|Kurt Zimmerman and Russell Desmond|
Memorable. The Big Easy is. I am in the middle of Bourbon Street at night, leaning over, elbows on knees, head down. Lined up next to me are five other middle-aged white guys in a similar stance. The man beside me is groaning, saying his bad left knee isn’t going to hold up much longer. A lively crowd surrounds us including our disconcerted wives. The smell of spilt beer and less amenable odors permeate the surroundings, the whole scene lit up by the neon glow of the Hustler Hollywood sign nearby.
Within a few moments there is a whoosh over my head and a lithe, athletic black man lands just past me. He has hurdled all six of us as the finale to a street show. He grins widely, shakes my hand, and thanks me for my participation. He and his other two cohorts have spent the previous minutes regaling us with gymnastic / break dancing moves, and energetic music blasting from a portable speaker. Their lead MC is a running comedy show. He pokes fun at racial stereotypes, extolling the crowd to cheer louder, all-the-while appealing for generous tips.
I am selected from the revved onlookers to participate in the finale by the MC who is looking for “rich, white guys.” He’s one for two in my case, but I’m rather tall and make the mistake of standing in the front row. The MC leads us in absurd dance moves before the mighty leap. I see a lot of phones recording. At the end, I tip the enterprising trio all the cash in my wallet totaling $12, confirming their poor choice (I spent most of my cash on books earlier). I make my way to my wife Nicole who is wiping tears of laughter from her eyes and still holding the book bag.
This is our anniversary trip to the Big Easy – the first visit for us to New Orleans as a couple (why did it take us almost twenty years?). More unexpected experiences await us including further pillage amongst a bevy of used bookstores.
Nature has never been kind to New Orleans, a city entirely below sea level, protected by a series of levies and massive drainage systems. The apocalyptic punch of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Ida in 2021 have left scars not easily healed, even for a city used to disruption. Yet as frayed as the region is the core remains, both in a physical sense and spirit. Recovery may be fragmented, but progress is steady and visible, benefiting from a generally strong economy and a post-pandemic urge for travel and adventure.
We stay in the Garden District in a funky hotel called Creole Gardens. The amenities are basic, but the place has atmosphere: old house divided up, high ceilings, fireplace showpieces, dentil mouldings with many layers of paint, creaky wood floors, colorful, quirky furnishings, the walls decorated with history including inscribed photographs of musicians who stayed there and / or played the adjoining music hall. I see a picture from the late seventies of a very young New Orleans native Harry Connick, Jr. and a couple of blues players. Who cares if our shower is a 3x3 stall, and the room heat is generated by an ancient space heater that could be featured in a public service announcement as a safety hazard?
The Garden District is magnificent to wander in, home to many astounding old-school mansions dating from the nineteenth century, most renovated, a few hanging on precariously. Parks, restaurants, sundry businesses, and Tulane University are interspersed throughout, and one must ride the famous St. Charles trolley cars to properly see the sites. Huge live oaks provide shade and atmosphere.
We eat at The Rum House on Magazine Street the first night, an irresistible mix of Caribbean fare and, naturally, rum-laden drinks. Nicole and I enjoy the ambiance and talk of book hunting the next day. This place is busy for a Monday night. We find that many of the restaurants require dinner reservations even during the early week. There remains a huge variety of dining options throughout New Orleans, many sporting upscale menus, any style of food you want from fancy French to gyro wraps. The irrepressible human urge to eat, drink, and mingle is on full display in the Big Easy, spare no dime, and damn to any pandemic slowdown! Uplifting to the spirit. Yet the dichotomy of America is full front here—we pass a tent city under the freeway on the way to a trendy eatery, suddenly emerging in a poor area with blue tarp covered roofs and rotted homes that abuts a street of brand-new townhomes under construction, a Porsche driver swerves deftly on a decaying street to avoid a mumbling, disheveled man pushing a shopping cart filled with his worldly goods.
