Baldwin & Co. in New Orleans is a bookstore with a mission. “We want to eliminate mass incarceration through the promotion of literacy,” said owner DJ Johnson. The store, which opened in February 2021, has already established the Baldwin & Co. Foundation to achieve that goal, and, Johnson said, it has attracted the commitment of a “large initial donor” to get things started.

Johnson, 41, is a native of the Marigny neighborhood where the store is located. It was his dream, he said, to return home, after years working for the FDIC in Washington, D.C., and do something for the community. As a real estate investor, Johnson was able to “trade four green houses for one red hotel” and buy the building that houses Baldwin & Co.

The store is located at a busy intersection across from a Starbucks and a large, natural food grocery store, and a 20-minute walk from Jackson Square, the heart of the French Quarter. It has 2,400 sq. ft. of sales space with 10,000 titles. Shelves occupy the longest wall, which also features a much photographed, Instagrammable mural of James Baldwin, the store’s namesake, painted on books. Another wall features a mural of Langston Hughes and his poem “I, Too.” Baldwin & Co. also includes a soundproof podcast studio, available to rent; seating made from old school desks (which were all occupied on the July Friday morning we visited); and a café with pastries and specialty coffee drinks inspired by the names of Baldwin’s books—for example, the If Beale Street Could Talk comprises espresso, milk, cocoa, brown sugar, cinnamon, and cayenne.

Johnson professes a “growth mindset” and sees reading as a superpower. “I’m trying to convince the people who come here, especially the young people, to see reading as their entertainment, as well as a means of empowerment,” he said. As such, Baldwin & Co. focuses on Black authors and covers subjects ranging from literature—including all of James Baldwin’s work—to history, children’s books, and graphic novels. A sizable self-help section offers titles on money management and investing. “I have an MBA and believe the importance of learning to manage money properly cannot be overstated,” Johnson said. On the store’s page, the second category of recommended books is “books on real estate investing.”

Baldwin & Co. shares a large courtyard with another of Johnson’s businesses, the New Orleans Art Bar, which is also an art gallery, event venue (it hosts burlesque shows on Friday nights), and bookstore annex, offering remainders and hurts for sale. On the second floor of the bookstore is Baldwin & Co. Manor, an elegant, four bedroom, $1,500-per-night short-term rental property. Johnson hopes to also use the space for writer’s residencies. “We’ve already had Farrah Rochon, author of the Boyfriend Project series, come with a group and work for a week.”

Baldwin & Co. has also been hosting events and readings—sometimes offering free books and haircuts to entice people to attend—that often feature local authors, such as Maurice Carlos Ruffin, who appeared at the store this past week. An event on June 30 featuring Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of The 1619 Project, and professor Michael Erik Dyson drew more than 1,000 people. “We filled the store and the courtyard, and even had people spilling onto the sidewalk and into the street,” Johnson said. “We put up screens so people could watch the talk and speakers so people could listen. It was a real community event.”

In its short time, Baldwin & Co. has had a significant impact on the neighborhood and has become a destination for tourists. All the attention has attracted people who want to franchise the brand. “Not a week goes by without me getting a call about it,” Johnson said. For now, he added, he is wholly focused on further establishing the store and its nonprofit foundation. “Whatever success we’ve had is not because of me. Our success comes from my great team here, their hard work and dedication, and because of the community that has chosen to embrace us. I am very grateful.”