The carefully considered passing of the torch at this legendary French Quarter bookstore insures the literary light will continue to burn.
- by Scott Naugle
- photos by Ellis Anderson
Joe and Rosemary DeSalvo are no longer the owners of Faulkner House Books. Though I’ve known about it for several weeks, it still has not settled in. The bookstore and Joe and Rosemary are inseparable, interwoven for me, the warm, friendly, intelligent, literary liminal space they’ve created where only the well-written word matters, blending into one gently omniscient light glowing into an otherwise shade filled side alley in the French Quarter.
We settled in Joe’s alcove office a few days ago as we have many times in the past. It’s a few steps away from the entrance to the bookstore, close enough to hear customers and sense activity.
Wearing a red wool turtleneck sweater, Joe moves slowly around the corner of his writing table desk, gesturing for me to sit. His hand slides along the edge of the table to steady himself. With the exceptions of a gray beard and hair, peppered with memories of the black it used to be, Joe has not changed much in the 20 years I’ve known him.
“I’ve just turned 88 years old,“ Joe announces, “and if the good Lord takes me soon, I don’t want to leave all of this for Rosemary to deal with.” The voice is still strong, firm, and unwavering, infused with kindness.
“It is not so much that I wanted to sell at the moment, but rather that I met two men who wanted to buy it for the right reason.”
Faulkner House Books opened 30 years ago, in 1990 on September 25th, William Faulkner’s birthday. “We had purchased the house two years before. It was in wretched shape,” Joe recalls.
Two years of reconstruction and remodeling ensued. The first floor, where Faulkner slept and lived, was transformed into a bookshop and the upper three floors into a residence for Joe and Rosemary.
“The first floor is where Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, which was a strong incentive for us to buy the building.”
Joe retired from practicing oilfield law before opening Faulkner House Books. Rosemary’s background is in public relations, media and interior design. As Joe and I were catching up, Rosemary was in uptown New Orleans, overseeing the preparation of their next home overlooking Audubon Park.
Joe and Rosemary DeSalvo created a literary mecca in Pirate's Alley. The first experience of stepping into Faulkner House Books from the flagstone paved alley that runs beside St. Louis Cathedral is unforgettable. Subsequent visits are no less memorable.
The one room shop is small, maybe 500 square feet, but the celestial expansiveness of the space is dramatically enhanced by the high ceilings. Built-in bookshelves ring the room from floor to ceiling. Dozens of books are stacked on a center table. I’m certain that there are at least 5,000 books in this room.
My senses are joyously overwhelmed as my eyes scan the room ingesting titles, fresh dust jackets, and sumptuous stacks of new releases to hold. While breathing in the air of crisp print and freshly cut deckled edges, I allow myself the fantasy that I can and will read it all.
Interestingly, regardless of the outside racket of The French Quarter, it is quiet. The book-lined walls insulate against both noise and anti-intellectualism.
In his 1941 short story The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessor of an intact and secret wisdom… the universe suddenly became congruent with the unlimited breadth and width of humankind’s hope.” Borges was known for his time shifts – was he possibly anticipating Faulkner House Books?
It is not possible to overemphasize the influence of Joe and Rosemary DeSalvo and Faulkner House Books in the literary and cultural life of New Orleans and the region. With the support of others and the community, they founded the nonprofit Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society to assist nascent writers.
Among its many activities throughout the year, the Words and Music Festival and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition are among the highlights.
Annually, there are hundreds of entries in the competition. Writers in the early stages of their careers and unknown at the time who are among the winners include Stewart O’Nan, Julia Glass, Brett Lott, and Maurice Carlos Ruffin.
“Agents and editors attend from New York to meet the new writers and to possibly help them with publishing their work,” adds Joe. “This has been more than just a bookstore. I give Rosemary credit for so much of it.”
As Joe and I converse, I hear customers entering and scuffling around the center table, quietly remarking to one another about interesting titles on the shelves on this cool, sunny weekday in early December.
Natural light from glass-paned doors leading to a small courtyard washes the room, flooding across the green and white marble floor. The couple’s miniature chocolate poodle, Criolla, dozes nearby on a soft fluffy pillow. She gently snores.
Joe says that his business career and the bookstore are highlights of his life. “But I’m most proud of the store.”
