Living Above the Store
In these days of telecommuting, when an Internet connection and a fax machine can free workers from the office, the pleasures of living where you work are becoming obvious to more and more people.
But in New Orleans, living in the same building as the family business has long been a well-accepted tradition.
Artist George Schmidt spent his childhood with his family at the Lauralee Guest House on St. Charles Avenue. “It was a self-contained neighborhood, functioned like a hotel, had its own climate almost,” Schmidt insists. “It would be impossible to do today.” He explains that living in the household, composed of family plus paying guests, “was a cultural consensus in those days.”
“There were students, retired people, the ladies might be widows, some older couples, a nice mix,” says Schmidt. “They had meals – breakfast and supper, no lunch. They all ate in this big dining room,” which connected two houses.
Besides occasionally sketching caricatures of the guests or playing with their pet cats, Schmidt, as the only resident child, made many friends. “One fellow gave me a sword that he had in the cavalry in the Spanish American War.” Thus armed, Schmidt “proceeded to cut down all the banana trees in the yard.”
Schmidt was treated kindly by guests. “They always encouraged you – and I was the only kid on the block.” And he could be a good audience: “This one lady would feed me dragées, sugar-coated almonds, and then tell me her whole life story. I was like a sounding board.”
As could be expected, Mardi Gras was great fun. “Oh, it was open house. Perfect strangers would walk in the place,” says Schmidt. Schmidt happily welcomes perfect strangers into his gallery, art studio and living quarters in today’s arts district on Julia Street.
“Living in your studio is more exciting than taking the streetcar downtown,” he admits. “When I wake up in the morning, I go to work.” Besides the convenience of not having to travel to paint, “I’ve got my gallery downstairs. When I finish a picture, I hang it up.” The painter Edgar Degas had a studio in his house, Schmidt notes.
“It’s an environment I always wanted to live in, and now I do.”
Joseph di Salvo, who now lives above Faulkner House Books in Pirates Alley in the French Quarter with his wife, decorator and journalist Rosemary James, has also achieved an ambition.
“I was a book collector, loved books, and always hoped that I would have a store in my later years.” di Salvo says. “When we realized this house was on the market, it seemed like the ideal spot and the ideal time.”
The building, in which William Faulkner had lived and written a novel, “had been empty for about 25 years,” di Salvo says. “The prior owner had converted it to apartments, and he decided he didn’t like being a landlord. I think he used it for storage, it was filled with antiques.”
A serious bookseller, di Salvo admits, “we’re open seven days a week from 10 o’clock to 6.” It is a grueling schedule. “Often in jest I say ‘I’m in retail jail.’”
Living over the shop brings other changes. “The major difference is that there is almost no separation between your personal life and your business life. People feel very comfortable dropping in on you,” di Salvo says, admitting, “that’s not a complaint, it’s OK.”
One result is a widened circle of acquaintances. “Customers, of course, do become friends. I’ve made some excellent friends through the business,” he notes, since “sharing a common interest makes a good basis for new friendships.”
He adds, “I’m lucky, too, in that I have a bookstore downstairs. Some nights, when I can’t sleep, I’ll come down to the bookstore and browse through things I haven’t read. The books are changing so frequently here, there’s always a stack of them I don’t know much about.”
While di Salvo came to live above the business later in life, he recalls that his grandparents had once lived in the building with the family grocery.
It had also been a tradition in the Maylie and Esparbe families to live above their Poydras Street restaurant, but no family members had lived there for a while until, when Ann Maylie Bruce was a child, her parents renovated one of the apartments above Maylie’s Restaurant and moved there from Napoleon Avenue. “My grandparents went berserk – ‘you can’t raise a child down there!’” Ms. Bruce says.
Even if she had to carpool to school Uptown, Bruce enjoyed her childhood on Poydras Street. “When we first moved down there, there were many apartments above little shops.” There were some older neighbors but no other children, and, she adds, “I could always hear the music from Rampart Street from the bar rooms. I remember that vividly.”
At times the street scene was exciting. “I had the balcony that was covered with wisteria – I could hide up there and nobody could see me.” On one evening, she explains, “ I was supposed to be studying the French Revolution. I was upstairs, at night, before air conditioning, and I was listening to the Lux Radio Theater.
“I heard all these voices. Something was happened. People were screaming and marching down the street in protest. I remember thinking ‘this is just like the French Revolution.’ I felt I was part of it!” Actually, she discovered the commotion was a strike by workers at the telephone company office across Poydras Street.
Another happy coincidence was Maylie’s Restaurant’s proximity to the Civic Theater. “I went to the opening night of every play with my mother. And, Mr. and Mrs. Roberts – he was the theater manager – would come to have dinner. They would bring me back with them, I could go backstage at intermission and meet everybody and they would take me back home when the play was over.”
Once, after a particularly stirring performance by Blackstone the Magician, Bruce returned home and tried to recreate one of the stunts by tying up a restaurant employee with tablecloths. “My mother had to cut them off of her, I clapped my hands like Blackstone but they didn’t untie.”
“Tennessee Williams, when he was in town, used to come to the restaurant and bring his grandfather. I got to meet him when I was young,” Ms. Bruce recalls. And, theater impresario Josh Logan premiered his Kind Sir at the Civic and knocked on the door late one night with a young friend, asking if they could have dinner.
Afterwards he wanted their picture taken by the giant wisteria vine that climbed to the balcony. He had written a play, The Wisteria Trees and “ he told us he had ours in mind,” Bruce says
Looking back on her childhood experience, Bruce says she wouldn’t have traded it for anything. “There was always some adventure for me, to see or do. Maybe that’s where I got my spirit of adventure!”