Know Your NOLA

Lockdown literature: how NOLA bookstores are surviving COVID-19

Business closures across the country have gotten many people turning to e-commerce for all kinds of purchases. But if you’re in New Orleans and looking for something to read, there’s no reason to turn to the internet superstores for your next favorite book.

That’s because many New Orleans bookstores are finding ways to keep readers equipped with literature and connected with each other, even if they’re not quite ready to let customers step inside. 

“What makes a bookstore great in a community is it’s a gathering place, and now with the pandemic we can’t gather,” said Garner Robinson, co-owner of Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter.

While the store doesn’t yet have a firm timeline for reopening to customers, and will likely seek to limit the number of people who can browse the stacks at once, it’s already found a way to deliver reading matter people want. The bookstore has rolled out monthly subscription packs catered to individual tastes, based on a “dossier” built from a questionnaire submitted by interested customers and conversations with Faulkner House booksellers.

 

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“It’s been actually really nice now that we’re into our second month of it to see the repeat business,” said Robinson, explaining customers can also call to order individual selections if they prefer.

Many other bookstores around the city are also offering a mix of delivery, shipping and curbside pickup. Octavia Books in Uptown New Orleans is requiring customers to wear a mask and sanitize their hands, and for those who’d prefer not to physically come in, the store is offering free local delivery or shipping of orders of at least $25, as well as curbside pickup options. 

Blue Cypress Books, which offers a mix of secondhand and new books on Oak Street, reopened last weekend with similar hygiene policies and is also offering outdoor pickup. That includes letting customers pay via PayPal on their phones or by credit card. When the store was limited to pickup only, said owner Elizabeth Ahlquist, customers were roughly divided into those looking for literature focused on fictional or fictionalized diseases and those hoping for more unrelated fare. 

 

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Popular disease-related books included Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Ling Ma’s Severance, Geraldine Brooks’s medieval bubonic plague novel Year of Wonders and older classics like Albert Camus’s The Plague. Other readers have preferred TV-adapted bestsellers like Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and Normal People by Sally Rooney. Another popular escape has proven to be jigsaw puzzles, which quickly sold out after Ahlquist posted photos of them on Instagram.

“I was sold out of 200 puzzles in 48 hours,” she said. “I was crying at the end of it. It was exhausting.”

New Orleans-related books, fantasy and children’s lit have been big sellers at Frenchmen Art & Books, said owner David Zalkind, who took over the business last year. So far, the bookstore, which normally operates amid the jazz club scene on Frenchmen Street, is open by appointment only. It’s also offering shipping and delivery. Zalkind praised artist Josh Wingerter for drawing crowds back to the neighborhood by decorating the plywood protecting many closed businesses—“He deserves a few books from us,” Zalkind said—but said he’ll play it by ear as to let the public at large back into the business.

Tubby & Coo’s, the Mid City bookstore known for its selection of science fiction fantasy books, and board games, hasn’t yet opened the doors to customers, but it’s been delivering a host of online events that have proven popular. Streamed book recommendations, board game demos, storytimes and even online game nights have drawn a virtual crowd. Those events, as well as online author appearances, have even been pulling in customers from outside the New Orleans area. At least some of the online streams, which are generally accessible via social media and YouTube, are likely to continue even after the store reopens, said owner Candice Huber, who recently rebuilt the store’s website.

Bookshop
Tubby and Coo’s

“Of course, I’m working 80 times as hard,” said Huber, who named the store after her grandparents. “It’s been worth it to recreate our community and nerd feeling and recreate the Tubby & Coo’s experience online.”

Readers interested in buying a book can order for shipping, delivery or pickup, and if they’re not sure what they’re in the mood for, they can schedule a virtual browsing session with Huber. She’s happy to stroll through the store while videoconferencing with those looking for something to read. Some customers prefer to connect from home, while others schedule their appointments so they can browse from their cars or the sidewalk outside the store. Either way, once they pay, they can grab their books from the store porch without human contact, said Huber.

Another bookstore offering online events is Garden District Book Shop, which owner Britton Trice said is tentatively set to reopen its doors this week. It will also continue offering free delivery within a five-mile radius. On Thursday afternoons, the shop has been hosting virtual cocktail parties with authors and readers “talking about books or just anything really—what’s going on in New Orleans or life,” Trice said. It’s also joined forces with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance to host online author appearances. The store is also still offering its usual assortment of signed new books and Trice expects to continue digital events into the summer.

 

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Those who miss the mostly used book and print selection at Crescent City Books in the Central Business District should be able to visit the store as of May 25, with delivery or curbside pickup available for those who’d rather not browse in person, wrote manager Jason Moore in an email. Customers who do stop by will be able to browse and check-in with Wesley, the beloved bookstore cat.

“During the lockdown, I kept him at my house, and my girlfriend and I have had so much fun with him we are sad to bring him back to the store,” Moore wrote. “But he has an important job to do! It’s hard work being adorable, greeting customers at the door, accepting belly rubs, and walking across the cash register when I’m trying to ring in a sale.”