Stay Awhile: Running a Bookstore in the Digital Age

By Faye Daigle

On a crisp Tuesday afternoon, a couple approach Tubby and Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop and pause before its steps. It looks inoffensively residential with a small white porch and green glass windows. Brushing his fingers across his girlfriend’s tattooed back, the post-collegiate presses his other hand over his moustache in contemplation.

“Are you sure this is the right place? It looks like somebody’s home.”

“That’s because it is, babe.”

Tubby and Coo’s has certainly become home to many of the city’s “nerd folk” since its opening in 2014. The couple who enter the shop that afternoon are greeted with a small smile from the store’s owner, Candice Huber. A sixth-generation New Orleanian with an affinity for all things geek, she stands squarely behind the counter, flipping through the pages of one of the many graphic novels in her collection. For Candice, the shop is her life’s dream, rapidly realized over the span of a mere month. Upon signing the lease in May, she quit her job in July and opened the store in September of the same year. She describes this feat with a chuckle, adjusting the glasses on her nose.

“There’s no crazy story or anything. It’s like, ‘I’ve always wanted to do this’ and then one day I was like, ‘I think I’m really going to do it’, and then I did.”

Candice’s easy confidence seems to be one of the keys to understanding the mind of the twenty-first century bookseller. The book business was forever changed upon clever coups executed by online retail giant, Amazon. On paper, the company has every advantage over the local bookshops that persist in its wake. Millions of titles are available with a few clicks. The entire Harry Potter series can be delivered free to a buyer’s doorstep. Additionally many states, including Louisiana, don’t require Amazon to collect a sales tax. One would expect independent booksellers to be shaking in their oxford shoes. Uptown at Octavia Books, co-owner Tom Lowenburg unblinkingly recounts he had no fears about opening his bookstore with wife Judith Lafitte in 2000. Where Candice succeeds as a sunny optimist, Lowenburg runs Octavia as a stalwart businessman.

“We opened at a time when almost no one was opening independent bookstores. We didn’t stop long enough to be afraid. We knew it was a challenge, but that’s different than fear.”

Lowenburg views Amazon as a predator, hungry for monetary gain no matter the cost. On the other hand, independent businesses work to positively shape the infrastructures of their state economies and contribute to their areas’ local cultures. He rallies passionately against the company, insisting this “billion-pound gorilla” contributes very little to local economies.

“Are they creating anything for the state? No, they’re taking jobs away. On a national level, Trump talks about ‘draining the swamp’. Well, we live in a swamp, and it’s a healthy swamp that we live in. It’s a productive swamp in which many cultures grow. That’s what they’re trying to drain.”

Print literary tradition in New Orleans has long been a culture blossoming within the bookshops that treasure it. Marked by its open door and strong scent of peppermint, Blue Cypress Books on Oak Street was opened by Elizabeth Ahlquist in 2007 to provide affordable, used books to the common reader. A customer is guided through the shop by Kitty Meow, an unamused tabby who prefers to lounge somewhere between Art and Murder Mystery. Elizabeth rushes into Blue Cypress in a flurry, her cardigan flaring around her like a bird’s wings. She speaks rapidly, folding her legs to sit comfortably in her chair. Blue Cypress isn’t just pushing a product, she insists, but instead acts as a blazon for the city itself.

“It’s not just a book, you can click on a book. Locally, it represents something. This shop represents what New Orleans wants.”

What New Orleanians want, Elizabeth blurts, are, “things that are cheap.” With a faint blush coloring her cheeks, she elaborates that New Orleanians don’t mind things that have been used, that have history and texture. From post-Civil War writers such as George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin to modernists like William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, the literary world has long found New Orleans to be a source of great inspiration. Writers’ efforts combined with the social nature of New Orleanian readers themselves produce an environment ideal for gathering to produce and celebrate the written word. Like Elizabeth, Candice acknowledges the success of independent bookstores in New Orleans is, in part, due to the city’s large population of creatives.

“We’re a hotbed for creativity. New Orleans attracts a lot of creative people, and when you have a lot of creative people in one place, you also have those who want to help them create.”

Local indie bookstores play a unique role in the communities they serve.“We are so much more than a bookshop!” Tubby and Coo’s website cheers. From board game nights to information sessions on the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, the shop engages with both its loyal patrons and with the larger Mid-City community. This interaction sets local bookstores apart from corporate giants and online empires who would have their customers wandering aimlessly through stacks with overpriced coffees in hand or never closing the tab of their digital shopping carts. Big-box stores such as Barnes and Noble and the late Borders have suffered at the hand of internet retailers, but Candice is confident that independent bookstores have little to fear.

“There is an indie revolution because I will play games with my customers on Sundays and they’re my friends. That’s definitely better than something you’d get at a Barnes and Noble.”

