On Orleans Street between Bourbon and Royal among some of the French Quarter’s more famous bars and landmarks sits an inconspicuous used bookstore. I take a right at Tropical Isle, dodging the tourists who have just left Pat O’Brien’s, and step into the shop past a pile of books labeled “free” and advertising the dollar books inside.
After taking a moment to relish in the calm and air conditioning, I feel a sense of anxiety creep down my spine. My life could be in imminent danger. Books are stacked ceiling-high on shelves, in crates, on wooden slats, diagonally, horizontally, and vertically, any way they will fit. I feel like I’m in the middle of a giant Jenga game, and one false move could cause the entire operation to come crashing on my head.
I step further into the shop to explore. The shop is organized by country, then further by genre–fitting, as they have an extensive French literature selection. I peruse German poetry that I have no hope of understanding, taken from a shelf that is arranged three books deep, sagging under the weight of literature.
“It’s like being surrounded by a room full of minds,” says Russell Desmond, the proprietor of this French Quarter shop. He initially opened it by looking for books that couldn’t be found in the library, eventually accumulating an incomparable selection. As we were talking, someone bought a physics book from 1899 for $10. Having been in the business for thirty years, Desmond says you really do see everything. You find lost authors and books, things that people don’t read anymore.
He talks about the books he wishes he’d held on to, but they always seem to come back. He describes a French book that found its way back into his shop three times. “I recognize my handwriting in them. They always seem to find their way back, like children. Sometimes I feel more like a lending library.”
Desmond hands me a list of New Orleans used bookstores. I was surprised. He was actively promoting the competition. But it’s not about that. It’s about the books themselves and the ideas contained in them, about the importance of used shops. A regular at the shop is not quite as humble and tells to forget all of the other shops.
“They sell decoration. He sells knowledge.”
He has a point. Arcadian Books does not focus on décor or anything other than the essentials. It is a bookstore solely about the books, entirely void of gimmicks. Desmond has created a space entirely devoted to literature and the great minds that create it. Part of the beauty of used bookstores is the rediscovery of books and authors that have fallen out of print or memory. This shop gives them a place again, with the knowledge that it will eventually be the exact thing that someone was looking for.