Depends on the time of day. Could be the theme to All Things Considered or something on Sirus XMU.
If you had to leave tomorrow, what would you miss the most?
How quiet and peaceful it is in Water Valley. I'd miss my really old house built in 1890, and the gatherings in the springtime with my friends. I'd also miss the yearly art show I started in Oxford, called The One Night Stand at The Ole Miss Motel (1517 University Ave.). I rent ten motel rooms, and for one night only, I invite ten artists to show their work. I started it in 2007, and it's been going strong ever since.
A few more Oxford notes: Founded: 1837; Population: approx 20,000; Area: 10 sq. miles; Elevation: 505 ft.; Home of The University of Mississippi AKA "Ole Miss"; Notable residents: William Faulkner (deceased), John Grisham, Eli Manning (in the offseason), Joey Lauren Adams, Charlie Mars. Known for its rich literary history and diverse music scene. Bob Dylan wrote a song called "Oxford Town," which was included on his Freewheelin' album.