By the Book: How Independent Bookstores in New Orleans are More Than Just a Business

By Zoe Mosele

Vera Warren-Williams, Owner of the Community Book Center

When looking for a blend of culture and education, independent bookstores in New Orleans show a perfect mixture. An array of bookstores in the city come with their own niche, each one serving a different need or area. The independent bookstores in New Orleans created an intertwined community connected by a love for reading and dedication to the access of literature for New Orleanians. 

Two places in particular express this dedication: Community Book Center and Blue Cypress Bookstore. At their best, local bookstores bring more to a community than just a place to shop. “We’re more than a bookstore,” Ms. Vera said when opening a conversation about Community Book Center. Open since 1983, Community Book Center has been providing access to “a large selection of books by people of African descent and specialize in children’s books and literature. Ms. Vera believes if you catch children while they’re young and provide them with books they enjoy reading you’ll have lifelong readers. “We also host different events (pop-up shops, health events, promote used entrepreneurship.” Ms. Vera says the CBC was established because “in 1983 when I was a substitute teacher in the public school system there was a void in books that positively displayed African Americans, especially children. Because I had begun building my personal library I would bring my books to the classroom and share them. When I began to bring my books in it served as a reward system because once children saw books that reflected their culture and they wanted more.” The children’s section in the store is the first thing customers see when entering the store, it is impressive because it includes characters all children can relate to, local children’s authors are included as well. 

The Community Book Center struggled during the first month of the pandemic. “We shut down like everyone else in March last year. It was tough for us because we do not have an e-commerce website where people can shop online.” The store also had a break-in robbery last June, money was stolen and the front store window was left damaged. Due to the CBC’s strong community ties a Go Fund Me campaign allowed the store to raise money to repair the window and replace the money that was in the register. “In May after the murder of George Floyd, there was a big awakening to folk of the systemic racism African Americans have experienced and lived our whole lives.” Ms. Vera explained that “when folks saw this murder before their eyes it led them to learn more about race and race relation.” CBC saw customers making conscious decisions to support small businesses as well as independent Black-owned bookstores like Community Book Center.

CBC specializes in books, however, it is not necessarily a store “but a community resource.” “Most Black-owned bookstores serve different purposes than just a bookstore” Ms. Vera explained. When asked if she thought the center could be successful in another city she said, “Well, I would say that in the past there have been over 300 African-centered bookstores in the country. Numbers have declined from amazon’s presence affecting the average mom and pop businesses’ we’ve seen an increase in the opening of independent bookstores offering similar services throughout the community and the country. Having access to the information is beneficial to not only African Americans and youth but the wider community.” When customers come into the Community Book Center, they leave with not only a book but a conversation. “I think just NOLA in itself is a cultural center for African retentiveness and when you come here you get a full dose of the culture and the history. It goes beyond trying to sell books or products. It’s about education.” 

Blue Cypress feels like home and compact ideas just as dedicated to accessible education as CBC. From books on religion to local literature, there is something for everyone. The walls are lined with stories from authors from around the world along with stickers, quotes, and fun facts. The store is everything a bookstore should be, having a sense of familiarity as well as an opportunity to learn more. Blue Cypress is one hundred percent New Orleans, with a constant flow of jazz and blues music playing for readers to enjoy as they browse. 

Blue Cypress Books Store Front

LeeAnna Callon has managed Blue Cypress for 7 years, over half of the bookstore’s 12-year long existence. She is a firm believer in the power of literature and the power of New Orleans. The store’s location, on Oak Street, was chosen to serve a neighborhood without a bookstore, “specifically a used bookstore because it makes books available to people who are lower-income and it makes books easily accessible for everyone” LeeAnna said. She explained that each bookstore in the city caters to a distinctive style. “I think New Orleans is a really good example of a good independent bookstore community. We all are in different neighborhoods serving different niches.” LeeAnna often calls other stores, like Octavia Books, to refer customers when Blue Cypress does not have what they need. “It’s great that we all have our different kinds of areas” she explained. For Blue Cypress, “Used books are partially the niche because we are the only used bookstore in this area, outside the French Quarter. We are also a woman-owned and woman-run bookstore. We focus a lot on contemporary, literary fiction, local and we are the only place with a used children’s section.” To acquire their books, Blue Cypress trades or buys books they sell. When the store receives books they cannot sell (due to the book containing markings or not following the specific guidelines for Blue Cypress books) they donate them to “The Friends of the Library”. Every year (COVID-19 withstanding), the independent bookstores of New Orleans host an Independent Bookstore Day scavenger hunt where shoppers can go to different bookstores around the city to win prizes. “We also get together with a non-profit organization that most of the bookstores are part of called NOGSBA (New Orleans Gulf South Bookstore Association),” LeeAnna said. NOGSBA has a tent at Jazz Fest where books are sold to benefit literacy initiatives around the city. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, independent bookstores struggled to stay afloat. With readers relying on bigger online retailers like Amazon, independent bookstores received much less traction. LeeAnna said that in an independent bookstore Facebook group, she watched many stores and communities around the country wrestle with the recession. Blue Cypress, unlike Community Book Center, did not have this problem. “We’ve been super fortunate because our customers needed books so we had a ton of business at the early onset. One because people were stocking up on books and puzzles, we had so many puzzles.” LeeAnna said. “We had a wave at the holidays where people were very intently shopping local for their presents, the community has been very good to us”. When asked if she thinks the store could thrive in a different city LeeAnna said: “I like to think Elizabeth (owner) and I could have a successful bookstore anywhere if we did the same things like very intentionally picking this neighborhood, very intentionally picking the books that are in the shop. Elizabeth always says ‘New Orleans provides.’ It would not be the same. It might be harder.” 

  In a city dedicated to literature and diversity, local bookstores have joined together to allow New Orleanians greater access to an abundance of information from near and far. Blue Cypress and Community Book Center are just two of the many independent bookstores that call New Orleans home. Supporting these businesses leads to the success of not only the stores but the communities built around them, truly allowing them to thrive. 

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