Grisham still keeps a home here and visits, but decamped to Charlottesville, Va., to live a lower-profile life after he became as much a tourist magnet as Oxford's central square with a white-columned courthouse and department store dating to 1839.
Many Ole Miss grads never leave — or they find their way back. Lately, modern condos have popped up by the square that attract former students such as Fox News' Shepard Smith and grads who want to retire in a place where residents routinely stop for long chats on the street and service is delivered promptly after a "Yes, ma'am" or "Yes, sir."
Take Hume Bryant, an alum who lived in San Francisco for 28 years and returned to retire in one of those condos. "You have a lot of things you get in a big city, but it's a small town. You couldn't pay me to go back (to San Francisco). Too many people. I just got tired of the commotion."
Dressed in a turquoise polo shirt and casual pants (not the tie, white shirt and khakis that frat boys still sport on game days here), he's eating a soba-noodle stir fry at the bar of French's 208 restaurant. With black concrete floors, exposed ductwork and paper lantern-style lighting, it's the picture of city chic.
208 is just off Courthouse Square, the hub of Oxford social life, where nose-in parking is free and notably polite motorists actually stop before pedestrians even hit the crosswalk.
Bryant moves down the bar to talk to other Ole Miss grads. At a visitor's request, they belt out the cheer that — like a secret handshake — ex-students often use when they meet up. He delivers the first line: "Are you ready?"
Then the others join in.
Hell, yes! Damn right!
Hotty toddy, gosh almighty
Who the hell are we? Hey!
Flim flam, bim bam
Ole Miss, by damn!
"Walk into the next room and ask, 'Are you ready?' I'll bet they'll do 'hotty toddy,' " (named for the bourbon concoctions drunk from flasks on cold football Saturdays), Bryant says. His father was the Ole Miss vice chancellor (not that he'd inform you himself; he's too much of a Southern gentleman to brag).
Reminders of the Old South endure in Oxford. Memorials to Confederate veterans greet visitors on the square and at Ole Miss, not far from a bronze statue of James Meredith, who fought to be the first black student admitted here in 1962. It wasn't easy. Riots heralded his arrival, and federal troops were sent. The likeness of a small man in a suit and tie solemnly striding toward a stone portal is affecting.
Many Oxford residents resent being identified with Meredith's travails and segregation. Thirteen percent of students on the Oxford campus now are black, and times have changed, they say.
"People are a little nervous" about how Oxford is portrayed in the media this week, says Bottletree owner Cynthia Gerlach, 39, who came from Oregon to attend Ole Miss and stayed. "Some people have a stereotype of the South." Today's Oxford is a more tolerant place, she says. "There's a great sense of community."
Patrons of all hues and ages savor sublime lattes and $2.95 ham-and-cheese croissants at her art-decked, coffeehouse-style cafe. Oprah Winfrey once spotlighted Gerlach's apple ruffle tart on her talk show; McCain's camp signed her up to cater breakfast and lunch.