I wish I wish: Two opinions on Maple Street Bookstore’s closing

After reading the writer’s opinion/apology in the Advocate about losing Maple Street, I decided to add my opinion here. You can read his in the link that is at the bottom of this post. Here are my thoughts:

I loved the Maple Street store. In the 1980s, I traveled by streetcar up to it regularly from my downtown teen life. That store, along with Little Professor on Carrollton, DeVille’s on Carondelet (although frightening to find yourself the focus of George’s eye while there, as mocking might ensue), Doubleday and other chains on Canal and all of the used bookstores in the Quarter were my delights. In the Quarter, my favorites were Beckham’s for its quiet and its history section, Librairie’s well-organized criticism and anthology section, Matt’s biography section and Olive Tree (?) on Royal for the overall quality of books available. I remember the constant consternation of my best friend Roger Simonson about what he thought was the disgraceful amount of money I spent on the books that lined the walls of my tiny efficiency on Burgundy. He disapproved, but when I decided to move back to Ohio sometime later, he gamely helped me load and unload the 22 huge boxes of books I couldn’t bear to part with at the Amtrak station to ship them there the cheapest way.

But back to those browsing days Uptown: I would open the screen door at Maple and slowly make my way back through the rooms and sit with a pile of books somewhere, listening to the wisps of conversation that made it to where I was sitting. I remember being entirely happy sitting there, choosing what to buy that day and making a list of the others, silently promising to come back for them as if I were leading a rescue team. The store was full of pictures of authors sitting exactly where I was sitting and  were clearly pictures of friends and not just a laundry list of who’s who.
Yet, when I moved back to New Orleans in 2000, I was delighted to find Octavia Books and for many reasons, it became my bookstore rather than returning regularly to Maple Street again. Some of those reasons may have something to do with the announcement of Maple Street closing so I’ll share them here.

In my estimation all great bookstores do a few things. Here are what I believe they do, in no particular order and in no means meant to be a comprehensive list. Just mine.
•They go deep in a few areas. No “human-scaled” bookstore can do everything, and local stores should reflect the tastes of those who work in it and buy for it. If there is someone who appreciates children’s literature, the store should reflect that deep interest by carrying the best of and the unique and be able to handsell it. Which also means that they have an organizational and shelving system to go that deep.
•The stores are beautiful, peaceful and have great light.
•The staff is welcoming and chatty, but people-wise enough to know when to stop talking and just nod to you in passing.
•They offer new and used books.
•They do events that are varied and interesting and held often enough to remind their shoppers to check their calendar but not too often to lose the regular quiet found in a good bookstore.
•They get to know their best customers tastes and alert those customers about what has arrived.
•They value local authors and distributors and support them with prime space.
•They involve themselves in the activities of their town or their street, offering space or support whenever possible.
•They stay attuned to changing needs and trends, adapting themselves to those when necessary and not in opposition to their own values.
•Their location is accessible to many kinds of travelers and have hours that reflect the needs of their area.
•Browsers get the same courtesies that buyers receive.

By those measures, Octavia became my go-to store post 2000. They don’t do all of these things, but my experienced eye told me they hit most of them well. Maple Street, on the other hand, had fewer of these qualities but remained my cherished store upon my return since it had been my first own bookstore. I did make sure to frequent it faithfully, that is, until the expansion happened. I was excited when Maple Street expanded to Bayou St. John (although a bit taken aback at the choice of location) but dismayed when the other new location at The Healing Center also opened simultaneously. I went to both and found those locations lacking in most of the above, and really seemed more like airport kiosks than bookstores and not at all like the original Maple Street. And when I returned to the original, the shelves had less and the store seemed…small for the first time.

I have also added other stores to my new favorite Octavia, such as Crescent City Books on Chartres, (and had added Beth’s Books in the Marigny while it lasted) and appreciate Blue Cypress’ neat layout and constantly evolving inventory. CCB has become my favorite for many of the reasons listed above including I only need to walk a few blocks to get to it, but specifically, because of booksellers like Michael Zell who, interestingly enough used to work at Octavia. The list of booksellers at Octavia that I knew and know by name and have talked with on many subjects is so extensive I couldn’t list it here, but what’s important is that the list continues to be added to regularly over these 15 years.
Here is why: the main thing that great bookstores do is to employ and encourage book people to build a community. In all local businesses, this is the goal certainly, but it is vital in bookstores since much of the inventory is the same as the others. That inventory does require some information in order to be sold. Reviews and prior awareness of the author do help, but truly, the ability of a great bookseller to handsell the right item is the key to success, even if that only means “front facing” the best books to get the most views.
If I read every new book put out by Rebecca Solnit (which I do), then I can buy it anywhere. However, if one store’s staff calls out to me when I walk in, “Did you know Solnit has a new book out? It’s right there…” they are gonna get my business.
I don’t mean that every person should be known by face and list, but many should and the rest should be treated as if they are going to be on that list someday. And everyone who enters with the interest in finding a book or just wanting to be among books should feel welcome.

