Despite natural disasters, a weak economy, and oil spills, about half of the Gulf Coast independent booksellers operating before Hurricane Katrina devastated the region remain open five years later, with varying degrees of success. Sales at Octavia Books, in New Orleans, spiked immediately when the store reopened less than six weeks after the storm shut down all commercial activity in the region. A loyal customer base and a jam-packed calendar of in-store author events has kept sales above 2005's figures and continuing to grow. Other booksellers have tweaked their business models to try to turn things around—upsizing, like Maple Street Books; downsizing, like Afro-American Book Stop (both in New Orleans); even shutting down its brick-and-mortar location altogether, like Pass Christian Books, in Mississippi. Some are determined to prevail doing business as usual, such as Faulkner House Books, located in New Orleans's French Quarter, which reports a 25%–30% drop in revenue since Katrina.
The decline in tourism and thus sales in the wake of Katrina and the recession have been exacerbated, of course, by the BP oil spill this past spring. Gulf Coast booksellers remain stubbornly optimistic in a better future, however, with half a dozen of the nine booksellers PW spoke to explaining, in a poignant twist, that what one called "the misery books''—fiction and nonfiction titles relating to Katrina, including City of Refuge by Tom Piazza (HarperCollins, 2008), Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (McSweeney's, 2009), Nine Lives by Dan Baum (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), and, most recently, Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Aug.)— remain bestsellers in their stores, thus boosting their bottom line.
Britton Trice, the owner of New Orleans' Garden District Books, says sales since 2005 have never reached pre-Katrina levels; 2008 was "one of the worst years in 30-some years" of selling books in the Crescent City, Trice says, with the recession driving away tourists. To remain viable, Trice has been reaching out to the visitors that do come to town by doing more off-site sales, including setting up a temporary bookstore inside New Orleans' Ernest Morial Convention Center when conventions are held there. This year, with more and bigger conventions coming to town than 2009, sales are picking up again. Trice is looking forward to the National Association of Realtors' Conference & Expo this fall, the second time more than 20,000 realtors have met in the Big Easy in the past five years.
Donna Allen, who bought 45-year-old Maple Street Books after the storm, describes her revenues as fluctuating since she took ownership, even though she has loyal customers and the store is within walking distance of two universities: Loyola and Tulane. Many professors at both institutions support the store by ordering their course books there. And sales went up, instead of down, after a Borders Bookstore opened three miles away in late 2008. "It's been a challenge, but so far, it's been good," Allen declares. "Everyone wants to support local businesses since the storm wiped out such a great deal of them. But people aren't spending what they used to."
Last August, after two other New Orleans independents—the separately owned Maple Street Children's and DeVille Books—closed down in the same week, Allen took action. She moved her store's inventory into Maple Street Children's larger space, adding her stock to the children's books already there and hiring Cindy Dike, previously Maple Street Children's owner, to manage the newly expanded children's book section. She also purchased DeVille's primarily used book inventory, which she then transferred to her original Maple Street Books space. Now, Allen owns two bookstores—one new, one used—next door to each other. "That helps bring in customers," she says. "Used books have taken off, primarily with students."
On the other side of the city, Michele Lewis owned two thriving bookstores specializing in African-American literature before Katrina wiped her out. After relocating for several months in 2006 to a space inside Beaucoup Books, Lewis moved out and suspended operations when Beaucoup's owner, Mary Price Dunbar, retired. Two years later, Lewis opened Afro-American Book Stop in New Orleans East, a middle-class African-American neighborhood that had been practically decimated by Katrina. "We had to start all over again," she says. "But I needed to feel as if I was getting my life back. I missed my store, I missed my customers. I decided to give it one more shot."
She admits it's been difficult selling books in a part of the city that's rebuilding more slowly than other sections. "I'm no longer in malls with great traffic, and I'm only one store now, so it's a big difference in sales," she says. "It's nowhere what it used to be." But Lewis is convinced that, despite the obstacles and while not making a profit yet, she will persevere as more residents move into the neighborhood and more schools open. She's starting to see a slow but steady growth in sales in 2010, particularly this summer, especially in children's books and urban fiction, and anticipates that Terry McMillan's sequel to Waiting to Exhale, Getting to Happy (Viking, Sept.), is going to be "a big book" at her store this season.
Like Lewis, Scott Naugle, co-owner of Pass Christian Books in Pass Christian, Miss., lost his store when it was completely destroyed by Katrina. But Pass Christian Books never stopped doing business: it just shifted operations online and rented venues to hold book signings by big names like Sen. Trent Lott, Carolyn Haines, George Thatcher, and Douglas Brinkley—resulting in record revenues in 2006 and 2007. Naugle opened a storefront five miles north of town in late 2006 and moved back downtown in 2009. This past spring, however, after his street was closed due to construction as Pass Christian continues to rebuild, Naugle gave up on maintaining a brick-and-mortar location. He intends to resume selling books online after relaunching his Web site (www.passchristianbooks.com) on October 1.
Naugle will continue to rent or partner with venues to host book signings, including one already scheduled this fall with Jesmyn Ward, author of Where the Line Bleeds (Agate/Bolden, 2008) and Grisham writer-in-residence at Ole Miss.
"One-third of the community has yet to return, and summer tourism has dissipated," Naugle says. "We have loyal customers, but daily in-store traffic never returned to pre-Katrina levels." He's going to keep going, he says, just as he did immediately after the storm. Besides Internet sales and setting up author events where he can sell books, Naugle intends to focus on institutional and corporate sales, as well as book clubs.
After closing down her second location in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan struck Alabama's coast, Karin Wilson, the third generation of a family that's owned Fairhope's Page & Palette Books for more than 40 years, reports that sales were up 6%–7% this year over last, until the BP oil spill made headlines and drove away tourists from Mobile Bay. Sales have dropped 11% in the past four months, with August's sales figures "trending even lower," she says. But with Greg Mortenson and Fannie Flagg visiting her store this fall, Wilson expects to reverse the downward trend in sales.
Ten miles west of Pass Christian, Bay Books, in Bay St. Louis, Miss., opened its doors a year after another bookstore, Bookends, was washed away by Katrina. "It's a shoestring operation," co-owner Kay Gough admits of the 1,000-square-foot space she and her son, Edward, opened by digging into their personal savings, wanting to participate in the town's retail recovery and fill the need for a local bookstore after the demise of Bookends. "It's a very small shop in a small town," she says. Paradoxically, while so many retail businesses on the Gulf Coast have been adversely affected by the BP oil spill, sales at Bay Books have risen substantially this summer over the spring, though the store has yet to make a profit. "We've been really busy the last two months, selling books about Katrina to a lot of people who want to have them, though they can't bring themselves to read them," Gough notes. Current bestsellers at the store include Under Surge, Under Siege: The Odyssey of Bay St. Louis and Katrina by Ellis Anderson (Univ. of Mississippi, June) and Rising from Katrina: How My Mississippi Hometown Lost It All and Found What Mattered by Kathleen Koch (John F. Blair, July).
Back in New Orleans, Tom Lowenburg, Octavia Books' owner, is confident that sales will grow, as customers continue to recover from Katrina and the economic downturn. His proof? The store sold 1,428 copies this summer of Coming Back Stronger by Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. Brees signed 1,350 copies of Coming Back Stronger in 90 minutes at a store signing on July 26.