Nearly two months after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and with an estimated 60,000 barrels of oil pouring daily into the Gulf of Mexico, the full scope of the damage—ecological, economic, cultural—will take years to assess. But as the spill spreads east along the coast, from Louisiana to Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, some Gulf Coast booksellers are already feeling the impact of the nation’s worst oil spill.
Tom Lowenburg of New Orleans’ Octavia Books emphasized that the spill was “not just a local disaster,” and that its effects would be “hemispheric,” since area estuaries and wetlands shelter everything from microorganisms to fish, turtles, and birds, and serve as a breeding area for most of the Gulf. “This is the most fertile reproductive area for the entire Gulf of Mexico," Lowenburg said. "It’s a stab to the womb. And when they cap the oil, it’s still not over. We’re talking about a long-term national disaster.”
People in New Orleans as elsewhere are “very, very angry,” he said. While Octavia has not felt a “direct, measurable effect on business,” Lowenburg said he didn’t count on that continuing. “We don’t know the full scope of the spill. It’s un-circumscribed, but we know that the impact is going to be profound. Not anything as direct as Katrina, but the overall long-term consequences of this may be greater.”
The 150-year-old P&J Oyster Company “just shut its doors,” he said. “They employed a couple hundred people. Whether it’s permanent or not, we just don’t know.”
Oil hasn't reached the beaches in Fairhope, Alabama, but area residents are “definitely nervous,” said Page & Palette owner Karin Wilson, and business is off. “We were down 11 percent in May, and that’s just from lost bookings in the area. Summer is a big tourist time for us.”
Wilson said concern about the spill dominates conversations, and there is worry that media saturation on the topic would further decrease business. “Everyone’s still open for business…. It would be great if people would come down and support us, especially given what we’re going through.”
Wilson said that Page & Palette continues to host a full calendar of events and is catering to the locals. But locals, said Wilson “do not have the disposable income to spend in our store as they normally would.”
Kay Gough of Bay Books said that while the oil hasn’t made landfall in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, the impact has already been felt. “Our beaches are clean so far, and our seafood is fine. But tourism is really important here, and people are saying their businesses are down 50 to 60 percent.”
Despite the drop in tourism, Gough said the bookstore is doing well, but she didn’t know how long that would last. The dip in restaurant and hotel business is “bound to have an effect” on Bay Books, she said, even if they hadn’t felt it yet.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and President Obama had visited Bay St. Louis recently, Gough reported. “I’m not sure what the federal government can do. But people are very anxious and disheartened. It’s like watching a slow motion train wreck. We’re waiting and watching for something to happen, and we hope that it doesn’t. It’s a very uncertain, unhappy time.”
Bay Books opened one year after Hurricane Katrina. Gough said that many area business owners thought that this would be the year they rebounded financially from Katrina. “The spill has put the brakes on all that,” she said.
While Octavia's Lowenburg has little faith in BP’s ability to cap the well any time soon, he expressed the hope that publishers would "quickly publish books that explain the complicated effects of the spill." He also counts on booksellers to play their role in the information chain to educate about the ecological effects of the BP spill, as well as current U.S. energy policy. “I see it as part of our job to inform people by the books that we sell," Lowenburg said, "so we can help the country to understand and to act on this problem.”