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A Literary Ramble Through New Orleans

by John Sledge

Our first view of New Orleans came as we raced across the broad back of Lake Pontchartrain. Its crowded skyline glimmered in the late afternoon haze and from that distance it looked like any other major American city. As we drove in closer, however, through the outer suburbs and up and over the ugly industrial canal, the city began to display those exotic aspects of its character for which it is so famous--a historic brick church with arches, spires and stained glass windows crowded close to the raised interstate, rows of frame shotgun houses shoehorned onto tiny lots, their facades enlivened by elaborate sawn filigree work and flourishing palm and live oak trees.

We were running late for a dinner party at the home of our New Orleans’ hosts, however, and Frank wasn’t about to slow down for sightseeing. We hurtled deep into the town and exited. Frank knows New Orleans well, and in short order we arrived at our weekend headquarters, the home of Katherine Clark and Brandon Dorion. Katherine is a dear friend and an occasional reviewer for the Register’s Books page. Charming and elegant, she is an intellectual racehorse, with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in Southern literature from Emory. She teaches English at Dillard University and has written an acclaimed oral history of a black Alabama midwife, Motherwit (1991). She is currently at work on an oral biography of Mobile’s own Eugene Walter. Her husband, Brandon, is from an old New Orleans family and practices medicine. He is boyishly good-looking, a connoisseur of fine wine and deeply knowledgeable of New Orleans’ many attractions. They live uptown in an 1890s Victorian house, a block away from Audubon Park, and two blocks from St. Charles Avenue. Throughout our stay I was charmed by the periodic soft metallic clickety-click of the streetcars, faintly audible from inside the house.

The guests were already assembled, and welcomed us warmly. They included writer Tom Uskali, like Katherine a Harvard grad, his friend Charles Gillis, a developer with interests in the Bahamas, Don Noble, sans his trademark goatee, an English professor at the University of Alabama and the host of Alabama Public Television’s Bookmark; and his companion, Jennifer Horne, a poet, a former editor at Alabama Heritage magazine and now working at the University of Alabama Press. Tom and Charles live in New Orleans, while Don and Jennifer were in town to see the Degas exhibit.

Dinner was an enchanting candlelit affair with lots of good food and conversation. Brandon had prepared a heaping dish of jambalaya, and Tom had brought a deep bowl full of blueberry cobbler. Seated before these riches, our talk was free and easy. Plying forks we spoke of Hemingway, the Bahamas, Cuba, and academe and chuckled over our shared memories of Eugene Walter. Katherine related how she had once asked Eugene the difference between Mobile and New Orleans. "Darling," he had said, "Mobile is at sea level and New Orleans is below." Not satisfied with plain geographical fact, she pressed him for more. "New Orleans has more black magic," he finally declared, "Mobile has more white magic."

Don and Jennifer shared tales of their travels around the world to sites associated with Hemmingway. Don is an authority on the great American novelist, and is one of the founders of the International Hemmingway Society. His animated and passionate description of Hemmingway’s physical travails, war wounds, crash injuries and all the rest, was fascinating and moving.

Throughout the evening, general discussions with all participating would break off into smaller eddies of conversation among two or three guests-Tom and me on Gay Republicans, Don and Lynn on Kosovo, Frank and Jennifer on Eugene Walter, Charles and Katherine on publishing, Brandon and Charles and Tom on old times--which then swelled back into a hearty chorus with all talking together. It was an energetic and stimulating evening, with a love of books and writing at its core.

Before the party broke up, we compiled a list of bookstores to visit the following day. Well into the wee hours the guests departed and we stumbled reluctantly to bed. As I drifted into slumber, my last thoughts were of live oak trees and moss and water and starving poets and the clickety-click of streetcars in the humid air.

* * * * *

Morning dawned thundery and humid. Brandon and I took an early stroll through Audubon Park, green and muddy, after which the others were awake, dressed and ready for our explorations of the city’s bookstores. Our first stop was Maple Street Bookshop, not far from the Tulane campus. This store is housed in a somewhat fashionably down-at-the-heels shotgun house, its porch cluttered with literary posters and laminated articles about books and writers. Both Katherine and Frank are listed on a roll of "local authors" nailed to the property’s side fence. Throughout our weekend, in fact, I discovered to my delight that the New Orleans literati think of themselves as part of a pan-Gulf literary society. There is no condescension towards the authors in smaller communities along the littoral, like Mobile and Pensacola. Far from it: All are embraced and promoted.

