We’re talking today with Judith Lafitte, co-owner (with Thomas Lowenburg) of fifteen-year-old Octavia Books in downtown New Orleans(www.octaviabooks.com).
Sue Cowing for Mixed-Up Files: Please tell us what inspired you to open your store and what keeps you going?
Judith: Tom and I opened Octavia Books because we wanted to do something together. We both are avid book readers and that brought us to the idea of opening a bookstore. The support of the community keeps us going.
MUF: Every independent bookshop is unique in its own way. Please tell us some of the special things about Octavia Books.
Judith: Our location is very special. We are located in a 100-year-old corner commercial building that was once a grocery store in an Uptown neighborhood of the city. We are an L-shaped space that is bright and welcoming. We also have a small glass enclosed atrium space that has a cascading waterfall.
MUF: I gather Octavia Books played an important role after Hurricane Katrina?
Judith: We were the first bookstore to reopen after the storm. There wasn’t much open or available to the people who returned. In essence, we became a “port in the storm” for anyone who needed a book to help distract them from dealing with this disaster. We instantly became a community meeting place where anyone could come and talk about every concern they had.
MUF: How do you choose books to carry in your shop, and how do you help your customers choose books that are just right for them out of all the possibilities?
Judith: Both Tom and I meet with sales reps from publishers to discuss books. Tom does the purchasing for the “grown-up” side of the bookstore and I am the children’s book buyer. In a way, we also know what our customers are reading which also determines the kinds of books we have in the bookstore. And, we also rely on our staff’s insight. For non-book items, we use the same process.
We always ask questions. Sometimes our customers are looking for the same kind of book and other times they are looking for something different. We want to ensure that the customer is satisfied with their purchase.
MUF: As authors of middle grade books, we have to ask: what are some of your favorite titles new and old, fiction and nonfiction, that you often find yourself recommending to boys and girls ages eight to twelve these days?
Judith: I have several authors that I like to suggest to this age group, so anything by Roald Dahl, Rick Riordan, Deborah Wiles, Mike Lupica and Dan Gutman. I also like such titles as Zita the Spacegirl, by Ben Hatke, The Imaginary by A.F. Harold, Magic in the Mix, by Annie Barrows., Ms. Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera, and Knightley & Son by Rohan Gavin, to name a few. But in general, I like to recommend any kind of sports books or adventure books for boys; girls are a bit easier to choose a book for.
MUF: Do you have reading or events coming up that would be of special interest to this age group?
Judith: We recently had Dan Gutman and Peter Lerangis visit some schools and the bookstore and we are getting ready to have Jon & Pamela Voelkel and Kimberly Willis Holt.
MUF: If a family from out of town visits Octavia Books, are there family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they can get a snack or a meal after browsing? And if they can stay awhile, what other special activities in the area would you recommend for families?
Judith: We have a breakfast/lunch café located behind the bookstore where families can grab a bite as well as other small cafés in the area. There are also coffee shops along Magazine Street that offer any number of noshes. As for activities, there is Audubon Zoo, Audubon Park, taking a streetcar ride along St. Charles Avenue and loads of shopping along Magazine Street. If it’s a summer visit, there is Hansen’s Snow Ball Stand that is a Beard Award Winner. And if they are interested in movies, the Prytania Theatre is a 100-year-old theatre still in operation.
Thank you for telling us more about your shop, Judith. Readers, have any of you had the pleasure of visiting Octavia Books? Please share your experiences.
Sue Cowing is the author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012).
Sounds like a wonderful bookstore with real community spirit! Thanks so much to Judith for the inside peek at her business.