If you’re an avid reader or just a bargain hunter taking a walk through the French Quarter, it’s hard not to miss the boxes of $1 books usually resting on the stoop outside Dauphine Street Books.
Step inside, and you’ll find a cozy shop stacked practically floor to ceiling with what shop owner Steve Lacy said a customer estimated must be about 30,000 books. The mostly used volumes run the gamut from niche nonfiction to collectible first editions to literary classics, with British modernist D.H. Lawrence centimeters from Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and works by gay novelist John Rechy shelved just below a dense philosophical tome by arch-capitalist Ayn Rand.
The building’s history is just as eclectic, having previously housed a barber shop — the plumbing for hair wash basins was still in place when Lacy took over in 1994 — a bicycle store and even a brothel headed by the famed madam Norma Wallace.
“This was the parlor where the girls would have been on display,” said Lacy, naturally backing up his claim with a literary reference: “The Last Madam,” Chris Wiltz’s biography of Wallace, which describes visits to the house by “movie stars” and Prohibition-era bootleggers who dropped by with “cigar boxes full of gold coins.”
Lacy said he’s also heard rumors the property was an opium den back in 1910, and while that’s harder to definitively substantiate, it’s clear from newspaper archives the address was a frequent entry in 20th Century police blotters. It’s now a bit of a tamer block, with the bookstore situated alongside the 24-hour bar and diner Deja Vu and Susan Spicer’s celebrated restaurant, Bayona.
Lacy’s own history has seen him in the bookselling field since adolescence, after a childhood that he said included frequent visits to bookstores with his parents.
“When I was still in high school, I got a job at an antique store in Santa Cruz, California, that had a book room,” he said. “It was complete chaos — I was hired to organize it.”
During college, he learned more tricks of the trade at Logos, a famed bookstore that operated for years in the coastal California college town. Soon after, he was part of a bookselling collective sharing a space in San Francisco’s Mission District, where he learned more about the market for rare books.
In the 1990s, New Orleans seemed like an affordable place to open a bookstore, and he set up shop in the business’s current location. Lacy does still proudly stock some rare and collectible books–on a recent visit, he proudly displayed a first edition of “The Water-Method Man,” John Irving’s second novel, and a copy of musician Chuck Berry’s autobiography inscribed to author, historian and onetime New Orleans resident Douglas Brinkley.
While most of his sales are ultimately fiction, Lacy said he tries to keep an eye out for books on New Orleans and jazz history, such as works about musicians like Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory or the Storyville red light district where so many jazz performers got their start.
“I have kind of a mental Rolodex of things people have asked me for over the years,” he said.
Lacy does buy books from customers who drop in and keeps some new books by popular writers on hand. Like many booksellers, he keeps some new editions of some popular writers like counter-cultural heroes Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac behind the counter so they don’t become too dogeared to sell at list price. But many of his books come from estate sales, where families often look to find new homes for literary collections that might have been amassed over decades before their owners passed away.
One recent sale he attended featured books that had been owned by a pharmacist, including drug and herbology texts dating back to the 1800s. Despite his decades in the book world, Lacy said there are always new books to discover.
“That’s one of the fascinating areas of the business, is the almost infinite varieties of books,” he said.
And while he does shop for books when he visits other cities, Lacy said it’s not strictly necessary to stock his store, given the number of literary finds available around New Orleans.
“I don’t need to travel,” he said. “I can find more than I can ever sell locally.”