Step into the “organized chaos” of Arcadian Books & Prints, where the love of the written word and two languages has reigned for 40 years.
- by Matt A. Sheen
- photos by Ellis Anderson
This year marks a milestone for a neighborhood institution: Arcadian Books & Prints has been keeping love of the written word alive in two languages for 40 years. Stepping into what proprietor Russell Desmond calls the “organized chaos” of his French Quarter store (714 Orleans), customers are generally thrilled – and occasionally overwhelmed – by the literary riches packed into the confined space.
“The books are organized,” Desmond assures visitors. “They just don't look like they are.”
Born in Hammond, Louisiana, Desmond early on discovered a love of books that made his life path almost inevitable. Reading Clark Ashton-Smith at the age of 13 sent him on a quest for books no one had ever heard of, books not found in libraries.
“I like to say I felt like Napoleon at Toulon,” said Desmond. “It was destiny that I start a bookstore.”
By the age of 25 he'd decided he would. The ambition was furthered by a trip to Pass Manchac in Iberville, where Desmond realized he was surrounded by French culture.
Perhaps having inherited some of his Irish father's anti-British attitudes, Desmond found himself inspired by Balzac and the French poets and fascinated by how much French history there was to be found in the region.
“I discovered 1,000 years of literature that was a line of history back to the Middle Ages that did not involve England,” he recalled. He immersed himself in 19th-century works by free people of color, white Creoles, Black Creoles, and Cajuns, many of them reprinted by Tintamarre Press, a Shreveport publisher run by Dana Kress and associated with Centenary College.
After graduation from Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, he attended law school for a year, then attempted novel-writing. He found neither fulfilling, though the latter did produce a now-lost play about Napoleon.
Searching for a path, Desmond discovered a program sponsored by the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana through the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and he enrolled. The choice never led to a degree, but it did bring him to Montpelier, in the south of France. After spending the better part of a year there, he realized that what he really wanted was to increase appreciation and awareness of French culture and history in his home state of Louisiana. He decided he'd share his love of French literature literally, by opening a bookstore and importing French books.
He wrote to the volunteer organization France-Louisianne about his ambition and they sent back a handwritten note with offers of week-long apprenticeships with publisher Robert Laffont and the Fountaine-LaBorde bookstore, both of which he undertook. He met with the French minister of culture, who was thrilled by Desmond's ambition to bring French literature to Louisiana and offered him copies of every French magazine and journal in publication; he took them all.
When he returned from France in 1981, Desmond opened Arcadian Books. The original location was in the 4700 block of Magazine Street (now the site of Apolline Restaurant).
The enterprise was initially a total fiasco. The front room indeed was occupied by books imported from France, but they proved to be too expensive for the French tourists, the primary market for them. Worse, the inventory turned out to have a far shorter shelf life than expected. After a year in Louisiana the pages all turned yellow. “Because we live in a swamp,” Desmond put it.
Getting written up in French guide books like Le Guide du Routard provided Arcadian Books some renown, and Sanchez Auction House across the street brought customers looking for books to complement their newly-purchased antiques. But to pay the rent on the store, Desmond bartended at Commander's Palace. He remembered the experience succinctly: “Emeril owes me some drinks.”
Desmond moved the bookstore to its current location in the heart of the French Quarter in 1986. He concurrently began a seven-year stint at Kinko's to make the rent. In the French Quarter, there was tourist traffic, including French travelers, who like to buy cookbooks, picture books and books about the history of Louisiana, particularly regarding French language and culture. Among them was Jean Le Duc de Vendome, the would-be king of France but for the messy business of a French Revolution, who recognized amidst the store's inventory a title that had been on his mother's bookshelves.
There have been a number of other notable customers over the years. Director John Waters dropped by and spoke with Desmond about the Process, a British death cult that had occupied a building on Ursuline off Royal after being kicked out of Mexico. Actor Matt Dillon is less remembered for any purchase made than for his effect on the female customers. Actress Rose McGowan made two visits in a single day, the second time evincing the effects of a good time had in the interim. When Bond girl Maryam D'Abo came in, Desmond was able to chat her up, thanks to his fluency in French.
The Kinks’ front man Ray Davies came in looking for a book on New Orleans mythology, so Desmond steered him toward Gumbo Yaya: A Collection of Louisian Folk Tales by Robert Tallant, Lyle Saxon, and Edward Dreyer. Using a metal cane because he'd been shot coming out of Snug Harbor, Davies was writing a musical to benefit New Orleans schools while staying at Big Star songwriter and vocalist Alex Chilton's place in the Treme.
