When moving to a new city, you need a roof over your head, a job to pay for that coverage, and a friend. Joe Miller was my fi rst friend in New Orleans.
I made his acquaintance the day I took the bus over from Mobile in 1989 to look for an apartment in the Quarter. I had just left the realtor and the address that would become my home in one month. Before catching the Greyhound back, my cocktail radar honed in to Joe’s French Quarter Wine Cellar at Dauphine and St. Peter, just down from the A&P Food Store. Inside was a friendly face and a self-serve box of blush wine at one dollar a pop—both eased my jitters.
I was not one for too much adventure, and moving away from my hometown for the fi rst time, by myself, was something akin to skydiving…without a parachute. Oh, it’s done all the time, and by those far younger than I was, but that didn’t diminish the fear and exhilaration I experienced. I was leaving behind my friends and family. So, there you have it—I was a wee bit anxious and feeling lonely before the move was even official.
Sipping my go-cup of pink libation, loosely referred to as wine, I was not yet aware that I had just made a friendship that twenty-four years later I would be writing about. A friendship that would grow and age along with everyone and everything surrounding this French Quarter corner.
For Joe, his store has been so much a part of his life. In fact, the building itself, a large two-story that takes up the entire corner, has been in his family since the end of World War I. For fi fty years, the shop space has sold libations, and it came under Joe’s wing in 1987 when he became sole proprietor. During his tenure over the past twenty-six years, the Quarter has seen many changes. Some have been for the betterment and preservation of this historic neighborhood, and some have simply scrubbed away its patina, diluted its soul. Well, not at Joe’s Wine Cellar!
Nothing much has changed inside except the graying of customers like myself. Some of the same dust that greeted me on that fi rst day still lingers. The wine-by-the-cup box of wine is gone, but a can of PBR is still priced like yesterday. While the inventory is properly rotated and updated with many prestigious wines and liquors, the ambiance of yesterday remains the same. Joe is an old-school shopkeep—he knows his customers by name, knows what they want, and genuinely cares about them. Beer-swilling ne’er-do-wells are treated with the same courtesy afforded the champagne crowd.
Remember when a store sold you a commodity, not a milieu? Joe could have invested in trendy trappings, but he chose to keep it simple and straightforward, adorned only with promotional posters from his beverage distributors. The original tile fl oors, high ceiling and old woodwork still remain to remind me of lost times.
When I met Joe, the Quarter still had the appearance and verve of a neighborhood—a functioning, self-sustaining niche of working-class families mixed with enough wealth and bohemians to make it interesting and vital. Old-timers would grouse about how much was gone, but in 1989 and even for the next several years (historically speaking, not that long ago), so much still remained of mid-century working-class sensibilities. And our Quarterites still outnumbered the tourists and weekenders (condo dwellers). The Characters were still in full force—folks that tilted to the left and made our daily lives less mundane. In fact, we your everyday working stiffs have become nearly extinct, as rents skyrocket and apartments sell at New York prices.
Maybe it’s the “it was just here but is slipping so fast, too fast, away from view, memory” that make this last lingering bit of homegrown slice-of-life of particular interest to me.
What does this have to do with a guy selling wine? A whole lot. The Joes of the Quarter keep it real, keep it family. I met Joe’s daughter, Amanda, when she was waist-high to me. Just as children measure their ever-growing height with a ruler and pencil mark on the wall, I have measured my years living in New Orleans against her until we became nose to nose. I watched as Joe, a divorced parent, fell in love with and married Lisa. Every New Year’s Eve, I’d see his mom, Theresa, roll up her sleeves and help him greet and sell cheer to tourists and neighbors. Simply put, Joe has always made me feel a part of his world, his family. Joe makes this a neighborhood. He doesn’t just take a profi t—he takes an interest.
Today Joe called and told me his store would close May 31 st .
By the time you read this, there will be no more open door, gossip and grog, hugs and “how ya doing”s. Joe’s dad (“my best friend,” Joe always called him) passed away, leaving family doings and interests to attend to. And Joe, being a family man, will take on these tasks and leave his shop to our memories. Thank you, Joe, for making this my home.