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 that I only need to walk a few blocks to get to it, but also because of booksellers like Michael Zell, who interestingly, I first met while he worked at Octavia a dozen years ago. 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, and that inventory requires some information in order to be purchased. 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 stocking and “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.