Monday, February 25, 2008

New Orleans Booksellers Rebound

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 2/25/2008

Mardi Gras is a slow time for book sales,” admitted Tom Lowenburg, co-owner of Octavia Books in New Orleans, reflecting on a lackluster week earlier in February. “We saw a lot of our customers out on the street, but they're more interested in catching beads than buying books. So this year, we just closed up and gave our employees the day off.”

Ever since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the traditional Mardi Gras celebration has been downplayed, as organizers worried that parades and parties were in poor taste. But this year, festivities were back in full swing—and though the population of the city as a whole is down by a third from its pre-storm levels, having lost 150,000 of 450,000 people, and the bellwether restaurant business is down by an estimated 40%, bookselling has bounced back.

Donna Allen, for one, represents the new confidence post-Katrina. A former librarian and history teacher, Allen started working at the Maple Street Book Shop in 2006. Now she owns it, having bought it from Rhonda Faust last April.

“I feel people are more aware than ever of supporting local businesses especially in New Orleans, where it really matters,” said Allen. “Last year was our best year in the history of the store, and sales were up some 15% to 20%.”

Ted O'Brien, bookseller at the Garden District Book Shop, concurred. “Sales have been progressively better,” he said, adding, “It's nice to see the tourists come back... and not just the disaster tourists.”

In the years following Katrina, bookstores relied on sales to locals who were replenishing their libraries and got a big bump from the tremendous interest in Katrina-related tomes. “Now,” said Lowenburg of Octavia, “things seem to be back to normal.” He too reports that his store is experiencing year-on-year growth.

In all, Katrina led to the closing of three independent bookstores: Beaucoup Books and two locations of the Afro-American Book Stop; another, Kaboom Books, relocated to Houston.
DeVille Books in the Central Business District was completely flooded by Katrina, but reopened in December 2005. The store is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and is moving this month from a dark side street to a new storefront close to Canal Street, which borders the western edge of the French Quarter. The move will give the store greater access to tourist traffic.

“It's been an uphill battle since Katrina,” said Winter Randall, who took over as manager of the store in June 2006, “but we think the new location will be the missing piece and will help revive our name and reputation.”

The biggest vote of confidence in the New Orleans bookselling scene came when Borders announced it will open a new 24,000-sq-ft. store in the Garden District at the end of 2008, making it the first chain bookstore to open in the city center since BookStar closed a 12,000-square-foot store in the French Quarter in 2003. The new superstore will occupy the former Bultman Funeral Home on St. Charles Avenue, a historic landmark, having hosted funerals for Confederate president Jefferson Davis, actress Jayne Mansfield and Stan Rice, the husband of novelist Ann Rice, among others.

“I won't say we're not concerned,” said Lowenburg of Octavia, which along with the Garden District Book Shop and Maple Street Book Shop, will be close to the new Borders store. Instead of waiting to see what the impact on their sales might be, the indies already have a plan: under the auspices of the New Orleans Gulf South Book Sellers Association, they hope to launch a “buy local” awareness campaign once the chain opens.

“We're not going to try to smear Borders,” said DeVille's Randall. “Instead, we'll point out how great we indies are, and how much money we return back to the community, which is the most important thing of all.”

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