Between 1994 and 1996 I lived in Oxford, Mississippi, while I was in graduate school at The University of Mississippi (better known at Ole Miss). The two years in Oxford were intense. I was a long way from everything that was familiar and I had to learn to start over.
Oxford was something else. I thought that Auburn, Alabama, was a small town. (It is). However, Oxford was about half Auburn’s size. I can still remember my first drive through the picture-perfect college town that has done so much to preserve its historic architecture. On the same drive, I swung by Rowan Oak – William Faulkner’s house – and saw three coeds walking with their hair, makeup, and clothes in perfect order.
Eventually, I fell into a social circle with a group of fellow grad students and we started going out in Oxford. One night – inevitably – someone suggested that we head to The Hoka. I’ve always found nightspots disappointing. They seem to promise us everything – sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll; but they all seem to deliver pretty much the same stuff – barflies, overpriced drinks, stale smoke, and untalented bands.
Happily, The Hoka was something else; a nightspot that delivered much more than it seemed to promise. I can still remember my first movie there and my shock at seeing people literally dragging coolers across the floor so that they would have their favorite drinks during the show. Casino and The Usual Suspects were two of the more-memorable films that I saw at The Hoka. I later learned that the offerings got much more eclectic, however, as The Hoka offered The Rocky Horror Picture Show, many “art” films, and some “adult” movies as well.
Probably the best thing about The Hoka, however, was its funky mood. I remember the guy who worked the counter in the little cafe – and he was the stereotypical hippie with matted, unkempt hair. (I’m assuming that he was The Hoka’s owner, Ron Shapiro). There was a very cool atmosphere and all of the cooler people in Oxford seemed to be there, involved in their own intrigues. If you believe what you read on the Internet, a lot of celebrities drifted through The Hoka through the years. Willie Morris, the former editor of Harper’s magazine, who was Writer in Residence at Ole Miss for many years, was known for holding court there. While hanging out, I always enjoyed the little desserts and snacks that The Hoka served; they tasted especially good when you had a beer buzz and needed something on your stomach.
One day, when I was getting close to graduation, I picked up the Ole Miss campus paper, The Daily Mississippian (fondly known as The Daily Mistake to Ole Miss students). There was an article about The Hoka in which Ron Shapiro mentioned that he’d like to move to the tropics and start an overseas version of The Hoka. Perhaps it should have come as no surprise that Shapiro – after 20 years – shut The Hoka’s doors for the last time in 1996. I didn’t hear about the closing, as I’d already graduated.
I have learned that there is a 40-minute documentary out about The Hoka – though I have yet to see it. The title is Sorry, We’re Open and it is available here.
For the first time since 1996, I went back to Oxford this summer while on the way to Memphis. The town remains much the same, but it was impossible to miss the changes in the places that I had loved. (My old student apartment is now a condo). I guess when we go back to old places or visit former friends we are searching for a lost point in time. Sadly, then, The Hoka is just a memory – albeit a very fond one for its many admirers.