These type of store requires constant calibration in order to maintain the right scale, to find ways to create peaks of excitement and to increase levels of engagement with many tiers of customers. Unfortunately, Maple Street lost much of that intensive tinkering time with their expansion. And like many stores, they had already been hard hit by the online book-buying spike. The staff remained pleasant and chatty, but over time, seemed less familiar and less involved with the book community. The store was no longer bursting with book energy and authors coming and going but seemed increasingly forlorn on an embattled street of changing shops and harried students and construction. That sent a signal to those who desired a full experience or, put in other terms, the lack of or the loss of a winning personality is quite often a death blow to a local store. It’s unfortunate that the retail world now is so regularly changing that a few bad seasons can undo a beloved store, but it can and does often. Remember that as customers.
The good news is that bookselling still remains in local hands around town, and will as long as enough of us take the time on a hot Tuesday evening or a rainy Saturday to come by and buy something every once in a while, which in turn means that those inside have to be ready for whenever that time comes.

So, the final word is I will always miss Maple Street, but the truth is I was already missing it.

Source: Dennis Persica: I wish I would have gone to the Maple Street Bookshop more, now that it is closing | Opinion | The New Orleans Advocate — New Orleans, Louisiana

In New Orleans’ French Quarter, a cockatoo named Iko holds court 

Since my mom lives around the corner (and Fahy’s is a few doors down!) I have visited with Iko many times over the years. I stood next to BB during a parade at the corner a few years back and found her to be the consummate French Quarter resident: chatty, interested in the world and quirky, as it should be.

Behind the centuries-old bricks and shutters of the French Quarter are many lives that passersby cannot see. Any glimpse into a shadowy courtyard is a teaser. But there is one resident on Burgundy Street who beckons the outside world to take a longer look.

bonding versus bridging versus bug off

(I wrote this a few years back and always think of it during event season in New Orleans which is just beginning. If you go to the LPO, or a fundraiser at a private home, look for this behavior yourself to see if I am right.)

In many cases, hanging out in the French Quarter allows you to forge new relationships with people who you do not normally see like people from away, or rich folks, hustlers, delivery guys, strippers, musicians, artists. What is also true is that if you live there you can also engineer it to (purposefully) have little interaction with those unlike you.
I learn this when I go the events for the “haves” in the Quarter. Last night I attended the world premiere for 3 one-act plays of Tennessee Williams. The event was held at Southern Rep at the foot of Canal Street, high above the mean streets.
As I came in, an organizer asked me with a surprised note in their voice, ‘Oh, are you here for the world premiere?”
I answered in the affirmative with a smile that said of course you have to ask. They quickly recovered and all went swimmingly. Well, until I sat next to some people who gave me one of those thin smiles that say, “why, who you?” And then soon enough, they politely got up and  went to stand near other well-dressed people.
Maybe my taffeta rustled too loudly.
It is hopefully clear to you, dear reader that I am never well-dressed.

Don’t get me wrong-it wasn’t a wide empty swath around me, just chatty people known to each other who had little or no interest in actually making eye contact with those unknown.
And yet it was fun to listen and watch and not be “someone” or paired with someone who felt the need to nervously scan the room as they made innocuous talk as they realized they were standing back to back with Peggy Scott Laborde. That matters at TWLF by the way.
And I find some of those “haves” perfectly friendly who have made it to that group for good reason, through accomplishment.

Unfortunately though, they can also be one because they married it or bought it and then they wear it like armor.

