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Spontaneous Altars

A candle store and so much more

Jason Raish Illustration

 

By now, it’s a familiar sight at the location of a tragedy or some other form of communal loss: The spontaneous altar. Candles, tokens, potions, holy cards, incense and other spiritual, ecclesiastical -- and often supernatural -- ephemera to express collective mourning or sorrow.

We’ve all seen these sidewalk memorials -- if not in person, certainly in news coverage: Tranquil, solemn, heartfelt and often colorful and uplifting tributes dedicated to the memory of celebrities who died unexpectedly or victims of senseless violence or simply to commemorate the closure of a beloved institution.

So it was bittersweet, and perhaps fittingly ironic, that such a shrine materialized, suddenly and surprisingly, in the final dog days of summer in front of a modest, unimposing storefront at the corner of Broad and St. Ann.

It’s a street corner dominated by the clubhouse, business offices and retail store of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, whose better known activities -- charitable outreach, parades, buck jumping and general revelry and celebration of New Orleans street life -- are a stark contrast to what went went on at 801 N. Broad, the location of the memorial: F&F Botanica Spiritual Supply.

On a stretch of road better known for second lines, wig shops, soul food, gas stations and bail bond shops, F&F was an off-the-radar and otherworldly respite from the day to day hustle of the city -- and the material world.

Therein lies the irony of the recent display at its front door: From a retail space the size of a typical Starbucks, F&F peddled candles, tokens, potions, holy cards, incense and other spiritual, ecclesiastical -- and often supernatural -- ephemera. The stuff of memorials, altars, tributes and well wishes.

If you’re a local, it’s likely that you either LOVED this place, or you’ve never heard of it until now. It was what would be called in the commercial milieu, a specialty boutique, to be sure.

To walk into F&F was to enter a quiet, softly lit cathedral of alchemy and enchantment where peace, romance, happiness, success, fortune and divinations of the mystical realm were packaged into wax candles, aerosol sprays, bath gels and floor wash and sold to mere mortals at bargain basement prices. Call it retail salvation. Shoe Town for the soul.

Botanica, as the shop was generally known peddled wares of a decidedly curious lot: Lucky # 13 candles, Saint Expedite medallions, “Keep Away Evil” air fresheners, Dr. David’s Famous Road Opener Spray and all manner of love potions, #1 through 9 and beyond.

I’m not making this up. That’s what Botanica sold. Hope, redemption and eternal love, at about $3.99 a pop.

The store was cramped and crowded with candles for any purpose and desire. Candles for the saints, for the astrological calendar, for grief, luck and good health. Bottles filled with miracles. Struggling with unrequited love? There’s a floor wax for that. Mix 1 part Love Stay solution with 4 parts water, apply liberally to wood, tile or linoleum floors and invite the target of your ardor to your home and once he or she crosses the threshold -- bingo!

On a losing streak and the Lions Club bingo night? There’s a candle for that, too. Or…..there was.

F&F shut down suddenly at the end of August, due to a sudden string of deaths in the Figueroa family, who operated the shop since its opening in 1983. It was stunning news to the shop’s remarkably diverse and fiercely loyal clientele of true believers, card readers, bone rollers, gift shoppers, culture vultures, hipsters, passersby looking for a better day and … my family.

My kids, they loved this place. Its exotic smells and spell-casting silence, its magic and mystery. Its promise of possibility.

You can’t find that at the mall.

They loved to browse the shelves, picking out candles that celebrated their birth signs, their favorite saints, their favorite colors and -- in the case of one of whom shall not be named -- candles to improve their grades at school.

Hey, whatever works, right? Burning a candle through the night while you sleep beats the hell out of cramming for an exam, right?

Hence, the memorial outside Botanica. A memorial comprised mostly of the products sold inside Botanica. A karmic tribute, to be sure. And the sign of a sad passing, another on the ever-growing and soul-crushing list of our city’s Ain’t Dere No Mores.

“Thank you for all the help and hope you provided when we needed it the most,” said an anonymous handwritten note outside the store amid the collection of tributes. “You will be missed.”

True Dat. In this city of tough luck, hard love and true romance; of lucky breaks and losing streaks; where the triumph of the human spirit renders all hope found -- we have all lost another friend. A guardian angel. A crazy little shop on Broad Street unlike any other.


 

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