How's Bayou? Upping the ante
The clumsy, clunky Underwood typewriter dwarfs my dainty maternal grandmother, Laura Cooper Nelson, as she sits at her desk in the Queen and Crescent Building on New Orleans' Newspaper Row in the 1910 photo that my mother always kept close by.
The image must have been hand-tinted by some proto-Andy Warhol, as the fuchsias, mauves and dreamy grays, as well as the shimmering highlights in her Miss-Manners-coiffed hair, would have been out of place in the workplace of that day and time.
She was the secretary in the two-person office of the Liverpool and London Insurance Company, not because she needed the money, but because she thought that women should work, just like men.
My mother felt the same way. In 1934, she heeded the advice of her sister Edwina, who worked in the advertising art department of The Times-Picayune, that New Orleans needed a good source of fine and graphic arts materials, renting a small office just down the corridor in the same building, and opening Naomi Damonte Photoengraving Supplies, which a year later would spin off an iconic New Orleans retailer, Dixie Art Supplies.
By the early 1950s, Dixie had moved around the corner to 518 Natchez St., surrounded by printers, photographers and engravers who served The Times Picayune in its North Street building on Lafayette Square, just a block away. It was there, when I had barely learned to walk, that I stamped literature and stocked shelves with Henry Mansion, who started at Dixie after his discharge from the Army and finally retired in 2010.
The business grew and in 1956 rented a handsome storefront at 532 Poydras Street, where the Boggs Building and Federal courts now stand, that had been the site from which the first flag of a free Cuba was flown at the end of the 19th century. We hopscotched back toward Canal Street when that building was demolished; and in 1982, my brother Don and I launched the first renovation of an historic building in the Warehouse District – 420 Julia St., now home to the Louisiana Children’s Museum – and created what I still believe was the most beautiful art-supplies store in the world.
Our suburban branch opened on Jefferson Highway in 1988, in response to out-of-state catalogue stores and in anticipation of what the Internet would become. Hurricane Katrina, and the wildly impractical plan of our landlord, who evicted all his tenants and planned to build luxury residential towers on the spot, forced us under the Huey Long bridge railroad trestles, where for a short period of time Compass Furniture’s Lou Rippner, the landlord, became my new best friend and we tried our luck with TrestleFest, an indoor art market that was fun but not what you’d call a moneymaker.
We moved again in 2010, to a smaller site adjacent to the Elmwood shopping center, and expanded our online features to provide faster service to local customers. But artists seem enthralled with ordering out of state and waiting several days for paints and brushes to arrive, rather than shopping online with a local seller and picking up their order the next day. It has something to do with what many derisively refer to as “having to pay sales tax.”
So last Friday, October 5, 2012, we took the next step and decided to become a strictly online retailer, specializing in airbrush equipment and supplies, while still supplying artists’ materials as requested.
The good news is that in November, Dixie Art is moving to Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville, where I can wake up in the morning, have coffee on the porch and stroll to my new office through the dewy grass instead of negotiating New Orleans traffic. No longer will I have to divide my time between Madewood and Dixe; I can do what I do best: juggle a dozen or so things at the same time as I hammer out this new project and forge a new entity in Marquette House, the 1840s home of Napoleonville’s blacksmith that I moved to Madewood in the 1980s.
Last Saturday, as handyman Dave Kruse began repainting the interior, I stared though the open French doors that overlook a favorite project, the solar panels that generate a significant percent of Madewood’s electrical needs, wondering how a photo of me in those new surroundings, like the one of my grandmother sitting at her typewriter a century ago, would look.
Like an angelic voice from above, the steady, deep voice of the owner of the Men’s Wearhouse in the TV ad echoed in my head: “You’re gonna like the way you look. I guarantee it.”
How's Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.