End of an Era: NOLA’s Only Catholic Bookstore Closes

Founded by a single Catholic laywoman in her late 20s in 1939 with a new vision of evangelization, the store became a ‘creator of community.’

Oldest bookstore in New Orleans has had to close its doors after opening in 1939.
Oldest bookstore in New Orleans has had to close its doors after opening in 1939. (photo: Courtesy photo / The Catholic Bookstore)

The only Catholic bookstore in New Orleans closed for good on Friday, having survived fire, floods and hurricanes, but not the internet.

“Closing the store is heartbreaking for all of us, but it’s an economic necessity. The book business has changed, and we haven’t changed with it,” said Margaret Kelly, treasurer and member of the board of trustees of the nonprofit foundation that runs The Catholic Book Store.

Store manager Anne Komly called the store “a mission.”

“Everybody loves this store. They come in and say it’s so peaceful. They feel like they’re in a church or a chapel,” she said.

Komly spoke to the Register by telephone on Friday, the painful last day, amid well-wishers.

“We’ve done a lot of good here, and we’ve touched a lot of lives,” Komly said. “And it’s shown by the people who have been coming in here, despondent, teary-eyed.”

All by Herself

Florence Elizabeth Henderson (1912-1992) was a single Catholic laywoman in her late 20s looking after her elderly father when she opened a for-profit Catholic bookstore in 1939 in the St. Charles Hotel in downtown New Orleans.

She had grown up an only child near Audubon Park in the southwestern part of the city, not far from the Mississippi River. Her father was a wholesale sugar dealer, according to census records. Three of her four grandparents were born in Ireland.

When the hotel was remodeled after World War II, the store moved to another location downtown, on Baronne Street.

A humdrum interaction with a customer in 1959 brought Henderson unexpected attention.

A dark-skinned man came in one Saturday afternoon asking to cash a $20 traveler’s check.

“‘Of course,’ she said without hesitation, as though nothing could be more natural. She did not even study me,” the man wrote later of the experience.

The author, John Howard Griffin, was a white man from Texas who had darkened his skin and was traveling through the South as a Black man to see what life was like for African Americans. The stores in New Orleans he had tried previously that day had turned him down, with some clerks suggesting he had come by the check dishonestly. He had just about given up. But remembering the Catholic Church’s stance against racism, when he saw the sign for The Catholic Book Store, he decided to try it.

“I was so grateful I bought a number of paperback books — works of Maritain, Aquinas and Christopher Dawson,” Griffin, a convert to Catholicism, wrote in his 1961 bestseller Black Like Me. Griffin sent Henderson a copy of Black Like Me after it came out, according to Robert Bonazzi’s 1997 book about Griffin’s book, called Man in the Mirror. Henderson wrote back to Griffin: “I want to say ‘Thank you,’ though I regret from the bottom of my heart the situation that makes so ordinary an act newsworthy.”

“That’s typical of Florence Henderson,” retired New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes told the Register this past weekend, “and reveals how she would divert attention to herself as significant.”

“A remarkable woman; had a remarkable vision, too,” the archbishop said of Henderson. “She had a vision of evangelizing Catholicism, not just through Catholic books but books that addressed issues significant to the Catholic faith.”

Archbishop Hughes, who at 91 still teaches spiritual theology at Notre Dame Seminary, said Henderson embodied selfless service.

“I wouldn’t mind being in Florence Henderson’s shoes appearing before the Lord, because in a non-flamboyant way she served the mission of the Lord and the mission of the Church,” Archbishop Hughes said. “She contributed to this great mission in a humble, faithful, persevering way. When the Lord said, ‘The last shall be first,’ I think that the Lord was talking about people like Florence Henderson.”

Troubles — and Friends

In 1969, water damage from a fire upstairs from the store destroyed its inventory — and almost the business. But wealthy friends and customers helped Henderson move the store again, this time to the neighborhood of the archdiocese’s seminary.

Then-New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan allowed the store to occupy, rent-free, a building owned by the archdiocese, Archbishop Hughes said, an arrangement that his successors have continued.

The store became a nonprofit entity in 1975, Komly told the Register. In 1979, friends of the store formed The Catholic Book Store Foundation, which raised money for the store and funding to provide retirement income for Henderson, according to the store’s website.

As she got older and frailer, Henderson had less to do with running the store. She died in 1992. But others stepped in.

“It was run like kind of a family. Even though they’re not related to one another by blood, they exercised their role there as a ministry,” Archbishop Hughes said.

Komly told the Register she became manager of the store in 1998.

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. Flooding dumped four and a half feet of water in the basement. But Komly later reopened in a trailer, which she operated for three years, before moving into its most recent space, the upstairs of a former home at 3003 South Carrollton Ave.

The store was a creator of community, she said.

“It’s a real melting pot here. It’s a real nice mix. And people became friends by being here,” she said.

The archdiocese, which filed for bankruptcy protection in May 2020, has listed the property, and others, for sale, as a way to help pay clergy sex-abuse claims, according to a story published in March by The Times Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate.

That was a factor in the decision of the trustees to close it. But the major problem for the store was lack of revenue. Kelly said sales have been declining, thanks largely to customers turning to internet providers.

The internet is good at getting you a book you want in short order, but it’s not as good at getting a book you didn’t know you wanted.

Kelly said, “There’s something about a bookstore that allows that to happen.”

Matt McDonald is a Register staff reporter and the editor of New Boston Post.