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MEMORIES, DREAMS, AND NIGHTMARES
It Was Thirty Years Ago . . . by Chris Wiltz
(on the occasion of Maple Street Book Shop’s thirtieth anniversary)
Bright Lights On Maple Street
(November 24, 1992)
In 1965 I bought my first book from Maple Street Book Shop. It was 50 Poems by e.e. cummings and I still have it. Mary Kellogg and her sister Rhoda Norman opened the store earlier in the year, and the bookmarks boasted “Five Rooms of Paperbacks,” something the city of New Orleans never had before, a shop dedicated to stocking the greatest and latest in paperback books. Before the year was out, the book shop was well known for something other than its growing stock and willingness to special order books.
Because Mary and Rhoda Norman felt like fish out of water in mostly conservative New Orleans, the bookstore became a place the left wing and avant garde could depend on as a source for their books and as a meeting place. They would hang out on the screened side porch—where the travel section is today—schmoozing until after dark, sometimes well after closing hours if anyone had enough pocket change to run down to Bruno’s and buy a few beers to fuel the conversation.
In my memory it was all glamorous, everyone wearing dark glasses, black turtlenecks, and long hair (my memory may not be so reliable on some of these finer details) except for Mary who always seemed to have on a crisp white cotton blouse, wore her hair short and frosted, and had sunglasses with cool-green lenses.
Part of the glamour too, I’m sure, had to do with my being younger than those I perceived as the hip intelligentsia, the college professors and students who dressed in black and talked about Neitzche. I was only a high school senior, beneath the notice of that group, and not only that, Rhoda and I were usually tearing in after school, out to do some “blazing” as we called it (which usually meant checking out some boy’s house or whereabouts) and looking for some extra funds. Mary would ask Rhoda what we were up to, get absolutely no satisfaction that I can recall, and only in self defense finally open the cash drawer and hand over a few bucks.
Hard to believe, but it was thirty years ago that Rhoda and I met at Fortier High School. One of the teachers there, Charles Macmurdo, put us together as editor and managing editor of the school newspaper. I remember his telling me before he introduced me to Rhoda that I would like her very much and that we would be friends for a long time. Prophetic, indeed, because thirty years later we are still the very best and closest of friends.
As it turned out, Mr. Macmurdo and Mary Kellogg were two of the most influential adults in my life, Mr. Macmurdo for introducing me to Rhoda and allowing us to be rather creative, shall I say, with the school newspaper. Students used to congregate in the halls on the day the paper came out to see what Rhoda’s survey was that month (she covered topics such as “What historical figure would you like to be and why?” Morgus was a popular response) and to find out what I was taking to task on the editorial page, none of which I remember now. It was also due to Mr. Macmurdo and his consuming love of literature that I became a novelist.
But it was Mary Kellogg who ended up having the most prolonged influence. I’d never known women like Mary or Rhoda Norman before. They were both glamorous and smart; they owned a book shop. And they were mothers. I didn’t see Rhoda Norman as often as I did Mary, and anyway, Mary was the mother of my best friend. I spent a lot of time at their house.
I watched Mary handle Rhoda and her sister and two brothers (a major handful, believe me!) without ever raising her voice, though I did see her go up to her bedroom and lock them out a few times. But Mary and Rhoda Norman let us smoke cigarettes in front of them (on one special occasion) and talked about men in front of us. I was enthralled.
The summer after high school Rhoda and I spent three months blazing, playing chess, and getting into Mary’s hair. There was a very brief part of that summer that we made some sort of pretense of working at the book shop, but I think it wasn’t long. I don’t think Mary could stand it. She probably paid us to stay away.
Then Rhoda and I both went off to college. We wrote letters every now and again and kept up with each other during summers. The summer after our freshman year we came home to discover that Mary had hired Marigny Dupuy to work in the shop. Rhoda had already met Marigny and hated her on sight, mostly because Mary spoke so well of her and clearly liked her a lot. Also, Marigny was on territory Rhoda perceived as hers.
So one day while we were out on a blaze, Rhoda suggested we go over to the book shop and give Marigny the business. We arrived at the shop with our toughest attitude only to discover that the object of our attitude was intelligent and funny, and though we didn’t want to admit it right away, we liked her. All that was left was to shed the tough we’d put on as gracefully as possible.
Marigny, because she is a nice person, made it easy, and Rhoda and I formed another lasting friendship. Some years later Rhoda asked Marigny to manage the Maple Street Children’s Book Shop, and I named my daughter after her.