Inside, Maple Street Bookshop is a wonderful warren of book jammed rooms, the shelves almost too tightly arranged to squeeze between. The owner was pressed and too busy to talk. "Call me later in the week," she said. As I turned away, I nearly bumped into a smiling Ellen Gilchrist, who was browsing the store with her grandson. Gilchrist divides her time between Arkansas and her native Mississippi Gulf Coast, where she typically spends the summers. We had a nice chat, and she expressed her pleasure at the Register’s coverage of her last book, "Flights of Angels." I asked her what she was working on now. "I’ve just finished a book," she replied, "a novella and five stories." She grinned and added that one of the tales "is a bitter, ugly story about Hollywood." She also raved about a new mystery writer she had found, Tony Hillerman. "These discoveries usually happen in summer," she said.

After departing Maple Street Bookshop, we drove over to Constantinople Street and picked up an old friend of Frank’s, Wade Welch, a native Alabamian "gone New Orleans," and a well-known cartoonist and illustrator in his adopted city. Wade had illustrated Frank’s novel a few years before and is himself the author/illustrator of an outrageously funny book of Louisiana anecdotes, Ballooning Alligators (1990). On our way out to the car, Wade regaled us with the true and fantastic tale: In 1858, as reported in the New Orleans Bee, a pair of daring aeronauts soared over the French Quarter astride live, eleven foot alligators suspended from balloons. This seems proof enough that New Orleans’ particular brand of lunacy is age old.

As thunder rumbled and a few raindrops spattered the ground, we made our way into the heart of the French Quarter to visit Faulkner House Books, located on Pirate’s Alley opposite the rear garden of St. Louis Cathedral. William Faulkner lived here during the 1920s, and ran with a crowd of poets and writers that included Sherwood Anderson. He wrote his first novel here in 1926, Soldier’s Pay. The store consists of one room with elegant, darkly stained wooden shelves from floor to high ceiling.

Inside, several patrons were clustered around the radio, listening to news of John Kennedy, Jr.’s crash at sea. The store’s owners had taken off for a weekend on the Alabama coast, so I talked to the clerk, a pleasant young woman named Anne Gisleson. "It’s a great job," she said. "I sit and read a lot of books." Faulkner House specializes in high quality, signed, first editions of Southern authors. Gisleson went on to inform me that Faulkner House enjoys a "very loyal client base from across the South." She indicated that the Internet was not a serious problem for Faulkner House Books, because most of their customers value the personal attention and camaraderie to be found in small bookstores. Before we departed, Frank and Wade signed a copy of Isle of Joy, which was on display. One of the owners of the store, Joseph DeSalvo, later e-mailed me some information about his business. According to DeSalvo, during 1998 Faulkner House Books sold 10,000 volumes and grossed $250,000. DeSalvo wrote that he expected a "moderate increase" this year. "I feel very lucky to be doing what I love most in the world," the message continued, "playing with books and making a good living at it."

Our last stop was Kaboom Books, located at 915 Barracks Street, opposite a small and somewhat scruffy city park. Kaboom is a secondhand bookshop owned by John Dillman, a former construction worker. Dillman has been in the used book business for over twenty years, and he holds court, there is no other way to describe it, from behind his cash register. "I enjoy the social friction of buying and selling books," he told me. Dillman’s store generates a great deal of friction with its 68,000 volumes on two and a half miles of shelving. The prices are hard to beat: half the current cover price "minus whatever flaws there are." Throughout our interview, Dillman fielded phone calls and inquiries from customers with an easy confidence. "My customers are uniformly intelligent and interesting," he declared at one point. His knowledge of literature is vast, and I would not be surprised if he has read everything in his store.

Everyone in our party found something wonderful in Kaboom: Frank the memoirs of Arthur Koestler, Brandon some Balzac, Lynn a trove of children’s books, Katherine a volume by native Mobilian William March with an introduction by none other than Allister Cooke (turns out March was one of his favorite authors), and myself some Henry James. Despite the low-budget surroundings, concrete floors and unpainted shelves, Kaboom Books and its garrulous proprietor hold infinite delights for the bibliophile.

* * * * *

By the end of our expedition, I was cheered that the flourishing independent book trade in New Orleans is yet another aspect of the city that breaks the American mould. As in the realms of food, music, and speech, New Orleans’ literary culture is a thing apart. The city’s small bookstores have survived by aggressively promoting local authors and bringing them in for readings and signings, and by offering a stirring brio of culture and "friction" not available on a computer screen or in a mall. The Crescent City’s independent bookstores are as much about civilization as they are about product. As with so much else in New Orleans, that is something worth celebrating.