There have been friendships with many authors: Cormac McCarthy, William Styron, Willie Morris, Joan Williams, and Joseph Blotner are the ones brought easiest to mind as we conversed.
And, in what is possibly the highest compliment an author can bestow, Joe appears as a character in Elizabeth Spencer’s novel The Night Travellers, “At the head, Lieutenant DeSalvo had turned to signal them to either side of the path and down, go forward creeping, close to the ground.”
“Elizabeth was here at the time working on a novel about young men and she showed me that she had included me in the story,” recalls Joe with a proud smile.
Of the many booksigning events I’ve attended at the store over the years, Dean Faulkner Wells’ appearance resonates most deeply. Here was William Faulkner’s niece, one that he was very fond of and close to, during the 2011 publication of Every Day Under the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi, her recollection of life with her famous uncle.
Author events at Faulkner House Books are best compared to a relaxed and elegant cocktail reception. Guests are invited to the second-floor residence, up a curved set of stairs, to a tastefully appointed parlor, galley kitchen and graceful dining room. Wine and an array of hors d’oeuvres await on the polished antique dining table.
As Dean Faulkner Wells sat in a chair facing into the room, behind her through the floor to ceiling windows was the full glory of St. Anthony’s Garden at the rear of St. Louis Cathedral.
Dean’s voice was weak, she appeared frail, though there was a contentedness about her. Her husband, Larry Wells, stood proudly beside her. I could not hear a word she said, but I knew I was witnessing a slice of literary history. Dean died a few months later.
Joe is also known as a keen rare book dealer with an impeccable reputation. In the hallway from the bookstore to Joe’s office, a locked glass case contains rare first editions of Faulkner, Welty, Hemingway, and other iconic literary masters of the twentieth century.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to help many collectors build their libraries,” he says. “There is one man who flies in from Texas on his private plane with a long list of books he wants.”
Many of us know Joanne Sealy as a mainstay of Faulkner House Books. She sits at the head of the table in the bookshop directing and advising customers and bagging purchases. She is a calm, elegant, literate conversant and guide to reading well. Joanne will remain in place after the ownership transfer to point all of us to many more years of rewarding reading. I find great comfort in this.
Joe and Joanne share a critical trait for a bookseller – the ability to match a reader with a book. To be effective, and quickly size up a customer, a mix of psychology, empathy, insight, and an expansive knowledge of potential recommendations are indispensable.
With ease, I recall the titles Joe recommended to me over the years, introducing me to fresh authors who I continue to follow. Among the titles are Joseph Blotner’s two volume work Faulkner: A Biography, A.J. Verdelle’s The Good Negress, John Gregory Browne’s Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, and The Leopard: A Novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Jampedusa.
Joanne’s most recent recommendation to me was The Diary of a Bookseller and I made the error of beginning it in the late evening. I was compelled to read into the early morning hours as I could not put it down.
Joe is enthusiastic about the new owners, Garner Robinson and Devereaux Bell. “Garner is from an old New Orleans family who operates a lumber business in town,” explains Joe, “and Devereaux is a voracious reader.”
Garner will move into the upstairs residence with his fiancée, Permele Doyle. Permele owns a marketing firm in Manhattan. She'll be involved with PR and marketing, especially helping build the bookstore's social media presence.
While describing the new owners and their plans to list some of the book stock and ephemera on an updated website, Joe exudes both a confidence in the timing of the sale and the new proprietors. He appears content and ready for the next phase of his life with Rosemary, proud that what they have built is in capable hands for the next chapter within the storied existence of Faulkner House Books.
Scott Naugle has published hundreds of book reviews and lifestyle articles over the past 15 years in The Sun Herald, The Mobile Register, Clarion-Ledger, Beach Blvd Magazine, and Mississippi Magazine among others. He is a native of Davidsville, Pennsylvania and received an undergraduate degree from Penn State University in Insurance and Risk Management. He also earned graduate degrees in English from Millsaps College and Tulane University where he also taught as an adjunct professor. He is Chief Operating Officer of one of the largest publicly-traded insurance brokerages in the United States. Most importantly, he is the co-owner of Pass Christian Books and Cat Island Coffeehouse in Pass Christian, where he resides in a mid-nineteenth century home filled with books and an untended garden.