With Eyes on Ike, Gulf Coast Booksellers Work to Kick-Start Business

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While most reports of Hurricane Gustav's track through the Gulf Coast generally focused on the good news that the storm was not nearly bad as Hurricane Katrina, early insurance industry estimates put damages at anywhere from $2 billion to $10 billion, according to BusinessWeek, and approximately two million Louisiana residents were forced to evacuate. Power is now widely restored and most evacuees are back home, but businesses are still dealing with the aftereffects of Gustav, while warily watching Hurricane Ike, which is expected to hit the coast of Texas this weekend. For stores that rely heavily on the tourist trade, the approach of a second storm, even one that doesn't promise a direct hit, is yet another blow.

Booksellers who spoke to BTW after returning to their undamaged Gulf Coast homes and bookstores said they were thankful that the area had avoided another Katrina, but Gustav had nonetheless taken its toll on their businesses through lost days and lost customers. They are now focused with getting their business back on track -- even as the shadow of Ike approaches.

On Saturday, August 30, Britton Trice of Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans made the decision to leave for Hattiesburg, Mississippi. "I battened down the hatches, covered the computers ... with heavy-duty sheathing," Trice told BTW in an interview earlier this week. He boarded up his home, and left at about 1:30 in the morning.

Trice's store and home made it through the storm in good shape. Some trees and small branches were down, and the power was out. "The power came back on late Thursday [September 4]. Not being open for six days is always a drag, [and Gustav]," he said, "brought back a lot of bad memories." The store had to cancel a couple of events scheduled for that week, one on Saturday and another on Thursday. "Everything is pretty slow, and now people are freaking out about Ike. We're just keeping an eye on it. I'm keeping the boards on the windows."

"We did fine," said Joanne Sealy of Faulkner House Books in New Orleans. The French Quarter, she reported, only lost power for 10 hours, though the surrounding area lost it for a week. "There was no damage. We were very fortunate."

Sealy evacuated to Picayune, Mississippi. The normally one-hour drive took about five hours she said, due to the evacuation. "There were four lanes to get out, but it eventually narrowed to two -- and I left at 2:30 in the morning," she said.

Faulkner House Books reopened on Thursday, September 4, and "we did no business," Sealy said. "On Friday, we did one sale. We had a book signing scheduled for Friday but ... it was canceled.... I am in the French Quarter and a large contingent of our customers are out-of-towners and [people looking for] rare books." She said September is usually a good month since it signals the return of college students, but now things are off to a slow start.

On Friday, September 5, Octavia Books in New Orleans e-mailed an announcement that the store had reopened. "We left on Saturday morning prior to the Hurricane," said Octavia's Melanie Britt, who reported that there were a couple of downed branches near the store and a few books fell off the shelves. The big issue was the wait for the power to come back on, but Britt's colleague, James Wilson, added that Octavia is now as busy as "we had been before the storm."

Though the Gulf Coast town of Pass Christian, Mississippi, issued a mandatory evacuation for Hurricane Gustav aimed at anyone "south of the tracks," Pass Christian Books' Richard Daly was already out of town -- at a wedding in Pennsylvania. When he returned, he found a town that was pretty deserted. "Gustav ... scared half the town away -- business is off, but we anticipated that. Every storm is like that. Once Ike runs its course, people will start coming back." Daly explained that Pass Christian's core customers are wealthy and have other homes that they are staying in at present.

Daly said Gustav caused flooding in the area, including some homes that received a couple of feet of water. "It was bad, but it was far, far from Katrina."

And now Daly is keeping an eye on Hurricane Ike. Even though it is still some 375 miles off the coast, Ike's effects are already being felt, he reported. For one, a number of roads are closed due to flooding, including the main route to the store. "These hurricane bands are far-reaching," he said.

After receiving an evacuation advisory, Bay Books' Kay Gough said, she removed inventory from the bottom shelves, boarded up the store on Sunday, August 31, and, with the store computer, headed 12 miles north to her home. She returned to the store the following Wednesday.

Gustav brought strong waves and rising water to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and there was flooding. "The beach road was hurt again," Gough said, "and it hadn't been completely restored from after Katrina -- they had a temporary road in place."

As for Bay Books, "fortunately, the store is in a place where it didn't get water." A week after returning, "business is still a little slow; people haven't really returned." Sales, she added, are down 64 percent in September, as compared to the same period last year.

Gough noted comparing any storm to Katrina would only serve to minimize what the people and businesses on the Gulf Coast suffered through this past week. "Everyone wants to compare Gustav to Katrina, but Katrina was like a nuclear bomb." --David Grogan