New Orleans has always been firmly cemented in the tradition of belles lettres. As with any grand city of rich history and outlandish customs, the town itself fuels the imaginations of readers and writers. It is the city that gave birth to Truman Capote and John Kennedy Toole, Anne Rice and Kate Chopin; it’s where William Faulkner turned to novels and cranked out Soldier’s Pay; and it inspired Lafcadio Hearn to taunt his colleagues in the Buckeye State. We have a Tennessee Williams Festival, for crying out loud.
Perhaps because of our deep literary roots, we have also held onto the tradition of holding our words in our hands – of reading real books, on real paper, transferred to our ownership by real people. We have also sustained the tradition of the privately owned neighborhood bookshop. Among many others, the Catholic Book Store in Carrollton, the Community Book Center in Gentilly, the Garden District Book Shop and Octavia Books Uptown and the Maple Street Book Shop in the University neighborhood (with new locations in St. Claude and Bayou St. John) are still peddling stories to the world, old-school style.
The Catholic Book Store has been selling faith-based books to the greater New Orleans area for nearly a century. The shop first opened on Baronne Street in the French Quarter in 1939, the brainchild of Miss Florence Henderson. “She got tired of writing to New York for books,” says Anne Komly, the store’s current manager. “She thought New Orleans should have its own Catholic bookstore.”
The store chugged along for 30 years, but in 1969 the building above it caught fire. The resulting water damage from the firefight ravaged the shop beyond repair, and Henderson had not obtained the type of insurance that would have compensated her for the damage.
After 30 years, Henderson had developed enough loyal clients that her customers eagerly came forward with funds to become a board of directors and reopen the store in a new location Uptown. It became the official bookstore for Notre Dame Seminary and an unofficial partner of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. “Anything Catholic, we have it,” says Komly. Even though Henderson had originally intended to carry only books, “Eventually, people wanted rosaries and crucifixes.”
After setting up shop in 1972 at 3003 South Carrollton Ave., the store lasted another 33 years before the next disaster struck; the structure flooded during Hurricane Katrina, compelling the board of directors to sell books and merchandise off the Notre Dame lawn for three years before reopening in the second floor of the same building. Now, the store has a designated children’s reading room, specialized sections on faith and divinity and a thorough library for seminarians, including back-issues of all required reading from the last several years.
Across town at 2523 Bayou Road, writers, poets, musicians and literati gather at the Community Book Center to talk shop and discuss literature. On any given day, you can find a random assortment of neighborhood fixtures reclining on the desk chairs and sofas around the conference table at the rear of the shop, jawing about books or whatever suits their fancy.
Surrounded by literature, visual art and clothing written, designed and constructed primarily by African and black American writers, artists and designers, owner Vera Warren-Williams hosts book signings, local author events, poetry readings and music lessons.
The Community Book Center began life 28 years ago (they celebrated their anniversary in October) in the Tremé, first on St. Claude at Ursulines avenues, then on North Broad Street. It then moved to the lower 9th Ward for a time before finally shifting to its current location in Gentilly in 2003. Then, in ’05, the store went underwater. “We took on two feet of water,” says Warren-Williams. “There was extensive roof damage. A lot of the building blew off.” After the tempest, it took Warren-Williams until ’07 to officially reopen.
It is now back to business as usual, and as the name of the shop implies, that business is community. “It’s such a wealth of resources here,” says Amari Johnson, who had stopped into the shop to shoot the breeze and strum guitar before playing a gig that night with his band, the BlackStar Bangas. “People are a bookstore’s greatest resource – artists, intellectuals, you get to meet great folks here.”
Two of New Orleans’ privately owned bookshops diverged from a single genesis. The Garden District Book Shop was once a part of the Maple Street Book Shop until the current owner, Britton Trice, bought out his former partner, Rhoda Faust, two decades ago. The shop itself, under the old name, opened almost 32 years ago at Prytania Street and Jackson Avenue and moved into The Rink, a former roller-skating rink renovated into a shopping complex at 2727 Prytania St., a little over two years ago.
“There are two walking tours that start from our shop every day,” says Trice, who also runs a small publishing company. “The neighborhood is an important part of our business, as is the tourism business.” He adds that the store’s particular draw is its collection of signed books – at any given time, he carries more than 500 copies of signed literature.
The predecessor of Garden District, the Maple Street Book Shop, has grown on its own since the buyout. Originally opened in 1964 by sisters Rhoda Norman and Mary Kellog, Faust (Kellog’s daughter) bought the company in ’70. Faust ran it until 2007 before selling to Donna Allen, the current owner. The original location at 7253 Maple St. became a gathering place for intellectuals during the ’70s, and now there are new- and used-book stores (in separate structures) next door to each other (the new bookstore is at 7259). According to manager Gladin Scott, Maple Street works with libraries and other bookstores to build their used collection. “DeVille Books was closing, and they had a wonderful both new and used books,” says Scott of a recent purchase; “we bought the entire collection.”
Maple Street has also since expanded to the New Orleans Healing Center at 2372 St. Claude Ave., and another location is scheduled to open in Bayou St. John at 3141 Ponce de Leon St. by December. “We’re ‘fighting the stupids’ as we go,” Allen quotes the store’s motto in a written statement about the new locations. She adds that the illiteracy rate in New Orleans is twice the national average.
Octavia Books, at 513 Octavia St., 11 years old this past September, is on the younger end of the spectrum of private bookshops. Owner Tom Lowenburg credits the store’s success to the dedication of his staff and the involvement of the community. “The independent bookstores as a whole, we all offer something that you can’t get at any kind of chain store – the kind of attention that you get, the selection of books that you get and the willingness to work with each individual that comes in.”
That person-to-person component has popped up at each local shop. “We have a great staff that are experienced at bookselling,” says Lowenburg.
“A lot of our staff has been in bookselling even longer than our bookstore has been around.”
Trice agrees. “Some of my employees have 10 to 15 years of bookselling experience,” he says. “When somebody comes into the store, they’re looking at 50 years of bookselling experience.”
And as for technology encroaching on hard copy sales? Well, the Catholic Book Store and Community Book Center are sitting pretty on specific products and loyal communities. Maple Street, Octavia and Garden District all sell electronic copy (except for Kindle, to which Amazon owns all rights), and can turn around orders for actual books within a matter of days.
So the Big Easy’s bookmongers certainly aren’t going anywhere. Even as Borders shut its doors and shipped out of town, locally owned, independently run bookstores are thriving, enjoying a place in New Orleans’ literary firmament.