In contrast, let’s see what the situation might be if you went to say, John Boutte’s show at dba Saturdays.
-The smiles are freely shared and if a regular has seen you more than once before somewhere it’s likely they will start a conversation to find out about you. Or if they are standing next to you, dancing to “At The Foot Of Canal Street.”  During the break and after the show, the musicians, including John, are hugging people, graciously meeting new converts and hanging about. The only thing off limits at those shows are the chairs that are commandeered as soon as the doors are opened. And the beer is excellent.
Chat or not, shared smiles notwithstanding, the TWLF world premiere food was good; the shrimp were only slightly flavored but the salmon was quite excellent. The champagne wasn’t the worst and they came to give more before we went in. All gratis, of course but you knew that.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when the taxi stopped here…”
“That one is my most intellectual child…”
“Is this the Village People?” (gay friend joke)
“I did not read the synopsis. I left my glasses in the car. That’s fine.”
“Hello you!” (tone was clearly one of “I have no idea of your name, but let’s kiss and hug in case we are good friends.”)

After the first 2 of the 3 short pieces about people who retreat into illusion when unable to deal with the ugliness of reality, the organizers made an announcement as intermission began that the champagne glasses HAD needed  to go back to the bartenders before the “curtain” had gone up and now those glasses were to be delivered home. With a note in their voice that said, seriously, they may start charging us for the extra time, so PLEASE bring the glasses back out to the bar…
…Finally, I watched the female bar staff person come in and scour the theater as quickly as she could for the orphaned glasses, orphaned by those now standing outside in small, select groups who did not and do not ever hear the call that they should hand their glass back.
Moving fast, you knew when she finished she would go home and get off her feet while we went back to see the last piece about fragile people who talk in poetic sentences.

Lucky people.

Short-term rentals not all bad and not the real issue: Letter to council

Dear Councilmembers,

I wanted to share my thoughts on short-term rentals and on rental rights as a whole, even though I am unable to make the hearing.

First, I am a long-time renter in the city. I have been paying rent to various landlords since 1981 in downtown neighborhoods. Most of that time, I lived in the Quarter or in Mid City, and still live in the Quarter, as do other family members, who also rent. I have lived in cheap places well tended by the owners and in places badly maintained, interestingly those have often not been cheap!

How does this relate to your current issue of regulating short-term rentals?

Well, as you all know, we have had this issue in the Quarter for the better part of 3 decades, since the condo craze took hold in the mid 1980s. That era pushed out the diversity of residents, especially along Burgundy and Dauphine and led to too many short-term time-shares and too many empty corridors, which in turn led to more crime. Besides the loss of low-income housing in the Quarter (which was quite a blow to our working neighbors), the condos themselves were not the issue or even the time-sharing; the problem was the quantity of them and the complete lack of oversight and regulations on those condo owners which led to abuse.

People coming and going for short periods is not the issue as I see it; the issue is how many of them are in any one block and the level of owner responsibility of that space. I can walk you through the Quarter (as could almost any resident) and point out the lack of controls on many by showing you the many key locks hanging from the gates and the trash bags put outside illegally Monday morning. Still, many others are very well maintained, have regular residents in them and keep staff on hand for maintenance and cleaning. As in all things, the proper balance is the goal.

So I get the issue with short-term rentals, I do. I want to see some controls put in place that are workable for our overstressed City Hall but also want to encourage more residents both short-term and long-term in every neighborhood. Because let’s remember that short-term renters turn into long-term residents and even when they remain short-term renters, can be a boon to local businesses and added “eyes on the street.” I personally use airbnb when traveling across the US and as a single female, appreciate the chance to be in a neighborhood, live among residents and easily and safely reach neighborhood amenities. While there, I pick up trash, talk to neighbors and do other things as a short-term neighbor just as I would in my own.

In my mind, there are 2 systems of short term rentals: the “blighters” who leave key locks for folks to pick up their keys (not doing it in-person), rent to anyone with a buck and have numbers of short-term rentals in one area. (By the way, this does include university housing at times, which must also be under any short-term rental system created.)

The other system is responsible renters and homeowners who rent or sublease their place for extra income and want to be responsible and welcoming. And that group seems to be a significant amount of those using airbn no matter which set of skewed data one is using to analyze it.

We need a system to oversee both groups, linked by one transparent website but one with more detail than the current airbnb system. I believe that New Orleans can create a site that works with airbnb’s system but asks for added levels of transparency. With a small fee system per listing, a small, part-time staff can operate as the admin persons for the site.

