Cavalier House Books, a new and used general trade bookstore in Denham Springs, La., opened in 2009, but its roots go back to 2005, when John Cavalier and his future wife Michelle Cavalier started supplying local elementary, middle, and high schools with required-reading titles while they were still students at Southeastern Louisiana University. At first, they filled their pickup truck with orders off of 18-wheelers on the highway because they were not allowed to deliver to residential homes, and they shipped books out of a 12-sq.-ft. shed in the backyard of John’s parent’s house in Denham Springs, a bedroom community across the river from Baton Rouge. “When things got busy, we would have palettes of books in the living room,” John said.
Since then, the Cavaliers have expanded their wholesaling business and seen their store grow to become one of the most prominent bookstores in Louisiana, despite facing numerous challenges. Those obstacles included a devastating flood in 2016, which damaged much of the town, including the Cavaliers’ home, the bookstore, and their warehouse.
Still, John said, 2020 was uniquely challenging. “We used to rely on school book fairs for a lot of our bookstore sales, and those didn’t happen, so we saw a drop of 40% for the year in the bookstore business.” The plunge was somewhat offset by an unexpected increase in sales to walk-in customers, as well as an explosion in online sales. As the year went on, John said, the store got much better at using social media marketing to drive online sales, and he was able to shift some school book sales online.
In 2018, the Cavaliers expanded into the distribution business. Following the closure of Forest Sales and Distributing, a book distributor outside New Orleans, they bought the company’s customer database and sales history and launched the Looziana Book Company, a wholesale and distribution company for local and regional titles.
“The wholesale and distribution business was really tough” in 2020, John said. “Many of the stores we sell to, particularly those in and around New Orleans, cater to tourists, and that business went off a cliff.”
Overall, John said, sales for Looziana were down 80% for the year. To help bolster the distribution business in 2021, the company has signed four distribution deals for popular, locally published indie titles, including What the Sleepy Animals Do at the Audubon Zoo by Grace Millsaps and Ryan Murphy, a perennial local bestseller
Another challenge of the past year was coping with the politics in the Cavaliers’ hometown, which is conservative. “It is so funny when I talk to colleagues from either coast about the things that they sell that are things we want to sell,” he said, “but we cannot because our customer base is vehemently opposed.” He cited last year’s surge in sales, elsewhere, of anti-racist books and Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. “We have people who will actively turn the books around when we put them on display,” he added.
John’s family goes back five generations in Denham Springs, and he said the biases of his neighbors has made him all the more determined to change their minds. “In a lot of ways our store exists just to counter that bias,” he added. “I want to be the opposite of that. I call it my cultural transformation strategy, as in a ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ sort of thing. I think for them it’s kind of like trying to unlearn riding a bike. But the more knowledge and empathy they have, the easier it will be to build bridges.”
John is also extending his civic-minded leadership to the larger bookselling community. In January, he started a one-year term as board president of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, where he plans to standardize and streamline some of the organization’s practices and work to make the group more inclusive. “Last year, we opened up SIBA to anyone from the region who wanted to join,” he said—so long as they have a professional interest in the book industry. “Which meant we went from some 350 members to nearly 700. That means we now represent a much broader swath of the bookselling community—from trade bookstores like my own, to specialty retailers, online booksellers, and pop-ups. The book business is evolving, and we need to be more welcoming of these nontraditional business models.”
This big-tent approach to bookselling is just what you would hope to hear from a man on a mission to make change.