We make our way the following morning to Blue Cypress Books on 8123 Oak Street in the Garden District. The first impression is clean, bright, and organized, almost too much for my taste but Nicole loves the attention to detail. A woman owns this shop, she says. And she’s right, owner Elizabeth Ahlquist established the store in 2008. This is not a rare book shop and most of the stock is newer used items with a focus on fiction, poetry, and local material. Nicole heads upstairs to architecture and I browse the extensive poetry section – not my usual focus but each store has a feel to it, and I know my hunting is limited here and the voice tells me to spend time with the poets. Indeed, I pull out four scarce Latin American titles. But my collecting of thirty-three years outruns my memory and I consult my Latin American catalogue on my phone. I already have three of them. At first momentary disappointment and then satisfaction with my earlier collecting self. Nicole’s hunt is more fruitful. Our total is enough at checkout to qualify us for not only a free store pen but also a handcrafted, purse-sized folding fan made from pages of a book.
Soon after, we inadvertently attend a wedding. We are in front of Faulkner House Books at 624 Pirate’s Alley in the French Quarter. A couple is standing outside the entryway to the bookstore saying their vows, surrounded by a small group of family and friends. The biblio-part of me wants to push past and enter the store but I know that would be bad form. In contrast, I observe Nicole having an awe moment. This softens me and I take her hand. The vows are completed, a kiss, brief clapping and cheering and a small batch of confetti is thrown over the two lovebirds, and the wedding party dissipates into the masses.
An employee of Faulkner House opens the door and looks out, allowing us to enter.
That was something, I said.
Happens a lot, he replies.
The shop is small, a selection of carefully curated used books focusing on fiction, with a nice display of Faulkner first editions and collectibles in the adjoining room, feeling more like an exhibition than a for sale. Faulkner lived here while he wrote his first novel Soldier’s Pay (1926). In 1988, retired attorney Joe DeSalvo, an admirer and collector of Faulkner and other southern writers, bought the building and opened the bookshop downstairs, while he and his wife Rose lived above. It has become a literary destination. Frankly, for general book hunting it is slim pickings because of the limited stock. But it is worth a visit, being just off Jackson Square and close to many sites. Around the corner, we have lunch at Finnegan’s Easy, a no-frill pub with a cozy courtyard in back, the tasty pub grub enhanced by a pint of local Gnarly Barley Peanut Butter Porter. The famous Pat O’Briens is across the street but too crowded.
Sporadic music spills out all around us, even in the day, smatterings of jazz, blues, and other styles echo through the narrow streets. A group of about ten young, carefree musicians play together on a corner for tips. Street shows of varying quality and palm readers in exotic dress tempt tourists in Jackson Square. The French Quarter still has it, that hard to define sensory experience which temporarily clears away the mundane and worry and opens the mind to a refreshing breeze.
Nicole looks at me in the pub courtyard and says the Voodoo Museum is around the corner. This is wife code for we are going, but I’m a willing participant.
The museum, located at 724 Dumaine Street was established in 1972. It is modest in size and consists of but a small entrance area and two rooms. Objects, paintings, and bric-a-brac abound, the yellowed exhibit labels surprisingly informative. The ubiquitous Tripadvisor guide neatly summarizes, “There’s just enough voodoo lore here to introduce you to the history and culture of this spiritual practice and to tempt you to bring home a love potion or voodoo doll as a souvenir.”
We did not succumb to a voodoo doll, although Nicole brandishes the idea, but we did each write out a wish and leave it at the museum shrine honoring Marie Laveau (1801-1881). Laveau was a famous practitioner of voodoo as well as other forms of Native American and African spiritualism. Altogether an enlightening experience for us, but you know what soon beckoned.
We enter Crescent City Books on the corner of Chartres and Bienville Streets. This is a fine store of modest size, established in 1992, with expansive shopfront windows that pull you in. The shelves are filled with a mix of well-selected and uncommon books, and a wall of older miscellaneous material that calls out to be scouted. Which I do. It is not often nowadays that one can simply handle an abundance of nineteenth century and earlier material in an open shop. However, I notice the manager eyeing me closely, observing my handling of the books. I’m on a book high. The smell and touch and atmosphere provide an invigorating refresh after voodooing.
I speak briefly with the manager, so briefly I don’t get his name. I compliment him on the establishment. He references my browsing.
I could tell you enjoyed that, he said.
Yes, I did. And I lit a virtual cigarette.
My actual finds however are in the Spanish section. I ferret out a Manuel Puig first edition and an early printing of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversacion en La Catedral. This two-volume work has a complex bibliographical history. To unravel it, I engage in a post-trip email exchange among fellow collectors, Bill Fisher, David Streitfeld, and Carlos Aguirre.
