New Orleans' Afro-American Book Stop to Reopen

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The Afro-American Book Stop, which was destroyed three years ago by Hurricane Katrina, will reopen on July 1. The new 1,500-square-foot store will be near its former location in New Orleans East and will celebrate its grand reopening throughout the July 4th weekend.

"Reopening is something I'm both excited about, yet fearful of," said Afro-American Book Stop owner Michele Lewis. "Hearing and reading so much about the struggles of bookselling, it is a bit frightening, but at the same time I'm ready."

The bookstore's grand reopening will coincide with the Essence Music Festival, one of the largest African-American music festivals in the country. Lewis will be hosting several authors at the festival, including Zane, Mary B. Morrison, and E. Lynn Harris. Authors will also stop by the store to sign books. The celebration will feature a New Orleans' style lunch, said Lewis, with jambalaya and gumbo.

Lewis opened the first Afro-American Book Stop in October 1992, a second location in 1996, and a third in Shreveport in 1998. She closed the Shreveport store in 2000, and lost the other two stores and her home in Hurricane Katrina.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, Lewis was invited by bookseller Mary Price Dunbar to open an outpost of the Afro-American Book Stop within her bookstore, Beaucoup Books, which had suffered little damage. "That worked out beautifully," said Lewis. "Until the time that [Dunbar] decided to retire. At that time, I was expecting and rebuilding my home and just couldn't take on the whole building." Lewis has spent the last three years "rebuilding my home, my life, and mothering my 18-month-old daughter."

The new Afro-American Book Stop, located in a strip mall with seven other businesses, will feature a mix of children's titles, African-American fiction, African-American history, cookbooks, and poetry, as well as Afrocentric gifts, paintings, sculptures, and games and puzzles for children, as well as seasonal sidelines like calendars.

Rebuilding New Orleans East has taken much longer than Lewis, and just about everyone else, imagined. "It is one of the slowest areas to rebuild, slow but sure," she said, noting the area's lack of funding and investment. About a third of the schools have opened, gas stations have returned, but the public library remains shuttered.

The primary problem in the area, said Lewis, is finding some place to live. "Housing overall is one of our most troubling situations because we lost 80 percent of housing due to Katrina," she explained. "But we are seeing people rebuild their homes and a few apartment complexes are in the process of rebuilding."

By bringing back her bookstore, Lewis was pleased to help restore the neighborhood. "When I made the decision to return to New Orleans, one of the determining factors was that I could be part of the community as it re-grows, and even now, being a part of that really feels good. People are really excited. It makes them feel like the things they once called their own are coming back." --Karen Schechner