Any good bookstore attracts writers, and Arcadian is no exception. New Orleans author Michael Lewis bought a history book about the bicentennial of the Louisiana purchase. Roy Blount, who lives in the French Quarter, has passed by on occasion, and Shirley Ann Grau also visited.
In New Orleans for the occasion of his 50th birthday, author Neil Gaiman came in to browse and looked over a copy of Kai Lung Unrolls His Hat by Ernest Bramah, a rare and expensive edition that is still in the store's inventory. Desmond thought Gaiman might have just been trying to impress his wife by showing off his literary taste, but he still appreciated Gaiman's interest.
“I sell so many books that I don't care for, but when I sell something I like, something obscure, it's fulfilling.” Later some guests at Gaiman's birthday party across the street at the Bourbon Orleans wandered over to look at sci-fi books, apparently having heard about the store from Gaiman, who reported his visit on social media.
What Desmond describes as his most rewarding literary encounter, however, began when an older gentleman asked him in French about an edition of Valery's Pleiades. The man turned out to be National Review literature and film critic John Simon, whose work Desmond greatly admires.
Celebrity meetings aside, the most significant store encounter Desmond has had was undoubtedly the one in which he met his late wife Lynne. She came in with the writer Andrei Codrescu, then a teacher at the University of New Orleans and a French speaker himself.
The expertly curated French language section at Arcadian Books – or Livres D’Arcadie, as it’s also known – draws many French speakers, like linguist Patrick Griolet, who has written two books on Louisiana French. Though the authors Auguste Viatte, who wrote a literary history of French America, and Maurice Denuzière, whose Louisiane series told the story of French Louisiana, never visited, both of their sons have. Set at Parlange in New Roads, the oldest house in the Mississippi Valley, Louisiane was a sensation in Europe in the 1980s, leading to a television adaptation, and likely drawing more francophones to visit Louisiana.
“I will say I've got more French books than anywhere else in the country,” said Desmond, who estimated almost a quarter of his inventory is in French.
Still, Desmond was not content to sell only what was readily available. Lamenting the lack of availability of some French language titles, he suggested that Quebec publisher Lux Editeur reprint two books: Moi, Jeanne Castile de Louisiane, noting that the memoir of a Cajun lady had sold well in the 1980s; and a glossary of French Louisiana literature, Les Acadiens Louisianais et Leur Parler, edited by Jay K. Ditchy and first released in the 1930s.
An ardent bibliophile, Desmond even sacrificed a rare and valuable original edition of the Ditchy book so it could be taken apart for reprinting. Nadeau brought both books back into print but has yet to take Desmond's third suggestion, to reprint Our People and Our History: Fifty Creole Portraits. The Louisiana State University Press published a translation of the book by Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes, but Desmond would like to see it reprinted in the original French.
He was able to convince publisher Carl A. Brasseaux to reprint Louisiana Folktales, on the condition – imposed by Brasseaux – that Desmond write the introduction to the new edition.
Nadeau mentioned Desmond in one of the books he published, calling him a fan of Balzac and the Beatles. Nadeau's comment referenced Desmond's own idiosyncratic writing career, which began with record reviews and nowadays consists of letters of comment expressing his political views on matters related to preserving local French history.
Both music and politics have been long-standing concerns for Desmond. Lester Bangs once hired him to write reviews for Creem but left the paper shortly thereafter and none of the reviews Desmond had submitted were ever printed. Ironically, his friend Miriam Linna, head of Norton Records and former drummer for the Cramps, later told Bangs that Desmond was her favorite music writer.
He translated the work of the National Review's William F. Buckley for the French Conservative Reader. Desmond sent Buckley a copy of a letter he'd written defending him. Buckley wrote back complimenting the paper.
“I'm probably the only person who has corresponded with both Lester Bangs and William F. Buckley,” he observed.
Yet, it is the realization of his efforts to promote awareness of the history of French Louisiana that has given Desmond his truest sense of accomplishment and the most recognition. Marianne (“the Time magazine of France,” according to Desmond) interviewed him when the publication did an article on how the: “French language spread everywhere, words shipwrecked in local America,” like the French phrases common in New Orleans. He’s been interviewed a half-dozen times by French television programs looking for French speakers with knowledge of Louisiana.
“It's been a good career,” he said, looking back. “I started it because I wanted to import French books to Louisiana.”
And in the process, Desmond has made a life of his love affair with two languages, countless books, and New Orleans herself.
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Matt A. Sheen is an itinerant writer specializing in film, comic books, local history of a variety of locales, occult fiction, and scholarly studies of Halloween. He is currently based in the French Quarter of New Orleans and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Will write for food.
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