Bookish Diversion: In the Market
New Orleans’s Greatest Little Bookshop, Bookstore Safari, Buying Books on a Budget, More
¶ Big Easy, little shop. Is there anything better than a great bookshop? I’m currently wrapping up a trip to New Orleans with my wife. While here we stopped in at Faulkner House Books down Pirate’s Alley in the French Quarter, nextdoor to the giant basilica where Pope John Paul II visited in 1987.
The first time I shopped here was over fifteen years ago. I was with my friend Gabe. We scanned the carefully curated collection of Southern literature—first editions of Walker Percy, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner (naturally), and more. So many more—which is a miracle because it’s a Lilliputian place, just two small rooms.
After browsing it all and buying just some, Gabe and I got absinthe at a pirate-themed bar at the corner. When Meg and I returned over the weekend, I was amused to see the bar still going strong, though I was this time untempted by the green fairy. Books are more intoxicating anyway.
I enjoyed every moment of the browsing experience. I leafed through a few items at the front door, then moved to the poetry. I then moved in reverse alphabetical order through the main shelves, grabbing one title and then another as I moved.
I finally settled on four, pictured below: Lawerence Ferlinghetti’s Poetry as Insurgent Art, Joan Didion’s Last Interview, Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, and Yuval Taylor’s Zora and Langston, a book about Hurston and Hughes’s complicated friendship. If you object that the Ferlinghetti and Didion are Californian, not Southern, you’re right. But I’m thinking a lot about California these days.
While in the French Quarter, I also checked out Beckham’s Bookshop on Decatur and Dauphine Street Books, which—confusingly, amusingly—isn’t on Dauphine Street but rather on Chartres, where the store moved a couple of years back. Both are secondhand stores with decidedly dated inventories, but treasures await both the determined and the serendipitously inclined.
Dedicated browsers know for some stores an inverse relationship exists between neatness and the likelihood of discovering pearls. The more derelict the piles, the better the odds that, as writer and bookseller Marius Kociejowski says, “somewhere, in one of their nooks and crannies, there awaits a book that will ever so subtly alter one’s existence.”
I hope to make another such existential gamble and scope out Crescent City Books, also on Chartres, before I pack my bags.
¶ Tiny but mighty. I’m a fan of all kinds of bookstores, large, midsize, small. But I confess there’s a bit of Goldilocks in me. As you might have guessed from my enthusiasm for Faulkner House Books, I do relish a little “just right” bookstore. One of my favorites is Sundog Books in Seaside, Florida. I get there about once a year, and it’s always a high point of my visit.
A couple months ago I was in Charleston, South Carolina, and visited another small wonder, Blue Bicycle Books. I’d stopped in once before more than a decade ago now—also, as it happens, in conjunction with my friend Gabe—and loved their selection of new and used books.
On my recent visit, I picked up several Didion volumes and enjoyed browsing their display of pulp novels—something Stuart Kells would appreciate. The tagline on Thomas B. Dewey’s Room for Murder: “The Schoolteacher Was too Pretty to Live!” I was previously unaware of that liability.
I’ll share a couple more local favorites, both “just right,” at the bottom of the post.
¶ Updike knows.
Booksellers, you are the salt of the book world. You are on the front line where, while the author cowers in his opium den, you encounter—or “interface with,” as we say now—the rare and mysterious Americans who are willing to plunk down $25 for a book. Bookstores are lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods.
—John Updike, “The End of Authorship”
¶ On safari. ”There’s a unique kind of magic that comes from wandering through a bookstore,” writes. “Each shelf, a rainforest of stories and knowledge, invites me into a world of endless possibilities. . . . Here, amongst the rows of books, I’m not just a visitor; I’m an explorer, eagerly anticipating my next great reading adventure. This joy of discovery is what brings me back, time and time again.”
If that resonates, Scott offers nine tips “on navigating the labyrinth of bookstores, each with its own treasure trove of stories.” Check it out.
¶ What in the wide world of books?! For the very adventurous, BookRiot has curated a list of “19 of the Coolest Bookstores in the World.” You can shop spots in Portugal, Argentina, China, Wales, Mexico, South Korea, Greece—not to mention Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, and many more besides.
¶ Collecting books on a budget. While I have a nice collection, I’m not a collector. I have a much more utilitarian attitude about books; the couple thousand(ish) I own form a working library. But let’s say you want to collect rare books as an investment and you’re counting you dimes and dollars.
The good news is that there’s nothing mutually exclusive about frugality and fun. In his recent post, “Being a Bibliophile on a Budget,”shares several sensible strategies for purchasing books without hollowing out your purse.
Some people collect with future payoffs in mind. Rare bookmanoffers a cautionary tale and expert advice that might save you some grief and earn you a stack. But since investment of any sort is fundamentally speculative, Brown’s final note seems most important: “Collect what you like; enjoy the process; meet fellow travelers, both dealers and collectors; have a good time; spend what you can afford. We all live now; let the future take care of itself.”
¶ What about opening a bookstore of your own? A lot of readers and bookstore clientele dream of opening their own shop some day. I’ve passed many daydream hours in such reveries. Sadly, the economics are brutal. Writes Max Norman in the New Yorker,
The Internet dealt a major blow by creating a massive single market for used books, undercutting the bread-and-butter lower end of the secondhand market. Amazon, in turn, depressed the prices of new books. And then there are rising rents, which have devastated small businesses of all kinds.
Aside from that, it’s a cinch. But you never know: Sometimes in wild defiance of the odds the conditions are just right—as in Hobart, New York, which has just 400 residents and eight independent bookshops!
So, let’s say you want to buck the odds and give it a go. How much does it cost? Tons, according to Arvyn Cerézo, who details all the startup and operating expenses here, along with ancillary considerations such as location. Regarding the importance of that last point, one of my first jobs was working at a used bookshop in Roseville, California, called the Almost Perfect Bookstore. The savvy owner snatched up a place in the same shopping center as a major grocery store; it made it easy for shoppers to turn our store into a regular detour on the way to the produce aisle.
Bookseller John Byron Kuhner tells an inspiring story of making the dream work. He purchased Bookmarx Books in Steubenville, Ohio. Fittingly, he bought it on April Fool’s Day, but he’s building what sounds like a remarkable community around a remarkable shop. I wish gobs of luck—and even more customers—on him.
¶ Still, the cost is higher than you think—for all of us. One of the first depictions of a printing shop appears in a copy of the Danse Macabre printed in Lyons, France, by Mathias Huss in 1499. Such “dance of death” imagery reminded medieval readers of the universality of death; no one escapes. In this illustration, skeletons clutch the arms of a page designer, pressman, and—alas—bookseller displaying his wares.
Then again, as Kuhner says, “The great bookshops are . . . a kind of indication that the dead are not truly dead.”
¶ Ferlinghetti knows.
—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poetry as Insurgent Art
And now, as promised, two additional places to haunt: If you’re ever in my part of the country, I recommend the civilizing influence of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, and Landmark Booksellers about fifteen miles south in Franklin. There are treasures awaiting you in both.
¶ Your turn. What are your favorite bookstores? And let’s say your fellow readers here visit your town: Where should we stop and shop? Share in the comments.
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