Hard Times

Hurricane Katrina

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Excerpt from The Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy are Surviving and Thriving by Robert Spector, published September 2009 by Walker & Company. Copyright © 2009 by Robert Spector. Pick up a copy at your local bookstore and download an interview with Spector on NPR's Diane Rehm Show (http://wamu.org/programs/dr/09/09/14.php#27154).

Spector Book CoverTom Lowenburg and Judith Lafitte, owners of Octavia Books in New Orleans, have a keen understanding of the hope their store represented to the customers in their community. They learned it the hard way after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Before opening the twenty- five-hundred-square-foot store in 2000, Tom had worked for fifteen years for the nonprofit Alliance for Affordable Energy, which he cofounded "to challenge the local electric and gas utility companies who had made imprudent decisions that would unfairly drain billions of dollars from the local economy and to work to convince the utilities to invest in energy efficiency resources." His wife, Judith, worked as an office manager for an international construction company while she finished earning her college degree.

When asked if it was a little crazy to open an independent bookstore at a time when independent bookstores continued to struggle, Lowenburg responded with a smile. "Of course it's crazy. If people did things purely for calculated reasons, the world would be a lot less interesting place. In 2000, the American Booksellers Association said that there was just a handful of new bookstores opening in the United States. Many stores were closing, too, of course. Conventional wisdom said you couldn't do this. We had to prove that wrong. Also, we wanted to do something together. I didn't envision myself being here full-time, but that's how it turned out."

Once they decided to go forward with their plan, it took Lowenburg and Lafitte almost two years to open the store, which is located on a quiet block in the old Uptown residential neighborhood, near Magazine Street, one of the longest commercial streets in the country. It's a good location, not far from Tulane University, and about four miles from the French Quarter.

"When I grew up in this neighborhood, there were a lot of empty buildings on Magazine Street," said Lowenburg. "Now it's a hot, very vibrant area." Adding to the vibrancy is Octavia Books, which occupies a hundred- plus-year-old corner commercial building that had once been the stable for the Laurel Street streetcar line, and is now a lovely, bright retail space with high ceilings, exposed New Orleans hard-tan brick walls, a coffee bar, an outdoor courtyard and waterfall, a goldfish aquarium, and tropical plants. The store won Best of New Orleans Architecture honors from New Orleans magazine and a Golden Hammer award from the City of New Orleans. The remainder of the two- story building includes a yoga studio, bakery, judo school, and financial services company upstairs.

Like many aspiring booksellers, Judith was motivated by her love of books, particularly children's books. "Getting children's books, for me, is like Christmas every day," she said. "The fact that I get to read them before I put them on the shelf is exciting to me. I love spending time on the floor, hand- selling all the books I love."

Tom takes a pragmatic approach: "We try to be smart about running our business. There are no guarantees. When you're a small business, you have to be optimistic enough that you're going to be able to survive. We get more optimistic as we go along. If you only think of books as a commodity, then you are only competing on a dollar basis, and Borders and Barnes & Noble can beat us at that. We thought a lot about how we could make this a special place. We specialize in local books. We provide good service. We are very personal. We try to be excellent at what we do."

Like all New Orleanians, Tom and Judith have their own stories about how they dealt with Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating and deadly Atlantic hurricanes in history, which hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005.

"We initially evacuated north of Mobile, Alabama, where my mother lived," said Lowenburg. "We lost power there at the end of the week. Our cell phones didn't work very well because the circuits were overloaded and the cell towers were down, although we were able to text message. We heard from some people–who had not immediately evacuated the area–that the building looked OK from the outside. Our neighborhood did not flood because we're close to the Mississippi River, on a natural levee, on high ground. Even though the city looks flat, it's really bowl shaped."

Lowenburg and Lafitte, like everyone else, wanted to get back to New Orleans as soon as possible, but they were thwarted by Hurricane Rita, another Category Five storm, which hit Louisiana about four weeks after Katrina.

"I was so mad when I couldn't get into New Orleans in that window between the hurricanes," said Lowenburg. "I was not going to be stopped again after Hurricane Rita. We were able to go online and print out a business pass from the city," which would allow them to return. But as they approached the city, they faced a roadblock, with National Guard soldiers carrying automatic weapons. "They asked us why we had to come into the city. We said we had a business. They said they were only allowing essential businesses. I said, 'I have a bookstore.' They said, 'Make a U-turn, buddy.' We didn't make a U-turn; we made a left turn, and got in at the next location. If you were determined to get in, you could do it."

Tom and Judith were relieved to discover that "everything in the store was basically the way we left it," he said. "Even the goldfish in the courtyard fountain were swimming and living off of the mosquitoes that landed on the water. They were waiting for us to feed them their traditional fare. Other than a not-too-pleasant smell that came from the refrigerator, our house was in pretty good shape, relatively speaking. There was about forty inches of water in our basement, where we had our air-conditioning and heating equipment. A lot of papers were floating around in the basement. Our tile roof was badly damaged."

Six weeks after the storm, Octavia Books reopened.

"We did it because we thought that a bookstore is not just a mom & pop business," said Tom. "A bookstore is a special kind of business, where people meet and exchange ideas. It's a place where people can get inspired to do things. It's a building block for building the city back."

Judith described Octavia Books as "a place for people to feel comfortable talking about anything they like. We don't stifle any conversation in our store. We're noisier than a library. It's a nice community space. We see ourselves as a community meeting place. We have a very strong commitment to bring the city back. We didn't know if anyone was going to show up at first, but we knew it was important to get open, and to make the statement."

Tom and Judith were most heartened by the reaction from their customers when they reopened.

"We put together some makeshift signs around the neighborhood saying that we were now open, and I sent an e-mail to those on my customer list," said Tom. "People from all across the country were reading it. I got responses from people telling me their stories. The idea that a paradise for them would be here when they got back made a huge difference in their outlook. I got more response from that e-mail than from any I ever sent out. It was the warmest, most supportive, heartbreaking, thrilling response you could possibly imagine."

Octavia Books' reopening made a difference to even non-book readers. "A neighbor said she came into the store because there was no television reception and she couldn't rent a video. Her faith in the power of books was stronger than she ever imagined it would be."

After Hurricane Katrina, "the independent stores really brought the city back," said Lowenburg. "Barnes & Noble waited for six months before they reopened. I could have come up with plenty of reasons not to open, too. What do you do when you have people in other places without a commitment [to this area], making corporate decisions, waiting to see what was going to happen? We didn't have time to wait and see. People understand the local economy now better than before, because of what we've gone through. They are loyal to local companies."