For the second time in just over three months, Maple Street Book Shop is about to lift the curtain on a new location in New Orleans, the city it’s served for almost 50 years. At the end of August, Maple Street opened a store in a downtown neighborhood still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, and this Saturday will see the soft opening of another location in the Bayou-St. Johns neighborhood.
“Right now, New Orleans is trying to rebuild itself,” said owner Donna Allen in a conversation with PW, “and there’s just so many opportunities to make the city great again, to make it what everyone wants it to be.” Allen, who bought Maple Street from founding owner Rhoda Faust in 2007, is not a stranger to expansion: she oversaw another in 2009, when she purchased the stock of recently shuttered De Ville Books & Prints (one of two New Orleans bookstores that closed the same week) and used it to open Maple Street Used & Rare, right next door to the main store. This year’s additions have been far more ambitious, taking Maple Street into neighborhoods that have gone years without bookstores.
The downtown location, in the St. Claude Ave. corridor on the border of the hard-hit Marigny and St. Roch neighborhoods, is part of a newly-opened multipurpose community space called The New Orleans Healing Center. Allen says she “wasn’t expecting much” of the Healing Center when its organizers first approached her in March, “but the moment I stepped through the doors, it was a done deal: I knew we had to move in there.” Originally a furniture company warehouse, the space underwent a $12 million renovation, and currently houses some 20 businesses (including the area’s first grocery store since the 2005 hurricane). Maple Street Book Shop at the Healing Center opened, along with more than a dozen other businesses, on August 28, the sixth anniversary of Katrina’s landfall.
It was just a few months later that Allen happened on an opportunity in another struggling neighborhood, Bayou St. John: “There wasn’t nearly as much [damage] there as there was around the Healing Center, but there was some damage, and I noticed a spot for sale that was just a perfect location for a neighborhood bookshop. We had to do a lot of construction on the interior, so we’ve been doing that for five or six straight months. I have a wonderful contractor, he’s putting on the finishing touches as we speak.” The Bayou St. John store will have its soft opening this Saturday, and its grand opening on the Saturday after that.
Each store will be individually stocked to reflect the interests and needs of the community, and they’ll each have their own events program (though they’ll all share one web address, www.maplestreetbookshop.com). The 2 new branches have "approximately 6,500 titles in stock and each will offer to special order any book that we don't have." Both "house a combination of new & used books" and will buy "gently used books" for cash or credit (credit accepted at all locations).
Allen reports, only a little guardedly, that the Healing Center location is doing well: “It will take a little bit of time for everyone to realize that it’s there, but so far I’m very pleased.” An international art show called Prospect 2 is currently drawing residents to the neighborhood, “so we’re getting a lot of people coming through because of that, people who live here in New Orleans but don’t know anything about what’s going on at the Healing Center.”
In the Bayou St. John neighborhood, Allen and staff will be “feeling our way” through the first few months, working to build a store that’s “totally neighborhood specific.”
“I personally think it’s very important that neighborhoods have small, independent bookstores,” said Allen. “Hopefully, the rest of the city will feel the same way.”