New Orleans, Meeting the Challenge
In August 2005 many thought New Orleans culture was gone forever. Two years later the rebirth of New Orleans continues at a snail’s pace, but many antique shop owners are feeling confident about the city’s future, or, rather, their place in the rebuilding process. A new market has emerged. Many antiques dealers are selling primarily to locals who want to refurnish their homes. Sales in furniture have boomed, while tourism has declined. More locals are shopping, but this does not compensate for the loss tourism, the largest market for antique shops pre-Katrina. I remember walking down Magazine Street, fascinated by the weird items in shop windows only to stop every 20 feet at a different shop browsing the day away. After the storm many smaller shops, like those on Magazine Street, have changed hours, are available by appointment only, or have gone out of business. The successful shops have expanded hours; now open seven days a week. Two years after the storm, smaller shops struggle to pay the rent while larger dealers, especially high-end stores, focus globally rather than locally via the Internet.
The Internet has opened new possibilities for both high-end dealers and smaller shops by allowing them to stay open despite the severe drop in tourism. Kevin Stone of Kevin Stone Antiques used to see 60 plus people a day, but now only a few browse his store specializing in 17th, 18th, and 19th century European fine antiques. He remains confident due to high Internet sales. Also he has placed national ads and is part of several community websites. Despite the slow walk in traffic, older shops, like Joan Good, has turned to the Internet as well to boost sales. After forty years of specializing in ladies’ jewelry Joan Good’s business continues to grow. However, it is no longer a tourist spot, unlike M.S. Rau Antiques established in 1912. Both are located on Royal Street in the French Quarter, but M.S. Rau Antiques depends on a global market and remains heavy in foot traffic. Susan K. Lapene, sales associate at M.S. Rau, commented that the shop is more a museum. In other words, tourists don’t usually buy her high-end antiques but they love to look around. In fact, despite the storm, M.S. had their best year in 2007.
Other antique owners are saw changes in clientele, but adjusted to the post-storm changes with success. C. J. Galliano of the Magazine Antique Mall adjusted her hours to be available seven days a week, helping locals to shop more conveniently. She claims that consistent availability has kept her shop open with great results. Before the storm her clients were 80% tourists and 20% locals. The percentage flipped to 80% locals right after Katrina. Currently the tide is changing again, with 70% tourists and 30% locals. Top Drawer, the first antique store on Magazine Street, remains successful after over 50 years of business. After Katrina, local patronage rose from 5% to 40% of their overall business. Owner Aaron Jarabica has also expanded onto the Internet, shipping worldwide. However, his shipping numbers are down due to the decrease in tourism. Despite being closed for 3 months after the storm, Top Drawer opened to desperate need for furniture and housing décor. According to Jarabica his largest concern has been staffing his two shops, one specializing in Americana the other in all styles of French furniture. He implores locals and all visitors to remember to spend money at local businesses to keep the cycle of prosperity alive.
Perhaps the shops that suffered the most were the quirky, weird stores serving up oddities of all sorts. These shops once found a niche in New Orleans are struggling to stay open. The Alligator Museum, a popular spot for all things dead, such as pinned insects and skeletons, remains mysteriously darkened, with no hours posted. Downtown, the Sword and the Pen, once the Toy Soldier shop, has seen a devastating loss in walk-in traffic. Once a tourist hotpot, the Sword and Pen still relies on 70% tourism, but has had troubled times. The manager Larry Marsh informed me that much of this was due to a period between January 2006 and November 2006 when the store was changing owners and had to close. The previous owner decided to leave the city and sold his collection to an antique store on Chartes street, one area left empty due to lack of tourism after Katrina. Moving onto Royal, the new owners combined their store of historical pieces, coins, weapons, and militaria with the previous owner’s toy soldier collection creating a unique spot unlike any other store in the city.
Another store grasping for survival is Neophobia on Magazine Street, specializing in Modern American collectibles, especially odd furniture and lighting. Having to move after the storm due to rent hikes, Amanda and Vick remain in business due to expanded hours. According to Vick, if an antique shop wants to survive they need tourists and tourists only shop on Magazine, not often willing to stray from the beaten path. Neophopbia plans to ride out the hard times but Vick admits, “We’re not getting rich,” but it pays the bills. As magazine street changes with more high-end boutiques and restaurants, the stores filled with oddities the city was once known for are loosing their place. Vick expressed concern about the future of magazine and the trouble in getting people to patronize the quirky, interesting shops.
For now the Sword and the Pen and Neophobia are trying to stay afloat, the question remains how long? What will the future of New Orleans look like? Will the tourists keep coming back? It speaks to the faith and strength of New Orleanians that despite the adversity and changed environment of the city they continue on believing in their place in this unique city; from M.S. Rau to Neophobia there is room for all kinds of antique shops, but it all depends on you. So come on down and browse around, you will never see anything like New Orleans.