One of my favorite things to do in the French Quarter is to check out all the independent bookstores. With the moving of The Kitchen Witch, some wondered if these bookstores would shortly become a thing of the past. As Carey Beckham of Beckham’s Bookstore told me, “We could not possibly be here if we did not [own the space.]” Rising rents make it very difficult to stay afloat in an enterprise that probably fits more as a labor of love than a ludicrous profit machine. But most of these bookstores have been residing in the French Quarter for many years and one can expect bookstores to still be present in the French Quarter.
Each bookstore carries a different vibe and life. With different books and different specialties, they all have distinct personalities as well. Even the locations, so close, yet next to different areas in the French Quarter, attract different clientele. As Arcadian Books’ proprietor Russell Desmond would later tell me, “New Orleans is one of the few places where you do have a variety of shops in a small area.”
Crescent City Books
124 Baronne Street
Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Michael Allen Zell is the operating manager of Crescent City Books. Zell, who has been a bookseller since the ‘90s, is also an author. Crescent City Books is also the only in-state member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America.
The store, which opened in 1992, is a general used books store. Their large selection of maps and prints are all original and something they have that is extremely unique. Zell also offers to rewrap books with dust jackets of Mylar as a service. Their collection of books includes out of print books and second hand books not commonly found in Louisiana since there is a sister store in Boston, MA. Zell says Crescent City Books offers people “the joy of physically browsing a bookstore”.
Crescent City Books has a great collection of local fiction and history books as well. This includes Zell’s newest book, Run Baby Run. Crescent City Books is moving to the CBD this year.
228 Decatur St.
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Daily
“Exposure to books produces a certain enlargement of mind,” Carey Beckham told me during our conversation at Beckham’s Bookshop. Beckham’s is the oldest active bookstore in the French Quarter. The business has been residing in the French Quarter since 1967 and has been in its current location since 1979.. Beckham and Alton Cook are the two owners of the space.
Beckham’s is larger than the other bookstores in the French Quarter. They carry all kinds of books from history and fiction, to manuals on automotives and mechanics. When talking about their New Orleans and Louisiana history books collection, Beckham told me that “locally, a lot of value is placed on the collection of knowledge on the city [of New Orleans”.] For out-of-towners, Beckham told me a lot of them come for the classics, for writers like William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. He said, “People all over the world are familiar with Faulkner and [the book] The Confederacy of Dunces, so people come into town and they want to read it in English.” Cook told me, “People say, ‘Look, a real bookstore’ [all the time.] And we realize that they don’t have one where they are from.”
The duo also owns Librairie Books on 823 Chartres St.
Dauphine Street Books
410 Dauphine St.
Thursday-Tuesday 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
The owner of Dauphine Street Books is Steven Lacey, who has owned the property and bookstore for 21 years. When I walked into the bookstore, Lacey was listening to UNO’s radio station (the classical stream). You know when you’ve stumbled upon Dauphine Street Books due to their iconic sign and the box of books on sale that sits on the stairs outside.
Lacey is very proud of his literature and local history selection of books, as well as art books. While there is a large selection of books, Lacey says it is a “very careful selection, [I am] very selective”. The bookstore has a distinct look, with shelves close to each other and books stacked on the floor at times. Lacey says, “A lot of people do comment on the look of the store…people seem to like the stacks on the floor.”
Lacey has been in the business for over 40 years. He enjoys talking to his customers and often while we were talking, he’d mention a book or topic and then run around the corner to see if he still carried that title to show me. We ended up talking about topics from Cuba to Dorothy Allison and I left the bookstore with a longer booklist.
Faulkner House Books
624 Pirate’s Alley
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Daily
“A reader’s bookstore,” Manager Joanne Cealy told me about Faulkner House Books. The store has an uniqueness to it, being the house that William Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay. Faulkner House Books contains a fantastic collection of literature while also having rare editions and books, including those written about or by local literary legends such as Tennessee Williams and Faulkner himself. This collection of rare books, all in cabinets on the side room, is quite impressive.
Cealy says the bookstore has a great poetry collection and that they adhere to the rule that “a bookstore should be judged by its poetry collection”. They are the home of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, which holds events such as Words and Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans.
714 Orleans Ave.
Monday-Saturday 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Closed most Sundays, if open (11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.)
Russell Desmond is the proprietor of Arcadian Books. Desmond, who is the man responsible for the list and maps of books you can find at second hand bookstores throughout the French Quarter, has been in this location since 1986 (following a brief stint on Magazine Street). He sat behind a pile of books that rest on his desk while we talked.
Desmond, who was born and raised in Hammond, had spent time in France studying and ended up with an apprenticeship at a bookstore. He ended up back in New Orleans, owning and running Arcadian Books. He opened it wanting to have mostly French literature and Louisiana history (which he considers his specialties), but he does have other books that he calls “lagniappe”. Desmond is a fluent French speaker.
Desmond says the draw of owning a bookstore is “basically a question of sharing my obsession”. His collection of history books revolving around Louisiana is quite impressive (I picked up two books charting the early 19th century migration of people from Haiti to New Orleans.) Desmond perfectly summed up the beauty of browsing in a bookstore, telling me, “It’s not so much the book you’re looking for, but the one next to it.”