By Bennett Boyd Anderson III
The first thing one sees when entering the door of Blue Cypress Books is a small, handwritten sign taped to the door. In neatly written blue Sharpie, it reads: The cat goes in. The cat goes out. Rinse. Repeat. The cat itself is curled up on the floor beside the register, affecting not to notice our conversation. Only the twitching of its tail reveals that it is not, in fact, asleep.
“Oak Street was always it. I never looked anywhere else,” says Elizabeth Ahlquist, the establishment’s Pensacola-born founder and proprietress. “I live ten blocks away. There’s no other commercial quarter like it.”
The bookshop, an establishment of ten years now, is occupied without being crowded—and, considering the cramped corridors through which one must move to reach the back of the store, that’s a good thing. The lion’s share of the space is accorded, of course, to books. Most of the books are sorted and ready for sale, but here and there are stacks of volumes that have not yet been processed and sorted. The vast majority are used books that customers—acting, in this case, as sellers in their own right—have brought to sell or barter. January and February, says Ahlquist, form part of what she calls her “busy-buying season.”
“Remember this morning when you came in?” asks Ahlquist. “None of those were there.” She gestures at a stack of books nearly five feet tall, taking up another portion of hotly contested floor-space. “It’s a major clean-out time for people, and they’re also Marie-Kondo-ing me.”
Several times, Ahlquist pauses to answer the phone, entertaining queries from potential buyers and sellers alike—during which I survey the bookshelves. It isn’t my first time at Blue Cypress Books, but the inventory is a revolving door. Some titles I recognize as having been there for months, whereas others are evidently new. The greater part of the front room is dedicated to fiction, with handwritten cards indicating the proprietress’ favorite authors.
Ahlquist hangs up the phone and goes to help a customer who had called in earlier: a slim young man, visibly comfortable in his surroundings. “Do you read much poetry?” he asks me. After hesitating, I tell him I do—a falsehood, albeit a polite one. He proceeds to tell me about an excellent, aspiring New Orleanian poet, maintaining the charade for twenty seconds before admitting that the poet is none other than himself. Ahlquist opines that, self-promotion aside, his work is certainly worth reading. This comment cements my earlier suspicion: Blue Cypress Books may not have the sheer size of, say, Barnes & Noble, but the community engagement of the Oak Street staple is unmatched. Not only does Ahlquist address many patrons by name, but she evidently reads their work. This leads directly to my next point: A bookstore, I suggest, is surely much more than a bookstore.
She agrees. “Right, all the things that we’ve got our hands in . . . I don’t think people understand how much a bookstore works together with the community. There are so many schools that we all work with. Charities, organizations, fundraisers, author events that propel our city forward. Bookstores are involved in all of that.”
Any customer of Blue Cypress Books receives a bookmark with his or her purchase upon which the amount spent is recorded. Once fifty dollars is reached, the customer may receive a free book of under ten dollars in value. (I have three such bookmarks lying about my house, each one only partially filled; Ahlquist informs me that the record is twelve.) Z’otz, a local coffeehouse situated a block down the street, offers discounts for anybody with a Blue Cypress Books bookmark. I ask about this unusual, and admirable, act of community spirit.
“Oak Street underwent a massive renovation about eight years ago,” says Ahlquist. “It was months. We had zero traffic. And it was really tough for all of us, and that’s when we started to communicate better with each other. We all know each other. The way that we communicate with each other is really important to me, and that is definitely happening here on Oak Street.”
There’s no disputing that a coffeehouse and a bookstore have more in common than they might first appear. Both cater to populations of students, intellectuals and locals of all shades, and Oak Street draws in those groups like few other neighborhoods in New Orleans. And, as Ahlquist says, “We have a population of, what, like 475,000? I’d like to find a comparable town that has as many bookstores as we do. New Orleans is a literary community. It likes books. It enjoys reading. They like to read about themselves, they like to write about themselves.”
I thank Ahlquist for her time and cooperation, only remaining for one last query: How does the business fare during Mardi Gras? Do you notice anything different?
“No one’s ever asked me that,” says Ahlquist with a smile. “It is my worst time of the year. It’s garbage, and I’m not upset about it. I love Mardi Gras. But who’s reading on the route?”
If Mardi Gras really is the worst sales period of the year, what does the bookstore do to tide itself over?
“I close the shop down,” says Ahlquist, laughing. “I march, and I’m a part of a Mardi Gras Krewe—The Sirens of New Orleans. I totally embrace it.”