-- OXFORD, Miss. -- Banners proclaiming "Welcome to Oxford" and "Ole Miss -- The debate starts here" wave from lampposts around town.
A freshly painted mural of John McCain and Barack Obama having coffee together decorates the front window of the funky Bottletree Bakery.
Under a slowly swirling fan in the Blind Pig Pub & Deli on the 19th-century courthouse square, B&B owner Russell French mulls requests from media heavyweights wanting to reserve rooms for tonight's scheduled presidential debate at the University of Mississippi.
The first showdown between the nominees on the 160-year-old Ole Miss campus marks a first for Mississippi, which never has hosted a presidential debate. When the TV spotlight shines tonight on presidential sound bites and fury in Oxford, the city is ready for its close-up.
Once home to William Faulkner and John Grisham, among other notables, it has written chapters in literary history and is an inviting, ready-for-prime-time travel destination in its own right.
"This really is a spectacular place: It's hip and sophisticated, with a small-town feel," says French, 44, a local businessman with the gift of gab who also owns the 208 restaurant and who has lived in a dozen cities. "It's Mayberry (of The Andy Griffith Show fame). We could lay $100 bills on the sidewalk right now, and we wouldn't get mugged."
His view is seconded by Houstonians Debbie and Rod Acker, enjoying beers down the bar while other patrons tuck into the Pig's tasty club sandwiches on ciabatta bread served in plastic baskets. They rented for the year, sight unseen, a $1,250-a-month apartment to visit their daughter, an Ole Miss freshman, and join in the university's famed football festivities, including elaborate tailgate parties boasting tents with chandeliers and wall-to-wall revelers.
The city of 19,000 also is known for fine food, art and a lively music scene. But it has limited lodgings, which can be hard to book because of demand, explains Rod, sporting an Ole Miss pullover in the school's blue and red colors. They've fallen in love with Oxford, considered an anomaly in often hardscrabble rural Mississippi. "To us, it's a big bubble," Rod says. "You feel protected from the rest of the world. You have Deep South charm without the hillbilly."
"It's so laid-back, and everyone's nice," Debbie, a well-groomed blonde, chimes in. "Plus there's the history."
Small-town Ways, City Chic
A 1½-hour drive south of Memphis, the city (whose population swells to nearly 33,000 when Ole Miss is in session) is a manicured oasis of culture and prosperity in Mississippi. Antebellum mansions, BMWs, sorority beauties toting $1,000 handbags and hip, locally owned boutiques, bookstores, bars and restaurants are as common as the kudzu vines and farmland that dot the surrounding countryside. You won't find a Starbucks or McDonald's in the center of town.
Oxford, named after the elite British university, is famed for the university's Center for the Study of Southern Culture and as the adopted home of late Nobel Prize-winning Faulkner, whose fictional Yoknapatawpha County is based on Oxford's Lafayette County (say "La-FAY-ette," as locals do). Ole Miss alums include New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and author Grisham, of legal-thriller fame.
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).
Locals Hate Stereotypes
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.
Another local celebrity cook, New Orleans native John Currence, says that while Oxford has "some of the finest people I've met" and is "probably more liberal than anywhere in the state, but it's still conservative." Obama signs have disappeared from lawns; Currence recalls having a vehicle with a John Kerry sticker keyed and the sticker moved to the end of the key marks.
The biggest issue now, Gerlach says, is development — including loft-style condos in historic buildings. "It's getting overbuilt. A lot of people think so," says Gerlach, who formerly worked in the tourism office here.
She points visitors to more traditional attractions, such as Rowan Oak, a homey mansion where Faulkner lived and wrote, where an outline for one of his later books is written on the wall of his study and his riding boots still sit by a chair in his bedroom.
She recommends lunching at the Ajax Diner on the square, with old-style Southern main dishes and two sides and cornbread for $9.50 and folk art of blues musicians on the wall.
You might find her having a Harp Irish lager Saturdays on the balcony of Currence's high-rated City Grocery (don't miss the creamy, delectable shrimp with cheese grits). Currence was named "King of American Seafood" at a 2008 cook-off in New Orleans and also recently opened the whimsical, down-home BBB (Big Bad Breakfast) on the outskirts of town. Dishes are named for works of local writers.
Southern Literature and B&Bs
Another Oxford must-do is a visit to Square Books, owned by city mayor Richard Howorth, which encompasses three stores on the square and has a reputation for smart, well-edited selections, including impressive Southern literature sections.
At 5:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, a prize-winning, black T-shirted poet named Richard Siken reads at Off Square books — another in the Square family — as a few dozen fans listen from folding chairs. Lines such as "your name like detergent in a washing machine" require mental gymnastics, but the audience is rapt.
Down at 208, diners include Mike Overstreet, a tall, cosmopolitan guy in jeans who has developed some of the condos selling for $300,000 and skyward. "Modern buildings aren't that popular in Oxford, but I travel and I see old buildings and new side by side," he says. "I favor allowing for progress with growth that's controlled."
Bryant — who calls 208 Oxford's version of the Cheers bar — tells a visitor it's absolutely impossible to understand the town without tailgating in The Grove before a football game and hearing the Ole Miss Pride of the South Band strike up Dixie.
"Call up your editor and tell him you've been kidnapped," he instructs. "You have to go to a game here!"
Hell, yes, other patrons agree.