Escape to the Best Independent Bookstores in New Orleans
From Black and women’s literature to nerd nirvana, check out these NOLA gems.
Waking up in New Orleans can sometimes feel like opening a familiar book. One whose words have seeped in our minds like tea, infusing us with the belief that the preposterous can be real (because in New Orleans as in books, it often is). This is a city made for others to escape to, but when you need to get away from the escape, the doors of our independent bookstores are wide open, their words ready to transport you out of this world for as long as you need. “We are lucky to have such a healthy, thriving independent bookstore scene in New Orleans,” says local author Stephen Rea. “For a relatively small city, we have a lot of dedicated staff who are keen book lovers, and who go out of their way to support and encourage local authors and audiences.”
Whether you’re looking for Black literature, comics, antiquities, used books, or are simply in it for the bookstore cats (no shame), here are the top bookstores around New Orleans.
Community Book Store
The Community Book Center was started in 1983 by Vera Williams, a Black woman living in the Lower Ninth. She had $300 in her pocket and a dream to have a space where her community could find books by and about people of African descent. “There’s an African proverb,” Williams says. “Until the lion tells his own story, the tale will continue to glorify the hunter.” For nearly 40 years, she has been supporting the lion with a wide selection of Black-centered tales in a variety of literary genres including a great selection of children’s books. It is the local headquarters for Kwanzaa, selling holiday supplies year-round and hosting events. It also boasts a mini grocery with items made by African American companies. And the space has been used to help survivors of hurricanes after all of the recent storms that have hit the city.
Blue Cypress Books
Owned by Elizabeth Barry Ahlquist, Blue Cypress Books did what many of us did over the pandemic—it grew into a bigger space. The new one looks how you want an indie bookstore to look; more cozy than cramped, naturally lit, tilted book stacks, and warm employees. The upgrade also means a second floor event space, though judging by the way their bookstore kitty struts about it, you’d think it was made for her. So, in addition to more places for Kitty Meow to stretch out, the space is also used to support literary culture bearers through a multitude of events. The store itself, owned and run by women, features one of the largest mix of new and used books you’ll find in town and 80% of their customer base are locals.
Tubby & Coo were the grandparents of Candice Huber, who opened the store in 2014 in the very neighborhood their grandparents grew up in. Huber, who identifies as they/them, is proud of the niche they’ve built as the the only queer-owned science fiction and fantasy bookstore in town. As an avid fantasy nerd myself, I’ve been guilty of buying books from Tubby & Coo’s and reading them in the most Mid-City way possible (on the bayou near Cabrini bridge, wine glass in hand). The shop is very into bringing its community together. “We do author events and book clubs online, which is great for us because our nerdfolk often live online,” says Huber. To top it off, the shop even has a partnership across the pond with Portal Bookshop, based in the UK, for an international sci-fi queer fantasy bookclub called, “Both Ends of the Rainbow.”
Located uptown, ten blocks from Audubon Park, this small bookstore is known for its well-curated selection and its architecturally compelling space. There are plans to expand, but regardless you can expect the staff to know what's new and exciting in the book world—as well as the fantastic suggestions from its associates. Owner Tom Lowenburg credits a big part of its success to localism having come into its own. “People want to support locally-based places,” he says. “We're not a fast food town and the same applies for shops like independent bookstores, maybe more so because we do things that make us a community center. That’s true for most local bookstores to a degree.”
Baldwin & Co
Baldwin & Co. takes the responsibility of bearing James Baldwin’s name seriously. The Black-owned store is chic, lined with walls of books and art to peruse while sipping on house-brewed coffee. While the shop boasts a great culturally-curated book selection, it also serves the community with onsite tutoring, weekend story time, and back to school and book giveaways. It pairs authors with local schools to speak in classrooms, and the majority of the events it offers are free. It even has an in-house podcast studio for community members to use, understanding the different mediums that stories are presented through today.
Crescent City Comics
All ye who seek geek culture, enter this purveyor of nerdom for a diverse selection of comics and graphic novels. It has one of the largest collections of graphic novels in the state and staff prioritizes keeping their stock filled with variety. This is not your Marvel/DC dedicated comic shop. Owner Les Arceneaux, along with manager, Leo McGovern, have always been proponents of genre comics; everything from true stories to sci-fi to fantasy. If you’re a Neil Gaimen fan, you’ll be happy to find Sandman, Preacher, and Hellblazer at your fingertips. Independent series like Serabis or more modern pop culture phenoms like The Boys and Locke and Key can also be found among the stacks. “We enjoy proselytizing comics for sure," says Leo. “There's a big readership here in the New Orleans area. We have three major comic shops which is fairly uncommon for a city our size.” With all the dress up and cosplay that happens in this town, it’s no wonder.
Garden District Book Shop
There are community staples and then there is the Garden District Book Shop, housed in The Rink Shopping Center right next to Commander's Palace and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Owners Carroll Gelderman and Barkley Brafferty grew up in the Garden District and are proud to be professionally ingrained in the neighborhood. They have an extensive signed book collection across a variety of genres and host events featuring local and political authors, and have a sweet, dedicated kids area for parents and kids to spend time together finding books.
Frenchmen Art and Books
Frenchman Street Art & Books is a small reading oasis located on a street that has become known for its nightlife. The 750-square-foot space opened in 1978 and has had only four owners since. Originally filled with an LGBTQIA+ exclusive collection, the books and themes within the store have expanded over the years. You won’t find labels for the different sections, and genres tend to be mixed with one another. If you want to know the rhyme and reason, just ask one of the employees. They are there to guide you through it and make recommendations. Locals and tourists gravitate toward the jaw-droppingly good live music found on Frenchman any given night—but this is the perfect escape when you need to take a break from the noise and lights.
Crescent City Books
If you love the kind of bookstores that feature old-timey city plans, French cook books from the 1680’s, and a cat who demands to know why you’re not there already, Crescent City Books is for you. It’s filled with used and out-of-print volumes, the scent of which will send any book lover into a tizzy. The not-to-be-missed spot offers antiquarian books that go back as far as the 16th century, vintage antique maps, and hard-to-find, out-of-print books including illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. They even have a copy of A Wrinkle in Time that was in the author’s personal library.
Faulkner House Books
In the 1920's, shortly after the success of his first book Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson, relocated to New Orleans and invited other aspiring writers and artists to join him. They did. Anderson published the Double Dealer, a literary journal that introduced the world to southern literature, and more specifically, a writer named William Faulkner. The two became friends and Anderson set him up in a local boarding house right near St. Louis Cathedral. It was in that room that Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldier's Pay in 1926, and that space is where you can now find Faulkner House Books. Today, its niche is rare literary fiction and poetry, handpicked by manager Joanne Sealy, who will curate book subscriptions for customers based upon their interests. “She reads everything and exquisitely curates the collection. And because of the unique nature of tourism, people all over the world know of her,” says employee Peter Webb.