Here are some of the added levels I would suggest:

  • Only one log in would be allowed per SS# and would also require a local mailing address, email and local phone number. All listings would have to be connected to verified logins.
  • For multiple listings, an added fee of 8% per listing will be added and go to the administering of the site. The 1099 for the listings issued by airbnb would be required to make payment. If someone does not submit a 1099 and pay the fee, the system sets a 2500.00 fine per listing.
  • In order to gain a new listing, the admin would review and that decision would be based on the number already on that city block, the number offered by the lister already and registered complaints against that lister.
  • For anyone renting one listing within their primary residence, they would pay an annual 2% fee.
  • To get the lower rate, a physical inspection would suffice for year one and then the 1099 for that listing would be submitted in future years along with their assessment paperwork or personal lease.
  • There should be an added review system for neighbors with a delay mechanism for the administrator to check on the veracity of that review before listing.
  • Additionally, fines can be levied for scofflaws, including noise or trash non-compliance with photos and signed affidavits from the accusers required.

Let’s also use this moment to realize that the issue with rentals is so much bigger than the current issue with short-term rentals: the lack of controls on affordability, proper maintenance and legal requirements being followed have been an issue for generations.

Let’s think about this; how can we encourage better relationships between responsible renters and landlords?

why not pursue tax credits for owners willing to offer rent-controlled apartments on upper floors of Canal Street or in certain areas of the city where grateful renters can balance out the short-term rentals or no residents?

Why not an increased homestead exemption (or assessment lowered) for homeowners offering 12 month or longer leases for a period of years?

Why not create a Rental Court for lease registrations and where issues of maintenance can be brought to a commission or a mediator? Fees from use of the system can pay for this and the online site (mentioned above) can be folded into this one.

What about encouraging shared housing? Plenty of buildings underused that could be easily turned into efficiencies with shared kitchens, using tex credits and city planning to encourage owners to develop these.

Clearly, what I hope for is a reasoned and inclusive response to the rental issue and hope that those railing against one website do not win. If they win by “outlawing” airbnb, the system will just move underground with more scofflaws taking advantage and the responsible homeowners giving up on being good hosts and landlords, short or long term.


Jazz In The Park Thursday September 24

unnamed-14:00 to 5:00 Happy Hour featuring DJ and $3 beers & $5 mix drinks
5:00 to 6:15 The Free Agent Brass Band with Sudan Social Aide and Pleasure Club
6:15 to 6:30 Intermission Mixer featuring DJ RQAWAY
6:30 to 7:50 Russell Batiste and Friends featuring the Wild 
Tchoupitoulas Posse
7:50 to 8:05 Mixer DJ RQAWAT 

El Libre

I am loving living in the Quarter again with all of these great, small food places opening with caring owners and chefs on hand. Begone the cranky and overpriced run of the mill food and drink: bow down to Spitfire coffee, Meauxbar’s bistro, Cane and Table’s small plates, Vietnamese food at 9 Roses, authentic Cajun food and dancing with Mosquito Supper Club, traditional New Orleans cuisine at Kingfish (well, under opening chef Greg Sonnier that is- hope it is remains as good) and now Cuban food and cocktails. While you are there, look around and notice all of the lovely little shops selling handmade, local or beautiful items on Royal and Chartres. And for all of you who laugh behind your hands at all of the unfortunate crime news happening here (and everywhere), know that we are enjoying life and fun in the old city very well thank you.


Discussion: Making It in the Quarter: A Conversation with New Orleans Service Workers, Wednesday 6-8 pm

haiku about this evening:

Chris Owens club great
schmooze delay then dull talk why
humid walk home peeved

I appreciate the diversity of workers in the Quarter, but when organizing a talk about work and especially service workers, it’d be good to have people who have something to say about their nature of work in our city center. Author gave a good introduction, especially to his allegiance to the Quarter and to Bourbon, but in the short time I was there I didn’t get the impression that anyone understood what was being asked of them. Too bad- I had high hopes for the talk.

The multiple business owner was fine enough and seemed like the main person prepared to talk about what he did. The buggy driver gloried in her one note of being cynical about the city (“nothing’s gonna change ever”) which I can see is a useful mode for tips as a buggy persona but less so for discussion in front of locals interested in the topic of work. The waiter was quiet and seemed new to serving in the Quarter (and to being asked to talk frankly). And to listen to a concierge go on about the problem of crime and homelessness, lumping them together in her own ranting, suburban style was too much. Maybe she thought that was the point-if you don’t work, she doesn’t think you belong here. And that her international clients are important.

Couldn’t take anymore so didn’t even get to hear the gallery owners talk (neighbors of mine),  whose story seems interesting.

TL; DR: Too little free time to waste; back to work.

Source: Discussion: Making It in the Quarter: A Conversation with New Orleans Service Workers, Wednesday 6-8 pm