de Ville Books vs Katrina
By Karen Wright
We interviewed Joanne Sealy, Manager of de Ville Books in New Orleans. She and her Mom, who is a spry 85-year old, are still cleaning books, painting, and renewing the bookstore after Katrina's deadly temper tantrum in September.
Joanne is a great gal to talk to, and she hasn't lost her sense of humor or her good nature in spite of recent difficulties. She has lived in New Orleans, off and on, for thirty years. She went to grad school there and then lived in California for about fifteen years where she keeps her Berkeley ties.
K: Give us a rundown on your bookselling experience, Joanne.
J: I worked for Faulkner House Rare Books in the French Quarter for a number of years. I miss selling rare books. It's such a thrill to sell a book for $7,000! But, I love my job at de Ville Books. The store is owned by Julian Mutter who, I think, has a mission about doing good things; he's a wonderful man. He, however, has other businesses in the area, including a furniture store, and has pretty much turned over running the bookstore to me.
K: Have you been in other hurricanes before Katrina?
J: I've ridden out several hurricanes that have hit New Orleans in the past, and we thought maybe we could ride this one out, too, but late Saturday night before Katrina hit, a friend said, "No, you're coming with me to Houston." So my mom and I loaded what we could, and after a half hour of chasing my cat around the house, I finally got disgusted and said, "You know cat, there are plenty more where you came from." Well, the cat promptly came right out from under the house; we loaded up, and headed for Houston.
K: So you got caught in that terrible traffic jam?
J: No, we were really lucky. We were on the highway about 4 a.m. and we moved right along.
K: Where is de Ville Books located.
J: It's at 736 Union Street, in the Central Business District between Canal Street and Poydras. When the 17th Street Levy broke, it came straight down Canal and Poydras streets. When I heard that, I was afraid that the store would be completely done for, but we were lucky. We had no real damage from the hurricane itself. Like so many other places down here, the damage was from the water that gushed from the levy. Of course, we had insurance that only covered wind damage. They would not cover damage from water or flooding so we might as well have had none at all.
K: That was pretty common for policy holders during this, was it not?
de Ville Books vs Katrina
J: Yes, very common.
K: What preparations did you have time to make before you evacuated?
J: Well, I took about 200-300 books that I don't like; many of which were the books we booksellers all have that never sell; the boxed classics, the 50th printing of a Grisham -- you know -- and created a dam around the front door to block the water. It helped somewhat, but we still had about nine inches of water throughout the store.
K: Did you lose a lot of rare books?
J: No, I took my "babies" with me. We loaded all those up in the car and they went with us.
K: I understand your father was a victim of the hurricane. I'm so sorry.
J: Yes. He was in a rest home, so before we left, we went to the home to take him with us. They said, no, they were evacuating everyone and he would be fine. But as it turned out, he wasn't, he passed on during the evacuation and it took Mom and me three weeks to find him and make arrangements for his funeral. After attending the funeral, we finally returned to New Orleans in November.
K: How much stock did you lose?
J:Probably two thousand books, more or less. We won't know for sure until we get it all put back together. We lost the bottom rows of books; the "Ws to Zs, and all the foreign language books."
K: Was your inventory computerized?
J: No, we are a very small, one- or two-person store and have no computer and no inventory list. We have lots of history and general reading; more used than new. We are the only bookstore left in the Central Business District and we do a lot of book searches for the secretaries and lawyers and business people; basic reference books, lots of travel, "man" books, and fiction, poetry, classics; oil and electrical books. I never realized how good a book store it was until we evacuated and I had time to go out and check out other stores.
K: So what has been done and what is left to do to open up again?
de Ville Books vs Katrina
J: Oh, we opened December first. We were still carpeting and painting, but our old customers started dribbling in even before that, even while we were working. Each book in the store has to be looked at, cleaned and checked for mildew, but the worst is done. My boss never really left town. He came down a few days after the hurricane and surveyed the damage. He gutted the store, stripped off the sheetrock walls and ceilings, brought in a couple of dehumidifiers, pulled out the soaking wet carpet, and all that. The really tragic part of it is that we just moved here two years ago from our old location near Bourbon Street and refocused. We were making some decent money for the first time in years. Without insurance, we will be about ten thousand dollars in the hole, plus having to keep up with our suppliers.
K: Have your wholesalers been giving you a break?
J: Truth? No, not really. Ingram tried to be nice, but of course UPS couldn't deliver and we had new books that we really needed for the Christmas season stuck in a warehouse for two or three weeks. More and more people are returning to work down here though, and we are about 80% finished with the renovation. Christmas sales have been pretty good, but only about half of what we did last year. A lot of our old customers have returned and have told us that they are committed to buying locally from us instead of ordering from Amazon and the like.
K: How about your homes? Did they survive?
J: Yes, but both my mom's house and mine were damaged with ceilings falling in and so forth. We are fortunate in that we have really good friends who rented a place a couple of blocks away, but they are not living here right now, so they are letting us stay in their very nice apartment. We've been homeless for a long time, but we hope to get back in our own houses by Christmas.
K: We have heard from some people that there is a lot of looting, and there are gangs of disenfranchised people who are mugging and stealing things. Is this in your area?
J: Unfortunately, yes. While our house was being redone, it was looted and ransacked just last week. We thought we had given all our criminals to Houston, but these guys came over the back fence, which was knocked down in the storm, and they stole the usual; stereo, TV, my mom's jewelry, and then they ransacked the house. It was unbelievable. They didn't disturb my books, thank God. They must have realized I was a reader, not just someone who kept money tucked in her books.
K: What can we who are reading this do to help you and the other booksellers like you?
de Ville Books vs Katrina
J: I hate to say it, it sounds crass, but money is what we all need. The no flood insurance rip-off reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon I read recently; the three little pigs are talking to the insurance adjuster. Essentially he says what our insurance adjuster said; "The huff and the puff are covered, but wolf spittle is not covered."
K: Thanks Joanne, keep up the good work and the good spirits, and our best to your boss and your Mom.
To reiterate what we said about helping these booksellers, the American Booksellers Association has a Bookseller Relief Fund to assist booksellers affected by Hurricane Katrina. Contributions to the fund will be gratefully accepted. ABA seeded the relief fund with an opening donation of $25,000. Checks should be made payable to Bookseller Relief Fund and sent to ABA's office at 200 White Plains Road, Tarrytown, NY 10591. Please write "Bookseller Relief" on the outside of the envelope.