How Should a Local Bookstore Be? — Community Forum at Octavia

Octavia Books owner Tom Lowenburg has taken the closing of the Borders Books on St. Charles as an impetus to invite the book-buying community to join an open discussion on what we want from our local independent bookstores. As a space that functions as a business, an event space, and a venue where people and ideas intersect and cross-pollenate, the independent bookstore has the opportunity to act as one of the most vibrant meeting places in any community. Insert your opinion on what purposes independent bookstores in general—not just Octavia—should serve in the New Orleans community. The event is Tuesday, March 22, at 6 p.m. Author and editor Michael Tisserand will moderate the discussion. Details here.

Room 220 caught up with Lowenburg last weekend to talk a bit about local bookselling and the event.

Room 220: I saw in the article about Borders closing, they quoted you as saying, “Small bnesses are the economic drivers in this city.” What exactly did you mean by that, and how does it apply specifically to independent bookstores?

Tom Lowenburg: When you buy from an independent business locally—whether it’s a bookstore or a restaurant or a hardware store—your money gets recirculated in the economy at a much more significant level than buying at a chain, big-box store. That’s been pretty well established. And fortunately New Orleans has not gone the way of a lot of other places that are almost ubiquitous with chain stores—not only have they lost their character, they’re also losing big time economically because people’s dollars are being taken out of their local economies. New Orleans has a long tradition of independent bookselling, which is not the case with big-box bookselling. That Borders store opened up on St. Charles Avenue just a little over two years ago. There was a bookstore in the French Quarter owned by Barnes and Noble a few years ago that didn’t last too long, they’re long since gone. We’ve lost some independents over the years, but right now across the country, and in New Orleans especially, there’s a kind of rediscovery of independent bookstores. The shine has long been off those big box stores, where the decisions being made about what to stock are being made in other cities and they treat books as a commodity. We treat them as something more than that.

Rm220: In what ways do you collaborate with other bookstores in the city?

TL: We have a little organization that’s been going for many years, the New Orleans Gulf South Booksellers Association. One of the things we do together is we run the book tent at the Jazz Festival—not as a profit enterprise, but to raise money that mostly goes into literacy programs that we support. We have worked together as cosponsors of Banned Book Week, an annual event for which we also work with the public library, the ACLU, and writers throughout the city. And we’ve done other things, other activities together with them. So that’s one way. Also, when Borders came to town, we set up an educational campaign together. We did a citywide celebration the same week they were opening, celebrating independent bookstores and offering special programs at every store in town. So we were showing them what we have to treasure in this city we were going to hold on to, and I’m happy to say that most of us are still here after that episode and plan to be here for a long time. We did lose a couple of independent bookstores during the last couple years, sadly.

Rm220: Which ones were those?

TL: Deville Books closed since Borders opened, and the children’s store that Maple Street had closed. Beaucoup Books closed after Borders announced that they were opening. It makes me sad that we have lost some, but on the other hand there are still many great stores. What I think that we should look at here is that the Borders closing is not a black eye for the city. It wasn’t a homegrown thing. We’re sorry for the loss of any venue for books and we certainly feel for the booksellers there that may be out of jobs for now, but from an economic point of view we know that when people can shop at independent bookstores their money is going to get recirculated, the independent bookstores were filling the need beforehand, and we’re committed to being here for the long term. So we’re going to have a forum to talk about what’s going on in the bookselling world. There are a lot of rumors out there—books aren’t going to disappear. We’re not going to follow the path of the recording industry. A bookstore is a great meeting place, and it’s a strength of a community to have independent bookstores.

Rm220: What ways do you think you might lead the discussion during the event you’re having about community bookstores?

TL: Well, I hope that people who come will be leaders of the discussion. We want, of course, our regular customers to come, but we want to invite people who have never been to our store to come—Borders customers who are looking for a new place—to discover us and we’re reaching out with a warm hand to welcome them onboard. Michael Tisserand has generously agreed to be a moderator and so we don’t want to have something where it’s the bookstore dominating the discussion, but we want to have a real community discussion. I’ll be there as a resource to answer questions if need be, but I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. That’s why we’re having this. It’s to talk about where we’re going and hopefully give people some assurance about what the future holds and to try to improve what we do. It’s a changing world and the places that will still be here are the ones that are listening to what the need is in the community and responding to it. So that’s what we’re doing.