Named after Candice’s grandparents who grew up two blocks away from the shop’s current location, Tubby and Coo’s has a heart that is evident in its very title. It is this heart, found in many independent and local bookstores, that attracts customers to the shop’s carefully-curated shelves and away from Amazon’s accessible allure. For Octavia Books, this sense of purpose emerged most strongly in the months following Hurricane Katrina. Lowenburg explains that while the storm took a great toll on the bookstore as it did the entire city, it also gave Octavia a chance to prove itself to New Orleans.

“We opened five weeks after Katrina.We said,‘We need to get our city back, and we are going to be a part of that.’ Barnes and Noble on Veterans Highway took five to six months to reopen. If those kinds of businesses ran the city, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Modern booksellers must possess a dedication to their local communities, as this is one their strongest advantages over online opponents. As a community within itself, uptown’s Oak Street is home to many retailers who work closely with one another to ensure mutual success. Several years ago, when the reconstruction of the streetcar line that runs past Oak closed off the street to traffic, store owners had to collaborate to raise sales. Blue Cypress joined forces with the quirky Z’otz Cafe two blocks down, coming up with the solution that a customer could show a Blue Cypress bookmark to the barista and get a discount on a Z’otz coffee. This solidarity is New Orleanian in essence, indicative of a culture of sharers and borrowers, friends and neighbors. Many customers recognize this in Blue Cypress and have become loyal customers over the past nine years. One of Elizabeth’s favorite things about owning the shop has been watching  local children grow up, moving from C.S. Lewis to J.D. Salinger.

“There’s a whole world in here. Not a family unless we talk a lot smack about them, but that’s what a real family is. If you’re mean to us, we’ll fuss, but if you’re lovely, we really like you.”

Shoppers who enter any of these bookshops gain highly personalized experiences, often connecting with shop owners and retail workers who know a lot about both their books and their buyers. Folding his hands in his lap and peering over a pair of wire spectacles, Lowenburg confides that Octavia runs on a system of careful curation.

“We don’t treat books like a commodity. We select them carefully for a specific audience. We don’t buy them from some distant location. We don’t pick them from some computer model.”

Though shrewd and business-oriented, Lowenburg can recall one source of inspiration with a twinkle in his eye. As a child, he and his friends typically went to the library to borrow books for school. However, one year for his grandmother’s birthday, Lowenburg got the idea to visit her favorite bookshop to buy her a present. A small yellow building that once housed a butcher shop, the Basement Bookshop lived on Zimple Street as a king of New Orleans literary life until its closing in 1982. Lowenburg recounts the kindness of the store owner, Tess Crager, as she guided him around the small shop.

“I remember still, she knew what to recommend, she knew the customer- my grandmother. I even still remember the name of the book, The Crystal Cave.”

Local bookstores don’t stop at customer-bookseller interaction. Connecting with other readers, over and beyond the pages of books, is one of the key goals of these small businesses. In New Orleans specifically, indie book shops work to preserve and expand layers of the city’s culture and interest groups. Tubby and Coo’s, for example, caters to those who would rather spend a New Orleans night discussing Anne Rice’s vampires than drinking until they themselves resemble the undead. Candice offers personal insight into the difficulties members of nerd culture encounter when attempting to find brick and mortar spots to engage with others without feeling the extreme social pressures of an opposing bar culture.

“As a post college geek who doesn’t drink, there is very little to do to meet other places in the city. A lot of the nerd folk I cater to are socially awkward or introverted, so I wanted to open a space where they would feel comfortable and be able to meet other like-minded people.”

She continues to tell the story of a couple who got engaged at one of her Sunday board game nights, the game’s creator spelling out the proposal to his delighted bride-to-be. Tubby and Coo’s is more than a self-proclaimed “nerd mecca”, it is a safe place for New Orleanians who have long struggled to find an arena for self-expression and connection. It prompts “nerd folk” who would typically feel most comfortable communicating with others online to experience in-person interactions with other fans who may be living in their own neighborhoods.

“As a kid, I was heavily bullied and found solace in the library. So, I wanted to give people a space where they could feel safe, where they wouldn’t be judged, and where they could just be themselves no matter how ‘weird’ they are.”

Though nostalgia is currently in vogue, it is the familiar comfort of local, indie bookstores that helps them open their doors each day. Each bookstore has drawn in groups of frequent buyers, locals who continue to buy local so as to keep these shops alive and well. A young woman stands huddled with her friends in Blue Cypress’ poetry section. Elizabeth looks on with a smile as they run their fingers across the shelves’ numerous spines. The woman clutches an Emily Dickinson collection to her chest and turns to the others with a dreamy sigh.  

“I love this place so much. You know how everyone has a ‘spot’? I think this is mine.”

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