"You woke in the morning to the smell of gardenias, the electric smell of the streetcars, chicory coffee, and stone that has turned green with lichen. The light always filtered through trees, so it was never harsh, and flowers bloomed year-round. New Orleans was a poem, man, a song in your heart that never died."
In his short story titled "Jesus Out to Sea," James Lee Burke describes beautifully the vibe of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina swamped the city. Though the storm's effects linger, the sun is shining once again, and the Crescent City is in bloom. Not only are people rebuilding their lives, but commerce is picking up as small companies move into the heart of New Orleans. Just this April, Massey's Professional Outfitters, a chain of four outdoor specialty stores in Louisiana, opened its new headquarters and a retail store in a historic downtown building.
"It's not a high-traffic, retail hub… and it has been desperately in need of local businesses after Katrina," said owner Mike Massey, describing the Mid City location. He told SNEWS® that since the 1900s this part of town has typically been home to light industry and warehouses, though it is primed for growth. While New Orleans' suburban shopping centers are losing their appeal and charging ever-higher rent, real estate and rent prices downtown remain low. Plus, Mid City is easily accessible from other parts of New Orleans thanks to a streetcar line that runs near the Massey's storefront.
Massey said that he originally scouted downtown New Orleans to find a cheap warehouse to support Internet sales. That's when he found a 28,000-square-foot building that he could rent for $6 a square foot. Massey quickly determined that he'd not only found a great warehouse space, but also a home for his company headquarters and a new retail shop.
"After we signed our lease, we learned that many national merchants had concluded that this was a viable part of the city," he said, adding that Nike just opened a store down the street from his building.
Not only did the area offer affordable rent, but it was frequented by active but laidback folks who enjoyed somewhat of a bohemian lifestyle -- just the type of crowd you need for an outdoor specialty store. Massey said that this was the location of one of the two original Whole Foods stores in the country, and over the years downtown New Orleans has attracted people with a more European sensibility.
"The suburbs of New Orleans are like Anywhere USA, but in downtown, everything's different," said Massey. "People take their time and go slower, and people will stop and talk with you. They'll play a game of six degrees of separation to see whom you know. People sit with each other, eat with each other. They're not in a hurry."
While the Massey's stores in suburban New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Metairie carry the usual outdoor brands and fairly conservative styles, the downtown store caters to urban tastes. "At first, we put in stuff we had traditionally done in other stores and quickly learned it's a way younger generation here. It's much more of an urban mix, with people driving Vespas and Mini Coopers," said Massey. "They don't want to wear zip-off pants, and we're selling more surf-inspired styles. We had always wondered how some people could sell things like courier packs, but we're selling a lot of that kind of stuff. And we're certainly still selling canoes, kayaks, tents and sleeping bags. But, it's much more about how products fit into their whole lifestyle."
Certainly, a store's success depends on an owner's ability to understand current and potential customers. But, it also helps to be in the right place at the right time, and before too long Massey's will be in the thick of the downtown action. The Rails-To-Trails Conservancy is planning to build a three-mile bike and pedestrian path in an old rail corridor that runs from Canal Boulevard to the French Quarter. "And it's going to start right on our loading dock," Massey said with a real note of excitement.
For a town that was drowned and nearly washed away, it must be nice to imagine a smooth, dry path lined with lampposts, winding through a hallway of green. Someday, folks in The Big Easy will be able to roll down that path, or maybe stroll on a spring day, and the familiar scent of gardenias and chicory will, once again, hang in the breeze.