Glitter Box

Written at the start of 2020 when retail was doing its thing:

Anyone who has spent time in the Quarter knows that Royal Street has more than one face. Starting at Canal Street, the 100 to the 900 blocks are replete with glittering windows of goods, carriageways selling framed art, and even a few stately hotels with ornate entrances that offer a peek at plush interiors. The shops are famous for offering a wide set of items including antebellum Southern furniture, elaborate lighting, French kitchen items, Italian stationery, books, a wide variety of souvenir items, even a tiny grocery store.

Seeing it all at a human pace is aided by the pedestrian mall that Royal is transformed into between the 400 and 700 blocks from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Once the car traffic goes away, those blocks are crowded with street musicians, “poets for hire,” hustlers, unhoused folks, and painters using the ironwork of the St. Louis Cathedral’s back garden to show their items. Oh, it’s a scene.

However, once past the little Red Schoolhouse at the corner of St. Philip, the street quiets considerably. Like neighboring Bourbon Street, it then becomes mostly residential and therefore invites fewer tourists. For the curious who continue in that direction, there are many wonderful surprises to discover, including a tiny store in the 1100 block with a simple red and white sign: Glitter Box.

The first mention of a building at 1109 Royal in the Vieux Carre Digital Survey Database is in 1828, erected by the Company of Architects of the City of New Orleans. Here is Stanley Clisby’s description of the company and the block in his 1930s book,  Old New Orleans: A History of the Vieux Carré:

“STREET OF BALCONIES 1101-1141 Royal Street. Upon our return to Royal Street, our attention is instantly caught by the row of houses on the left-hand side of the thoroughfare and their balconies covered with cast-iron lace and twining vines growing from the flower boxes and pots that line the galleries. These houses were all erected at one time by the forerunner in New Orleans of what we now denominate homestead and building and loan association. This particular company, headed by Jules Mossy and operating under the name of La Compagnie des Architectes, purchased the entire site and in the winter of 1831-1832 built the houses and sold them individually at public auction.”

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, FQ resident and writer Darlene Fife identifies the shop as the “first natural foods store in New Orleans” when it was known as The Sunshine Workshop. In her memoir “Portraits From Memory: New Orleans in the Sixties,” Fife remembered that the store’s only books were by the Anthroposophic Society  which advocated “”spiritual science” theories developed by Rudolf Steiner and how the owner Michael Coby didn’t carry dairy products because he “could smell people who ate cheese.” Legendary Covington Farmers Market vendor Norma Jean Marcon remembered working at the store in the early 1970s and that she got the job because her astrological sign aligned with Colby’s. She remembers it as a great era.

The address’s cavalcade of characters also included “Mr. Joe” a licensed embalmer at Thorp-Sontheimer-Laudumiey Funeral Home who was also active in the Vieux Carre Commission. His children, Jonathan and Romany, grew up there, no doubt roaming the French Quarter as happy little pirates. From his online memorial: “Mr. Joe” became a French Quarter personality. Everyone knew him and loved him; his ‘white balcony’ at 1109 Royal St. has been seen in many films.”

Honoring the building’s colorful history, the current operator Glitter Box at 1109 Royal packs a lot in its 800ish square feet: it offers unique gifts, art, apparel, printed materials, and health and wellness items presented artfully and with approachable price points. All items are made exclusively by women and femme-identified Gulf Coast artists living and working from Texas to Florida. GB also creates items in collaboration with Women with A Vision that supports WWAV’s work with previously incarcerated women under the Glitter Box Goods brand and acts as an education and community resource center.  For example, the shop is a community outpost for Reproductive Justice Action Collective (ReJAC), which distributes free and by-donation emergency contraception through community partners and a network of community support members in the greater New Orleans area.

A collaborative nature

The GB brand was unveiled at the location in 2017 after spending a few years as the Foundation Gallery, which had a related but wider mission of supporting regional artists and was also funded by the Heymann Foundation. Co-founder Alice McGillicuddy was behind the idea to change it to Glitter Box, adding maker events, and building its artist roster, all ideas enthusiastically supported by co-founder Lila Heymann. The change came from both women’s desire to support a wider range of artists and promote intersectional feminism, becoming more of an approachable community space than a traditional art gallery.

