Watch Us In Your Living Room
Enjoy Very Local on the big screen.
Visit your favorite app store to download.

How Octavia Books keeps pages turning during digital age

Octavia Books has been a neighborhood staple for over 19 years now, for many good reasons. The independent book retailer opened in the year 2000 - a time when many small bookstores were closing and big-box chain stores were popping up in mall parking lots across America.

by Aura Bishop
September 20, 2019

In between Magazine Street and Tchoupitoulas, among all of the cottages and crepe myrtles in the heart of Uptown New Orleans, stands a large gray building with a cheery Adirondack chair logo. Octavia Books has been a neighborhood staple for over 19 years now, for many good reasons. The independent book retailer opened in the year 2000 – a time when many small bookstores were closing and big-box chain stores were popping up in mall parking lots across America. Thankfully, co-owners Judith Lafitte and Tom Lowenburg had the foresight to know Octavia Books would fill the needs of their community in a way that chains couldn’t.

“We were about one of four or five independent book stores in the whole country that opened that year. So we were definitely defying the conventional wisdom. Amazon existed then, but they were not as big a factor as the chain stores that were coming in,” recalled Lowenburg. “At first glance, they looked like libraries and they looked like they had tons of books, but they had a lot of junk, too. Most of the books they were selling, they were selling for the same price we would sell them here.”

The calculated risk paid off.

“We opened the doors, and from the beginning, people came in,” Lowenburg said.

Octavia Books has one of the most impressive collections of books catering to local interests and written by local authors in the area, but their catalog doesn’t stop there. Its children’s section could almost be a small store of its own, and the selection of fiction is diverse and extensive.

“They’re all hand-picked. We care about everything we order,” Lowenburg said. ‘We think about our customers when we’re ordering it, and our customers also educate us about some things that we have in stock. It’s an interesting process.”

In addition to a good location and a well-curated selection of books, Octavia Books hosts a variety of author talks and book signings on a regular basis. Most events are in-store, but bigger author events are sometimes held at outside venues in the city that can hold a larger audience capacity. Lowenburg says the largest author event the bookstore hosted was with Stephen King. The largest in-store event was a book signing by Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

“We had a table set up back here and we had lines going down the block,” Lowenburg remembered. “We’d only let so many people in at a time. We had I think four or five people at the table at a time, they each had on average, about two books. We figure, each one, we had like two or three seconds you had to sign a book, so people had two books, let’s just say it’s five seconds – that’s 25 seconds to half a minute. (Brees) made everybody feel welcome.”

What keeps people coming back to Octavia Books and other independent bookstores? Lowenburg believes it’s all about the experience.

“It’s the feel and the smell of the books,” Lowenburg said. “You can bump into somebody you know. You might bump into an author here. You’ll find out things that are going on. You might have a conversation about something you didn’t anticipate. Ordering books online is not a great experience. If you already know what you want, then you’re just buying something. But when you come into a store, you’re seeing everything. You’re seeing a very large quantity of books right there. You can probably walk out of the store with a book.”

Will community-driven independent booksellers be able to out-live the ubiquitous nature and convenience of online retail? Ultimately, Lowenburg thinks they will.

“They’re not really booksellers,” he said. “They’re interested in selling you everything else under the sun. The books are sort of just to lure you in. (Amazon) wreaked havoc on the book industry, using books as a lure to go to other things rather than selling books the way that they should be sold and promoted. It’s been horrible for the book industry. But, in the end, we’ll still be here.”

Aura is a writer, performer, and podcast producer loving life and drinking lots of coffee in the Irish Channel.

VeryLocal_Logo_Black_RGB_icon_small

More Local Stories

Top 5-04: best coffee shops to work from in New Orleans East

Some say the East doesn’t have much, but those people must not know where to look. Here are five coffee shops where you can break out of the home office and get those creative juices going.

Can’t-Miss Independent Bookstores in Pittsburgh

A guide to the independent bookstores in Pittsburgh. There are over a dozen independent bookstores in Pittsburgh that sell everything from new releases to mystery novels.

Meet the women bringing comedy back to New Orleans

While we all spent the past 15 months grappling with the correct way to process a pandemic, the early success of the woman-owned Comedy House NOLA suggests that both the comics and the everyday citizens of New Orleans have arrived at the same conclusion as its owners — that comedy is, in fact, healing.

Here are 5 Coolinary New Orleans picks you need to try this summer

Coolinary is back in New Orleans from July 14 to Sept. 5, and more than 80 restaurants will be offering special menu options at reasonable prices, so you don’t have any excuse to miss out. In order to make things a little easier to navigate, I made a Top 5-04 list of a few spots you might want to check out with some deals you won’t want to miss.

At The Monster Mart in Oakmont you can get horror collectibles and spooky tattoos

Inside 802 Allegheny River Blvd. Richie Vomit and his wife Heidi sell action figures, masks, props, shirts and other creepy collectibles. Think of it as a year-round Spirit Halloween store with a punk rock attitude. It’s the perfect place for a spooky retail shop and tattoo studio.

Saturday is National Tattoo Day – here’s where you can get some fresh ink 💉

Maybe you’re ready to get your first tattoo and you don’t know where to go. Maybe you’re ready to add to your collection. Here’s a list (and pics) from some of the best shops in town.

All of the Pittsburgh stores featured on HGTV’s Restored by the Fords

A fan of the Fords? Here are all the local businesses where Leanne Ford shops for new and antique home decor.

Creating from a place of joy: An interview with artist Janel Young

Meet the Pittsburgh artist who is painting the town with bright colors and collaborating with national brands.

Car Bazaar: A socially distant flea market in Downtown Pittsburgh

Every Saturday in April, the Sixth and Penn Parking Garage will host an outdoor flea market.

Sweet Thangs update: Stricen Carter’s ‘designer snoballs’ are now in Mid-City

Stricen Carter is the force behind Sweet Thangs NOLA, a stand that serves decadent snowballs to long lines of eager customers. Her stand brings snowballs to the next level, by packing them with cheesecake, candy and cookies, and these photo-worthy designer deserts have been taking Instagram by storm. She taken her stand from Gentilly to Mid-City and is working on expanding.

Top 5-04: best coffee shops to work from in New Orleans East

Some say the East doesn’t have much, but those people must not know where to look. Here are five coffee shops where you can break out of the home office and get those creative juices going.

Independent Bookstores Pittsburgh

Can’t-Miss Independent Bookstores in Pittsburgh

A guide to the independent bookstores in Pittsburgh. There are over a dozen independent bookstores in Pittsburgh that sell everything from new releases to mystery novels.

Meet the women bringing comedy back to New Orleans

While we all spent the past 15 months grappling with the correct way to process a pandemic, the early success of the woman-owned Comedy House NOLA suggests that both the comics and the everyday citizens of New Orleans have arrived at the same conclusion as its owners — that comedy is, in fact, healing.

Coolinary New Orleans

Here are 5 Coolinary New Orleans picks you need to try this summer

Coolinary is back in New Orleans from July 14 to Sept. 5, and more than 80 restaurants will be offering special menu options at reasonable prices, so you don’t have any excuse to miss out. In order to make things a little easier to navigate, I made a Top 5-04 list of a few spots you might want to check out with some deals you won’t want to miss.