“There is no knowledge that is not power.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Truth: I obtained the above adage in middle school because it was featured in the opening sequence to Mortal Kombat 3 for Super Nintendo. Despite my less-than-scholarly knowledge acquisition (or the fact that I know little of Emerson beyond that he authored this quote—thanks, Siri!), I am a voracious consumer of the written word. My reading habits, however, have changed over the past few years. I have found myself abandoning the printed page in favor of a fluorescent message board, devouring nightly Twitter captions while the books by my bedside accumulate dust.
As a result, reading no longer nourishes my mind as it once did: I now think in hashtags, emojis, and GIFs. I also can’t remember the last time I read an article past the first few paragraphs before leapfrogging to the next attention-ensnaring headline. In his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr highlights research revealing brain activity is very different when reading web pages compared to printed material. Online reading—with its asteroid storm of ads, live comments, and videos—is besieged by distractions, underutilizing mental regions associated with language, memory, and visual processing. Simply put, you are less likely to interpret and remember that which you read via the interwebs.
There are other downfalls to an intellectual diet of digital empty-calories. For starters, web writing (in addition to the #s and the squares) generally eschews verbal craftsmanship in favor of buzzwords to attract search engines and click bait. Second, you can’t trust that the information you are imbibing online is authentic. This past summer, Facebook proved its crusade to end “fake news” was a charade when founder Mark Zuckerberg defended not removing pages promoting the 9/11 truth movement and Holocaust denial because they don’t want to lose users (or, as he put it, excusing those who may not be “intentionally getting it wrong”…riiight). Still, nearly two-thirds of Americans get news from social media, particularly from Facebook. Most prominent publishing houses, on the other hand, put their bestsellers through a dissection squad of editors and legal experts ensuring the accuracy of presented information.
Finally, circling back to Emerson, is knowledge still power when everyone has access to it? It took me barely five minutes to learn Ralph Waldo Emerson’s career CliffsNotes from his Wikipedia bio and a handful of articles in a Google search. That said, there is sure to be more esoteric knowledge of his life lurking in the long-forgotten labyrinths of enlightenment spiraling through the inside of your local library or independent bookstore.
Unlike big-box stores and Amazon, which are governed by sales, algorithms, and paid promotion, New Orleans independent bookstores are treasure troves of rare, local, and carefully selected collections.
“Having curated my bookstore for the past 23 years, I know my merchandise inside and out,” says Steve Lacey, owner of Dauphine Street Books. “That’s something you won’t find at a big-box store.” Every other local store owner I spoke with echoed Lacey’s sentiment that it is their unique selection that sets them apart. “I’ve found a large growth of young readers these past few years yearning for a more authentic shopping experience,” says Russell Desmond, owner of Arcadiana Books & Prints. “My favorite customers are browsers. There’s a saying among us booksellers: ‘It’s not so much the book you are looking for as the one next to it.’”
Below are 10 of New Orleans’s independently owned bookstores, all with their own specialties, to help you discover that next great page-turner.
Arcadiana Books & Prints
714 Orleans St. | (504) 523-4138
“We specialize in Louisiana history and French-language books, with a large section of Louisiana authors,” says owner Russell Desmond. “Most of our books are secondhand. We have a large case of very antique books as well, including illustrations.”
228 Decatur St. | (504) 522-9875
“We are a general secondhand bookshop, with volumes in most areas of ordinary interest,” says Carey Beckham, who co-owns the shop with his partner Alton Cook. “We also maintain a section of new books on subjects relating to New Orleans history, as this is an area of constant interest, and it is hard to come by our demand secondhand. In addition to books, we also feature old map and art prints and have a record store, Man Ray Records, on our third floor that carries classic and popular albums.”
Blue Cypress Books
8126 Oak St. | (504) 352-0096
“We are the only secondhand seller in the city specializing in children’s books, which is something I am very proud of,” says Elizabeth Ahlquist, owner of Blue Cypress books. “We work with local schools, as well as providing a selection of home-school books for parents and Scholastic books with non-commercial tie-ins. We also have a carefully curated selection of secondhand books for adults in good condition, mostly contemporary fiction and science. We don’t necessarily have a broad range; however, what we do have is very selectively cherry-picked to cater to the tastes of our local clientele. Our new editions consist mainly of local New Orleans books.”
Crescent City Books
124 Baronne St. | (504) 524-4997
“We have more than 30,000 books, many dating back as early as the last half-century,” says manager Jason Moore. “We also have a large selection of surrealism, including literature and poetry from around the world. Additionally, Crescent City Books is famous for our cat Isabel, who has been featured in books and on Reuters and is the cover model for our store calendar.”
Dauphine Street Books
410 Dauphine St. | (504) 529-2333
“Our store primarily offers a selection of modern literature. However, we also have an impressive collection of jazz history, local and New Orleans fiction, and non-fiction, as well as African American history,” says owner Steve Lacey. “I’d say 95 percent of our books are secondhand—many out-of-print, all carefully curated.”
Faulkner House Books
624 Pirate Alley | (504) 524-2940
“Our store is located in the room where William Faulkner completed his first novel and began work on his second,” says employee Peter Webb. “As our name and history would suggest, we have a large section dedicated to Faulkner. We specialize in Southern writers and literary fiction of all kinds, including rare books, first editions, and some signed works. We feature mostly new editions—there’s no secondhand section—which are all very carefully curated by the store’s owners. We are a book-lover’s paradise.”
The French Library
3811 Magazine St. | (504) 267-3707
“We specialize in French books, primarily French children’s books,” says store manager Cristina Lamia. “We also have a selection for adults, including cultural guides and culinary and lifestyle books. We have a café in the back, including room for folks to relax and read, as well as a play area and crafts table for children. On Saturdays, the Alliance Française offers 'Petite Alliance,' a French language class for three- to five-year-olds; we also have story time in French once a week and a family storyteller presentation once a month. We are closed to the public on Sundays; however, the space is available for private events, including birthday parties, tea parties, and baby showers.”
Garden District Book Shop
2727 Prytania St. | (504) 895-2266
“We specialize in signed books,” says owner Britton Trice. “We have several hundred signed books in stock from both local and national authors and hold more than 80 book-signings each year here at our store. We have a small secondhand section, mostly comprised of signed, modern first editions and out-of-print books on New Orleans and Louisiana. We also have probably the largest selection of regional and New Orleans books in the city.”
Kitchen Witch Cookbooks
1452 N. Broad St. | (504) 528-8382
“There are only a handful of culinary book shops in the country,” says Debbie Lindsey, who co-owns Kitchen Witch with her partner and fellow Where Y’at contributor Phillipe LaMancusa. “We currently have roughly 10,000 cookbooks and food-and drink-related books. These range from vegan to venison, Asia to Alabama, rare to used, used to new, and out-of-print cookbooks from New Orleans and other Louisiana cities, including cookbooks from local restaurants and chefs no longer with us. We carry vintage and rare books as well. We’ve had collectors with a passion for Junior League and community cookbooks. If we don’t have it, we’ll do our best to help you find it.”
513 Octavia St. | (504) 899-7323
“We offer a broad selection of new books, particularly general fiction,” says Tom Lowenburg, who co-owns the Uptown store with his wife, Judith. “What truly sets us apart, however, are our author events. We host several, including signings, each week—typically three or four, but sometimes as many as two a day during the busier times of year.”