A summer afternoon quest for caffeine in the Quarter nets an old book, a new friend, and a gander at 300 naked people riding bicycles.
- by Nan Parati
photos by Ellis Anderson
Editor's Note: We know you'll all want to go visit Miss Geraldine now, but after 32 years at the 823 Chartres Street location, Librairie Bookshop has closed its doors for the last time. Rising property tax assessments precipitated a rent increase. Store owner Carey Beckham, who will continue to operate Beckham's Bookshop, told us, "Well, after 52 years in business, no one can say I closed this shop too early."
Nan wrote this piece in early June, completely unaware that the end was nigh. Thank you, Carey Beckham, Miss Geraldine and the other folks at the Librairie, for decades of good fun and great reading.
In the 800 block, at the intersection of the cut-in street Madison, I looked up and saluted Betty Sheeler’s balcony. Betty lived there until about the mid-1990s and she used to tell me, “I love this apartment because I can look down Madison Street and see nothing that was built in the 20th century!”
As good a reason as any to love where you live.
It was Betty who first alerted me to the calamity of southern ladies’ sinking spells, and I raised my hand to her memory, thankful that all these years later, I could still identify the potential onset and cure for one.
Just below her balcony I recognized the Librairie Bookshop and Betty’s voice in my head said, “Go in there. You haven’t been in since about 1987. You are overdue like a library book you checked out in fifth grade!”
As I have always tried to do whatever Betty said do, whether she was there or not, I walked in the door of the Librarie in time to join a conversation about physical bookstores, their fragility, and how little stands between them and oblivion, thanks to on-line shopping.
The woman sitting at the counter said we’d be surprised how often people come in, take a picture of a book and then announce they’ll see if they can find it cheaper on Amazon.
Lord heaven, people are stupid.
Miss Geraldine didn’t say that last part, I did. And it wasn’t my conversation to interrupt. From behind her counter, Miss Geraldine talks to everyone who comes in, and she was busy talking to other customers about all of that. I just belly-flopped into the rant, because that’s what I do.
I worked up enough sense just to look around while Miss Geraldine finished talking with her guests, and found a book by Doris Betts! A pre-read copy of “Souls Raised from the Dead,” published in 1994.
Doris Betts was my first (and, um, only) writing teacher, not her fault at all. But I have warm memories of her and thought, “If this book is signed by her, I’ll buy it.” And it was.
I’m certain I already have her autograph somewhere, or I did before Katrina. I recall Ms. Betts once writing to me, “Oh Nan! You write excellent dialogue and it’s held together with chewing gum and hair!” I considered that a sound critique, and generally have stuck to writing scripts, ever since.
I took my book to the counter and properly met Miss Geraldine, who has worked at The Librarie since 2006. She had been a faithful Librarie customer before, first drawn in around 1968 by a beautiful gold-edged version of the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe.
One day, 40 years later, owner Carey Beckham called her up out of the blue and offered her a job. She doesn’t know how he got her phone number, probably from a previous employer, she theorizes with a Sherlock Holmes squint in her eye.
The Librarie bookshop has been in the Quarter since 1968, previously a block over on Royal Street, moving to Chartres in 1985 when they lost their Royal Street lease. Miss Geraldine -- named by her father, but not for her father -- works the counter five days a week and becomes best friends with everyone who walks in the door. The store is open seven days a week and a “garrulous” young man works there the two days she is off.
“Book people are moral people,” she says, “Not many are thieves. Only one or two.
“I was reading a really good book called ‘The Sound of Building Coffins," written by a man who lives over on Franklin Avenue, about the life of Buddy Bolden. And I was enjoying it so much, taking it off the shelf to read it, that I had my 20 dollars out of my pocket to buy it for myself.”
Even Miss Geraldine, who could read any book she wants to for free, is honor-bound to buy them.
“I looked up and it was gone! And there had only been two people in the store before I saw it was gone! Somebody took it right out of here! Without paying for it! But that doesn’t happen very often. I hope that man writes another book. The coffin one was very good.”
We picked back up on how people take photos in her brick and mortar store to buy things on Amazon and how that will be the death of small businesses, and she said that she could just imagine that people would one day order their groceries on line, too!
I said I didn’t think we had to imagine too hard, as they are already doing it, and she sighed and conceded older people will probably find such a thing a Godsend.
