Gulf Coast Booksellers Optimistic for Fall

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Six weeks after the capping of the BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, booksellers along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama reported varying effects on their businesses, but all said they were looking forward to the fall season.

Kay Gough of Bay Books in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, said that tourism was down in the beginning of the summer due to the continuing oil spill, but after BP provided grant money to promote tourism in the area, she saw an uptick in traffic that was enough to put Bay Books ahead of 2009.

Gough also credits a strong selection of Gulf Coast titles for boosting sales. “One thing that has really benefitted business in the last two months were sales of books that came out to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Katrina,” said Gough. “Two of the books were about our city. One was by Kathleen Koch, a CNN correspondent, called Rising From Katrina (John F. Blair). Then we had local author Ellis Anderson, who began blogging after the storm. Her book, Under Surge, Under Siege(University Press of Mississippi),just won the Eudora Welty prize…. We’ve sold the books to people all over the country.”

Heading into the fall, Gough is feeling optimistic. “Our beaches are in good shape. People are feeling more confident about the seafood. We have something to look forward to now, instead of dreading waking up every morning and listening to the news.” 

This past June, Page & Palette reported that the oil hadn't reached the beaches in Fairhope, Alabama, but area merchants were seeing a big drop in business during what is usually a busy tourist season. This week Wilson said, “We’re still kind of in the same boat.”

Fairhope’s beaches, which usually attract tourists in droves, never did have any oil wash up on their shores, but that didn’t save the summer season. “Our beaches have been pristine,” said Wilson. “They’re cleaner than ever, probably because there’s nobody here to dirty them up.”

Prior to the spill, this year looked like it was going to be a profitable one for Page & Palette after a series of struggles, said Wilson. “Katrina definitely hurt, but we’ve gone through so much since then, it’s a fading memory. We had our big embezzlement, Hurricane Ivan. From January to May we were up. We were thrilled to be back on track.”

Wilson filed a loss-of-business claim with BP approximately three weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, but she hasn’t received payment. “BP has done nothing but give us the runaround,” she said. “We’ve given them tons of paperwork, every single thing they’ve asked for.”

In response to the business loss, Wilson has developed a strong events calendar for the upcoming season. “I’m optimistic for this fall,” she said. “We’re just trying to be creative and stay diversified. I feel like we’ve got to get a break some time.”

Britton Trice at Garden District Book Shop explained that while local restaurants saw a steep drop in business, sales at Garden District Bookstore this summer were “definitely much better than last year.” The city wasn’t affected in the same way the coast was, Trice added.

To mark the anniversary of Katrina, Garden District hosted Cynthia Hogue and Rebecca Ross to discuss and sign their book When The Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina and Rebeca Antoine, Barb Johnson, and Niyi Osundare talked about Voices Rising 2 (both UNO Press).

Katrina anniversary events were scheduled throughout New Orleans, and while Trice felt it was important to remember the catastrophe, and prevent it from happening again, he said many locals were “ready to move on and put it behind them. It brings a lot of horrible memories for a lot of people.”

Tom Lowenburg of New Orleans’ Octavia Books said that while the capping of the BP well was a relief, he “remains very concerned about what the impact will be.”

It was difficult to gauge the spill’s precise affect on business, said Lowenburg. “We remain very active, but of course we have some days when we could be more active.”

Octavia Books is hosting a full slate of events for the fifth anniversary of Katrina, including signings with John Woodin (City of Memory: New Orleans Before and After Katrina, University of Georgia Press); Robert R. M. Verchick(Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World, Harvard University Press); and Josh Neufeld (A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, Pantheon). Next month Octavia will host Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey, who will read from and sign Beyond Katrina (University of Georgia Press).

“What’s remarkable about Katrina is the number of books that really explained things that the dumber media didn’t do a very good job of,” Lowenburg said. “The books explain the nuances.”

This October Octavia will celebrate its 10th anniversary, and Lowenburg is looking forward to it. “I think we’re in the right place at the right time,” he said. “We opened during a year when few new bookstores were opening anywhere. We were one of five that year, and we bucked conventional wisdom. Now we’ll be celebrating number 10. We think the best is yet to come, and we’ll continue to bring great books and events to New Orleans.”