When the shop is open, two floor-to-ceiling windows on Royal show off its colorful displays, but its entrance through the courtyard to the right confounds many, even with the a-frame sign next to it, inviting people in. When its white shutters are closed, it is almost impossible to notice. 

Curator and manager Kate McCurdy is originally from New York City and has been in New Orleans for seven years.  She says, “this gallery is why I live in New Orleans; It has a supportive nature, a collaborative nature.” McCurdy started out by hosting Craft Nights, where the events range from knitting circles to Carnival headdress workshops which, because of McGillicuddy’s reputation as a movie prop fabricator, were well-attended from the start.

McCurdy is always seeking new types of products for the shop and working with the artists to source materials as locally as possible and encouraging eco-friendly packaging and materials. Fairtrade sourcing is also suggested when the artist is using materials from outside of the U.S., and McCurdy has been thinking about how to help the gallery’s artists with building fair wage jobs when they get to that level. It’s something she has some experience with as she was one of the founders of the Lucky Art Fair which centers on the philosophy of fair pay for artists.

Currently, there are around 150 artists represented in the shop with some of the items sold through consignment.  McCurdy gets 2-3 emails a week from artists inquiring about space, and does her best to direct artists to resources like the Fab Lab at Delgado which has free access to laser cutters, CNC routers (used for cutting plastic, model foam or other soft materials), a vinyl cutter, 3D printers, and more.

“The idea is to give them (artists) whatever support we can.”

Glitter Box also created the “Babes In Business” map and online directory, to encourage support of women-owned businesses across the city. The online directory features over 500 women-owned businesses and is searchable and divided by business type. The Glitter Box also holds a wide selection of workshops and community events like their new book club and donates a percentage of total sales every month to worthy non-profits and community groups. Since opening in 2017, they have donated over $40,000 to organizations like Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response (STAR), Planned Parenthood Gulf South, BreakOUT!, and NOLA Women & Children’s Shelter.

Everyone connected to the shop packs a lot of community into their day:

Lila Heymann: Owner & Co-Founder. Heymann has been recently working to become a licensed social worker while currently living in Charlottesville VA, although often back home in Louisiana working on the family foundation. The Foundation was founded to honor the family’s deep roots in Lafayette as business leaders: The Heymann’s Department Store was opened in downtown Lafayette by Maurice Heymann in 1916, and was a full-scale retail store, remaining in business downtown until the mid- 1980s. Uncle Maurice Heymann developed the present Oil Center in 1960 into a major retail, professional, and medical office facility that remains the nerve center of business in Lafayette.

Alice McGillicuddy: Co-Founder & Curator.  McGillicuddy is focusing on her doula career, now in Scotland. McGillicuddy worked as a prop fabricator in television and movie projects and on installations including the well-loved Music Box Village originally in City Park,  now in its permanent home at the end of North Rampart at the Industrial Canal.

Kate McCurdy: Shop Manager & Curator, Her latest side venture is the Lucky Art Fair, an event showcasing unrepresented artists working in New Orleans, where the goal is to fairly pay artists and art workers. McCurdy is also involved with Ladies in the Arts New Orleans (a networking group for all kinds of creative womxn), and the Krewe of Full Bush.

Karin Curley: Content and Marketing Coordinator. Curley also works for local non-profit festivals such as French Quarter Fest and Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo and also manages marketing for GinaWare Costumes and Clothing, a monthly and pop-up shop in Mid City which features recycled and vintage clothing, costumes, and costume pieces and parts for men and women. 

Neisha Johnson: Glitter Box Goods Designer and Production Assistant. Neisha was originally brought on to the team through Glitter Box’s partnership with Women With A Vision. She created a poem and design called Beauty of My Struggles which she silkscreens onto t-shirts and tote bags, along with other designs from the Glitter Box Goods in-house line. Her design represents the personal strength she discovered and leaned on to pull herself through dark times in her life, and acts as a promise to herself to never settle for less.

Jillian Desirée Oliveras: Shop Assistant. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Jillian made New Orleans home post-Hurricane Maria in 2017. Jillian, a photographer, joined the shop as another way to connect to the local community outside of her bartender profession.

With its multitude of items and educational purpose focused on female entrepreneurs and community health, Glitter Box is a great argument for a long walk through the Quarter the next time that you are in need of a few gifts or just some inspiration.

I wrote this in 2020 for an online site where I had published similar stories but these were never finished by the editor; all of them will instead be published here.