We then sighed together, and agreed that while both of us might look old, we aren’t. And we both still go to the store to buy our groceries and will continue to until Baby Jesus decides we can’t anymore. Then we don’t know what we’ll do. But we’ll worry about that, then.
Miss Geraldine says her favorite part of her job is when the authors come in. Most recently Chris Rose did, and he was so sweet, and had a nice young woman with him.
We shook our heads over the trouble we knew Chris had after Katrina smacked him out of his mind and into a world of depression and trouble. Then we jointly rejoiced that he seems to be doing well now.
John Barry comes in often, too, Miss Geraldine says, which intrigued me. His book, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America is one of my favorites of all time. Never in life would I have imagined myself as someone who could quote from a book about the history of a river 13 years after I’d read it, but I can. That’s how good that book is.
“Now John, he’s quiet, but his wife, well, she’s a character! She could be his whole publicity agent, all by herself!”
A new visitor joined our conversation and said Barry used to be the assistant football coach at Tulane.
We all wondered aloud how a football coach could turn out to be such a good writer, speculation that I’m sure falls under some category of political incorrectness, but we didn’t bother with that then and just appreciated he had discovered other skills before it was too late.
I finally remembered I was on a hunt for some Stanley’s sweet tea and asked Miss Geraldine if she would like some, too.
“Well, I love those boys at Newton’s Hot and Cold,” she said, “over on the corner of Dumaine and Decatur. Just around there. Their tea is wonderful.”
I don’t mind going out of my way for some nice boys, especially nice boys with good tea, so asked which she preferred, sweet or regular, and she said regular and that she would hold my book for me until I got back.
I walked around the corner and found Newton’s, and, seeing its cozy living room style, could appreciate why Miss Geraldine liked it so much. I asked the guy behind the counter if he was the owner. He said he was “one of the people responsible for how things turn out around here.” I nodded as if I knew what that meant, ordered my sweet tea and Miss Geraldine’s regular.
“Oh, yes indeed!” he said, “We do everything Geraldine tells us to do!”
He got my drinks, and I asked if the Miss Loretta of his “Miss Loretta’s Chicken Salad” was Miss Loretta the Praline Lady over in the French Market. He said, no, this one was his own mama, Miss Loretta, and that her chicken salad is worth coming back for. So I will.
I took Miss Geraldine her tea, and she said the boys at the Hot and Cold are just the sweetest boys ever, always taking care of her, even on her days off.
“You’re a reader, I can tell, since you bought this book,” she said. Something about that Betts book tipped her off. I agreed I was, and asked if she had ever met my old friend Betty Sheeler, also a reader, as Geraldine seemed to be about the age now that Betty was the last time I saw her.
Their temperaments seemed similar and they would have made fine friends, but, according to Miss Geraldine, they never met.
Two more things I found out about her include:
1. She moved to the French Quarter at 9 o'clock in the morning of November first, 1975.
And 2. She’s outlived several lovers, two husbands and one stalker.
These are notes I think worth mentioning here, as signs of a long life, intentionally-lived.
I walked back home, did not take a nap, but drank my sweet tea and was sliding into just about as good a day off as one could possibly get, when I suddenly heard people cheering below my balcony.
I looked out and down at the annual Naked Bike Ride, where hundreds of people – old and young, black and white, fat and skinny, men and women - strip down to absolutely nothing and ride bikes through the Quarter between throngs of cheering onlookers.
It’s a funny Quarter of the world we live in here, and I’m betting the only one in the world where butt-naked people get an official, certified police escort at the front and at the end of their parade.
I thanked the Lord for good sweet tea right around the corner, strong enough to keep me awake on a hot afternoon to see 300 naked people - two of them on unicycles.
I could write a book about it all, but it would be held together with chewing gum and hair. Which is a lot more than the bike-riders were wearing.
And too much less than the rich characters of the French Quarter deserve.
As the sign writer for the Jazz Fest, Nan Parati is the only writer you know with her own tag-line: The most collected artist in the world, but nobody knows who she is. Other than that, she’s lived in the French Quarter and the Treme, was the sign writer at Whole Food Company (before Whole Foods Market,) worked for Jimmy Buffet for a while, has made a life’s work out of festival design all over the country, has won awards for her plays, has a film script revving up for production and just sold a restaurant she opened in Massachusetts after Katrina took out her house and sent her out of her mind. Now she’s back in her right mind and having a real good time.
Email Nan directly at Nan@NanParati.com