Maple Street Book Shop, one of the oldest bookstores in New Orleans, will close at the end of 2015, its fifty-first year in business.
The first time I stepped into Maple Street Book Shop, I reeled with vertigo. The old shotgun house had a warped screen door whose bells jingled when you muscled it open (though you first had to pass the stuffed gorilla whose t-shirt changed every week or so, depending on the amount of rainfall). The floors sloped six inches from one side to the next. The building seemed to be cobbled together like a friendly version of a Frankenstein monster: each subsequent room more ramshackle, the floors creaking, posters decades’ old peeling from the walls, photographs tacked to every surface not claimed by books. Over there, a snapshot of longtime owner Rhoda Faust dancing with Peter Matthiessen. Next to the mystery novels, an annotated photo of the wedding party of William Styron’s daughter. Throughout, iconic images of Walker Percy.
The first room of the shop, where the fiction lived, slanted; you had to stand nearly nose to book spine with one leg braced to stop from sliding. (OK, I may exaggerate. Years of intimacy with this building have made it mythical in my mind). I thought I might be sick that first visit—trying to find my footing, overwhelmed and wanting to take everything in—but I couldn’t tear myself away.
And I didn’t. During my first years as a student at Loyola University, only several blocks away, I frequented this mecca whose booksellers I viewed as sages. They knew everything, didn’t they? They had been behind those counters for decades, pencils behind ears, quietly erudite but perennially welcoming. (Thank you, Rhoda, Carol, J. Michael, Cindy, Mary Allen, Jan and all the gang.) When I finally wrangled a job there, I spent my days feeling like I’d somehow duped Rhoda. I’m still in awe of my Maple Street colleagues (past and present); I’ll let the many writers who worked there out themselves, but I’ll say that the list includes at least one Orange Prize winner. Don’t tell any of my professors, but I studied harder for that job than for any exam I’d taken before or since.
Remember: these were the days before widespread Internet access, before smart devices, and the shop had no register of stock. You had to know not only the correct title (and author) of the book that the customer vaguely remembered, but also what section we might keep it in. We had to know—quickly, confidently—every book we had on hand. To check stock for reorder, J. Michael would print a long register receipt of books (titles only) we’d sold in the previous days. He’d holler them out to us while we ran around the rooms—no time for second-guessing. We answered the phone simply, “Bookshop,” because this, after all, was Maple Street.
Over the years, we’ve laughed with customers, listened to them when they hunted for a book to ease the pain of divorce or enhance their lives through the portal of fiction. From behind the counter and in the stacks with arms full of books, we made some of our best friends. We learned and educated, challenged and were challenged. We welcomed authors for autograph parties and when they stopped in to buy books.
When I heard the news that Gladin Scott, the current owner of the shop (which is next door to the original, where the Children’s Shop lived for many years), decided to close, I grieved first for those losing their livelihoods, second because no community should be without a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, and finally and with a lingering sadness, for myself.
I haven’t lived in New Orleans for more than ten years, and I stopped working for Maple Street in 2003. But some part of me will always be a Maple Street Book Shop employee. Every visit back feels like coming home. Kevin and I ended our first date there (he bought me Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair); we used his emergency parental credit card there more than once on books we couldn’t leave behind (sorry and thank you, Rodney and Wanda); I took the best naps of my life in the People Room in between reading the early novels of Ann Patchett; for a while, we lived two doors away from the shop with Mr. Frank’s house in between (we can still hear him playing that saxophone) and would wave at each other through the windows; when we weren’t working, we hung out there.
Percy, our Boston terrier (apologies to Walker Percy’s family), grew up in the stacks and loved to run from room to room after we’d locked the doors for the night. I still remember Carol’s favorites (she loved Dirt Music and Ahab’s Wife) and that J. Michael often gobbled his tuna “sammich” in the driveway before starting the day and that he made the best chili for our cold winter inventories. He, like so many who moved behind the Maple Street counter, knew every customer and every book they’d love.
I’m not telling most readers anything they don’t already know: community bookstores are not places simply to buy books. They are hubs, they are second homes, they are places to receive comfort, places of laughter and hope and revelation. Bookselling used to be a vocation—and the best booksellers know it still is. It’s a selfless offering of knowledge without ego but infused with enthusiasm. Just yesterday—on the other side of the world—we overheard an Avenue Bookstore browser say: “We’ve been overrun by chain stores. When you find an independent shop like this, you know it’s something special.”
Something special, indeed.
We can’t change what’s happening. After Christmas, we’ll farewell an institution and its booksellers. We can, though, give them hearty thank-yous. We can return their smiles and tell them our bookshop stories and what their recommendations meant to us. We can send them on their way with their coffers a little fuller and their spirits ready to offer their hard-earned knowledge in other ways as they continue fighting the stupids wherever they go.
Thank you, Maple Street Book Shop.
Click here to read more about Maple Street Book Shop’s illustrious history (with great photos). See even more beautiful photos of the shop from throughout the years here.
UPDATE January 2016: Great news! Maple Street Book Shop has announced that they intend to remain open through 2016 because of community support.