In a world of electronic ink, instant-prime shipping and streaming digital video, January 2014 will bring the final chapter for McKeown’s Books and Digital Music, the little Tchoupitoulas Street refuge from the modern world where the music was meant to be heard quietly and the most important feature was a round table in the center where patrons could sit, read and talk together.
Maggie McKeown, the shop’s irrepressible proprietress, announced in a New Year’s Day email to supporters that the store will close at the end of the month, with all used books 50 percent off until then. Even the book shelves are for sale.
“On February 1, 2005, I opened McKeown’s Books and Difficult Music on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans,” she wrote. “Joseph Campbell may have said ‘follow your bliss’ but he also talked about the inevitability of change. So it is: McKeown’s Books will close at the end of January 2014.”
‘The book business’
On Thursday, the day after the announcement, a steady stream of customers, loyalists and friends filled the store, and McKeown said her decision was based on a number of changing forces beyond her control. She opened the store as the fulfillment of a long-held dream after 15 years as a nurse-midwife, and for the first time in her life, she said, she doesn’t know what’s next for herself — other than some time off.
“There’s never just one reason,” McKeown said. “Even if there are a number of factors for the closing, it doesn’t mean I still don’t love the business. I love the book business. I’m not sure if it loves me.”
Is running a bookstore more difficult now than when she started? “Without a doubt,” McKeown answered. Reading habits are changing, as more material is published online-only, and electronic readers are growing in popularity. Meanwhile, the rise of online retail — dominated by Amazon.com, the bookselling juggernaut — has been the biggest change, McKeown said.
“Those things are here to stay,” she said.
New Orleans is beginning to experience some commercial gentrification, with smaller shops unable to keep up with rising rents. McKeown said her rent on Tchoupitoulas has risen over time as well, but not unreasonably, and that her landlord has always been understanding. In fact, when she considered seeking a less expensive location, she found it impossible to find any affordable storefront that would receive walk-up traffic.
‘No other venue comparable’
Part of what New Orleans will lose from the closing of the shop is McKeown’s tangible love for her books, evident in their careful presentation. The philosophy shelf, for example, is divided into subsections such as “logic,” “ethics” or “epistemology.” But her favorite section, she said, was always the “New Arrivals” — where books of all sorts were placed alongside each other without regard for genre or topic, creating the possibility for unexpected discoveries by readers. “I like seeing them all next to each other, before they go off to their separate sections,” she said.
The city will also lose a venue for under-appreciated experimental music that does not lend itself to big nightclubs or bars (though she is considering one final “Evening of Difficult Music” on Jan. 25). When McKeown’s first opened, experimental music had few homes in New Orleans, she said, and she particularly wanted musicians to have a relatively quiet place to play before an audience. Now, experimental music is a little easier to find — McKeown applauded the Blue Nile’s “Open Ears” series, as well as the Hi-Ho Lounge, Cafe Istanbul and the Marigny Opera House downtown, and Zeitgeist in Central City.
But George Alvey Jr., a composer whose works have been featured in the “Difficult Music” concert series, said the other locations cannot replace McKeown’s, where he recorded one of his albums. Playing in McKeown’s simply has its own feel, surrounded by bookshelves.
“There’s no other venue comparable,” Alvey said. “You feel like you’re in a room here, and Maggie giving you moral support.”
Like Alvey, patrons know McKeown’s buoyant spirit is central to the store’s appeal. In 2010, an article in the Tulane Hullaballoo student newspaper noted that “the best thing about the shop” is McKeown herself. She seemed to know nearly everyone who approached the counter Thursday, and she would thumb through the pages of the customers’ selections with approval, asking them if they had read other works by the same authors. “That’s a nice stack,” she said, or “You’ve got some good ones here,” and if her enthusiasm was dampened by the circumstances, it was impossible to hear it in her voice.
“It’s great seeing all these books going into good homes,” McKeown said as she rang up another customer, who promised to come back again before the end of the month. “I love people who love books. That’s what I’m going to miss most. It’s not the books; it’s the people.”