Before that happened, though, the three of us worked in the book shop together, separately, and on and off, and there were some pretty wild times. It often seemed, in fact, that the shop wouldn’t survive us. During one period, our days began with the landlord, Mr. Applewhite, bringing us Tom Collins drinks from Bruno’s, and the crowd that congregated on the side porch started scaring off customers. But Mary, who was off being a political activist, came back and saved the store.
Then Marigny, Rhoda, and I went our separate ways for a few years, Marigny to the Northeast, while I went to California and Rhoda stayed in New Orleans, though eventually she spent part of a year in Okinawa.
I was in San Francisco for my last year of college when my mother wrote and enclosed a Times- Picayune article about a Mardi Gras ball, and there was a picture of Rhoda as one of the maids of Momus! Rhoda, you have to understand, personified “hip” to me in those days. She was a rebel, a female James Dean—and now a Momus maid? I couldn’t believe it and immediately sent off an expressive letter of my disbelief.
Later I found out that Rhoda had failed to attend the Queen’s Supper—an egregious insult to Mardi Gras royalty. Now that sounded like the Rhoda I knew, the Rhoda who eventually made sandals and peace signs at the first Love Shop in the French Quarter, and became a successful hippie entrepreneur, a total contradiction in terms, but Rhoda is very much like the city where she grew up, full of contradictions.
After college I lived in Los Angeles for about a year, but my roots called me home, and I packed up my VW bug and trekked across the Texas desert one more time. I got a job at Tulane Medical School and waited for Rhoda to return from Okinawa.
Once again, the book shop became a focal point of my life. Soon, though, Mary and her daughter Consuelo and Rhoda Norman decided to do some traveling.They hit the road, driving first to Florida, up the East Coast, across the country, eventually to arrive where I’d just returned from, California. While they were gone, they left the management of the shop to a young man named Ricky Coxe, who I could tell was in love with Mary.
We didn’t know at the time that Mary, Rhoda Norman and Consuelo would never return. Shortly after Rhoda Faust got back from Okinawa, she got a call from Mary asking her if she wanted the book shop, and telling her that if she didn’t, then she was going to sell it. It didn’t take Rhoda long to decide; she told Mary yes and called me to see if I would quit my job at the medical school and come help her. I gave notice that day.
We could see that Ricky Coxe was hard hit by all this news, first that Mary wasn’t coming back, and second that Rhoda was going to take over the shop. He gave us a half-hearted tour of the stock and the paperwork, but I had trouble staying tuned in because Rhoda had told me that Ricky had a bubble of air trapped in his brain from a deep sea diving accident and he could die at any moment.
Ricky stayed in New Orleans for a while but ended up in New York. It wasn’t long before we heard he died there, sad and terrible news. I never forgot Ricky, though, and 18 years later when I wrote The Emerald Lizard, I gave a character Ricky’s ailment.
Our 30th Anniversay Party
I’m not sure that either Rhoda or I listened very closely to Ricky, and I’m not sure that even if we had it would have saved us from all the mistakes we made running Maple Street Book Shop over the next couple of years. Customers were interested in new books, so we stocked more hardbacks than the store had normally carried, but we didn’t know anything about returns. The first Christmas we didn’t order nearly enough and with no time left to supplement what we had, we ran out of Christmas stock. The next Christmas we over-ordered fiercely and lost money when we didn’t return books in a timely manner. Not only that, we had no idea that the book business entailed the amount of paper work it did. Systems had to be developed to keep up with it all, systems which over the years Rhoda has perfected. But we muddled along as best we could, miraculously didn’t go under, and things began to look up by the third year. Rhoda had found her niche in life and once things were running smoothly at least, I went off to try my hand at writing novels and found mine.
Many of the most pivotal events in my life happened at the Maple Street Book Shop: I met my first love; I learned of the suicide of a good friend; I made the two most enduring friendships of my life; I learned about books and the world of publishing. And I know that my story is only one of many that center around this atmospheric hub of bonhomie for book lovers of all persuasions; I am one of many thirty-year frequenters of the shop.
When Mary Kellogg and Rhoda Norman opened Maple Street Book Shop thirty years ago, they were celebrating their independence as women and free thinkers. When Rhoda continued the tradition they began, she tempered it and balanced it and turned it into a thriving store that has been written about many times as one of the best independent book stores in the country. May the tradition continue.