Time is winding on and Nicole is impatient having found nothing for herself. But there is Beckham’s Bookshop, another venerable New Orleans bookstore, only a two-minute walk away at 228 Decatur St. They have been selling used books in the French Quarter since 1967. The store rambles and has a patina. The stock is varied and relatively cheap, but much of it looks rode hard and put up wet, literally. A musty odor wafts strongly, strangely alluring to me, however. It is a time capsule of bookishness, a section of old glass front shelves running along the left wall upon entry, a stack upstairs of a remaindered title from the early 1960s, still seeking buyers, hopeful, but slowly disintegrating in the humid air. I go through the books about books section. Mostly a tired group, but one item comes home with me, an inscribed copy of my friend Kevin Graffagnino’s Only in Books (1996), presented to a Luana Jareczek, an uncommon name, but Kevin doesn’t recall the person offhand when I check in with him upon return.
That night is our anniversary, and we mix it up a bit, skipping the white tablecloth dinner for a meal at Mais Arepas, a Colombian restaurant near our hotel. The place is packed, and our hour wait time is filled by a visit to an Office Depot close by where I shop for a new office chair, sitting and spinning and leaning back in every floor model. I take photos of favorites to reference when we return home. Lest you think I’ve entered clueless man mode and dragged my wife there on a sentimental night, it was her idea, and she sat and spun with me. Efficient use of time, she said. Good for a laugh, one of countless we’ve shared.
The next day, Arcadian Books at 714 Orleans Street offers an experience in book hunting rarely met with--it’s dangerous, exciting, and overwhelming. The proprietor Russell Desmond opened the store in 1986. He sits squeezed into a small chair by the entrance greeting visitors, his stock of overflowing books about to push him out into the street. It’s as if he crammed the contents of a semi-truck into a VW Bug. Towers of precariously balanced books soar upward, the isles are narrow to non-existent, heaps of books filling every nook and cranny. One bump and an old folio could tumble and knock you out cold. If obesity statistics are to be believed, most Americans would not fit in here. This is tough hunting even for a grizzled book veteran.
I ask Russell the location of his books about books section. He points skyward and offers his chair to stand on. That’s how I reach them, he says. I use all my limited skill set including full extension and ninja balancing to pull a couple of volumes from a pile. I return to ground and inquire about his Spanish section. He hands me a flashlight and points me past a huge assemblage of French material. Russell is a Francophile and has always specialized in French books. I’m not claustrophobic by nature but I’m getting there quick.
I shine the light and root around, many books sprawled on the floor in front of crammed shelves. This is literally an archeological dig, and the deeper I go the older the stock gets. You could carbon date some of the stuff on the bottom. Russell’s own description of the shop as being “organized chaos” is optimistic.
I do unearth a couple of minor Spanish items and Nicole finds a book before retreating in self-defense. If anyone wants into an aisle, everyone else must shift. We chat with Russell as we pay. Echoing through the shop, two customers jokingly engage in a game of Marco! Polo! to find each other.
We have spent almost too much time at Arcadian Books and have to hustle to make our last excursion before we head home, a two-hour ride on a giant Mississippi steamboat paddle-wheeler. There is no better way to have fun with a thousand fellow tourists. We skip the optional meal and just enjoy the breeze from the top deck. The tour guide’s voice trumpets through the speakers as we leave the skyline of New Orleans behind. We pass two huge navy cargo ships anchored downstream, then the Ninth Ward neighborhood which suffered tremendously from the breached levy in Katrina, and the sprawling Domino Sugar Company, ancient and dilapidated in appearance but still in operation. The riverbank scenery takes a more natural turn. Music starts. The jazz trio Steamboat Stompers, mere feet from us, begin playing lively, well-crafted classics. They are an unexpected delight. Then a relative silence when the band takes a pause. I can hear the paddlewheels churning as we glide along, the wide river beckoning ahead, and for a moment, I’m Mark Twain.
Nicole gently squeezes my arm and breaks my imaginary meanderings. A deep breath, and I hug her. A fine wrap-up to a memorable trip.
You look happy, she says. And I am. We are.