My name is Claire McGovern, and I have a book-buying problem. I’ve been a bookworm for most of my life, and I usually have at least one book tucked into my bag. I’ve dabbled with reading on my phone, computer, and even the Kindle my sister broke when we were 14, but I’ve found that reading on a device just doesn’t compare to the satisfaction I get when reading a physical book. Turning a book’s pages, the feel of my favorite, worn-out book as I pull it from my shelf to reread it, the triumph of finally reading the last page of a novel—I love it all. Which may explain why I can never pass up a trip to a bookstore or library.
I stumbled upon Octavia Books during a trip to Magazine Street. Octavia Books is located near the corner of Octavia and Laurel Street; the bookstore is tucked away from the beaten path of Magazine Street and its small shops and restaurants, easily missed by those just passing through without a destination in mind. However, for the locals (or particularly book-driven, such as myself) who know of the store’s existence, Octavia Books is a local treasure.
When I first walked through the front door, I was met by soft folk music and marvelous displays filled with bestsellers and local authors’ newest works. Almost any novel you can think of is available at Octavia Books, with each genre and section blending seamlessly into the next. After I was finished marveling at this bibliophile’s paradise, I started my hunt for the newest additions to my bookshelf. Other customers with specific titles in mind need only approach the employees, waiting readily with a smile to help whomever may need guidance through the various shelves.
Recently, I returned to Octavia Books to talk with the owners, Tom and Judith Lowenburg, to learn more about the store and its place in Uptown New Orleans. A husband and wife duo, Tom and Judith have carefully selected each book available for purchase in their store since its opening in 2000.
I first sat down with Tom, who told me a little bit about the history of Octavia Books: “This building is a feature of the neighborhood; it’s been here for longer than any of us by a long shot. It was a corner grocery store that served the neighborhood for decades and decades, and the community would have grown up around it. It used to be on the Laurel Streetcar Line. Now, in different ways, we serve the community. We’re completely immersed within the community. Our direct mission is to provide a place where people can get books and bring together ideas, we bring authors to the city.”
The main demographic of the bookstore is mostly people in the neighborhood. “Our market is local people,” said Tom. “I mean, tourists come, and they hear about us, but it’s one of the interesting features about us that we’re able to focus on the core community because that’s who our customers are to begin with.” The bookstore has local authors in every section, and there is a distinct lack of tourist trap-esque items within the shop.
New Orleans is and always has been a city of authors: Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, just to name a few. “We are a forum for local authors, but we’ve probably also had a dozen or more Pulitzer Prize winners here. We had Stephen King at an offsite event with around 1,200 people,” something Tom mentioned to me with pride. Children’s authors also frequent Octavia Books. Judith curates the children’s section of the store.
Between opening the doors, talking to customers about books, ordering books, organizing in-store and out-of-store events, meeting with sales reps, going to conferences, going out into the community, trying to anticipate which books will fly off the shelves, and talking to customers, running a bookstore takes more work than meets the eye. Being such a welcomed part of the Uptown community certainly helps.
With their neighbor, Whole Foods, having been recently acquired by Amazon, I was interested in what this independent bookstore thinks about the online sales giant impacting their business and community. “They’re selling a commodity. They use books to lure people to purchase other things. They’ve done more damage to the book industry. To us, a book is more than something you’re bidding for the cheapest price on. When you come here, you’re getting a handpicked selection, and we’re providing a community you can walk into. Here, you probably learn something, and the exchange that you get with our staff, other customers, even authors who come here, you bound to bump into someone and have a serendipitous discovery. It’s important for people to have face-to-face contact. They also take more money out of the community than they put back in,” said Tom.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship. If you walk in and purchase something from us, that money is staying in the store. A lot of people think they go online and they purchase something here on their computer, but the money isn’t staying in-state. It’s going to headquarters. Although we do a lot of curating, the books we curate are based around the opinion of our community and ourselves,” interjected Judith.
Even with online book sales and the demanding tasks that go into keeping a bookstore running, I don’t think that Tom and Judith would change their bookstore for the world. “The most rewarding part about working at Octavia Books is putting a favorite book into a customer’s hands,” said Tom. “Mine is having a child in the store and putting a book into their hands and seeing their faces light up because someone found a book specially for them that they’re going to read,” said Judith.
Located at 513 Octavia Street, Octavia Books is a hidden gem for bookworms across New Orleans. I highly recommend that you stop by next time you find yourself on Magazine Street near Jefferson Street, or the next time you find yourself wishing you had something new to read. You’ll find me roaming around the store for a new read some time in the near future. If precedence is correct, my bookworm nature will make “the near future” sometime sooner rather than later.