At the former House of Bultman, now a Borders, not all of the stories are between the covers of a bookSunday, June 28, 2009 Chris Rose
I was having a conversation with an old friend this week about a book that is enjoying current popularity and she said to me: "I'll have to go to the funeral parlor and get a copy."
Now there's something you don't hear every day.
Then again, they don't put bookstores in funeral homes just anywhere. In fact, if you Google the phrase "bookstore in a funeral home," there's only one and that's the one in the former House of Bultman on St. Charles Avenue. Established 1883. Generations ago.
Now it's Borders.
New Orleans writer Christine Wiltz admits to feeling a little wobbly every time she walks into the store. "I always think of my mother," she says. "I feel kind of melancholy for a moment. Then, once I get in here, after a few minutes, the books kind of take over my consciousness and I'm OK. There's always some comfort once I see the books."
That's the thing about putting a bookstore in a funeral home. When they walk in, some folks see books. Other folks see dead people.
"When you walk in there, you get the feeling of people floating above you," local book lover Elizabeth Hutton says. "It's like a cloud of witnesses. It's spooky. But they're not malevolent spirits. It's a benevolent presence I feel each time I walk in."
It's not necessarily a universal experience these folks have, the dead people/book thing. It's only that way, I suppose, for folks who attended funerals at Bultman over the years, the decades -- which I never did.
But Wiltz and her husband, Joe Pecot, they went to many. And adjusting to the sight of bargains, best sellers and baristas where you said good-bye to your nearest and dearest can be a discomfiting enterprise.
"My mother was right there under the Seattle's Best coffee sign," Wiltz says, leading me into the café that lines the Louisiana Avenue side of the building. "My father and I had an argument over whether it should be an open or closed casket. He's Catholic. Catholics like open, for the most part. But she had specifically said: Do not open the casket. So he and I are standing right here having an argument over my mother's dead body."
Right here, under the Seattle's Best sign, where a woman who no doubt never knew Wiltz's mother eats a cherry Danish and reads Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love."
"My daddy was over in this room," Pecot says, moving us toward the cash register and muffin display counter. "There was a chapel, pews. They could do an altar right there by the sign that says, 'It's Summer, Get Happy.' And he was laid out right under 'Smooth Roasted Coffee.' "
For Wiltz and Pecot, and lots of folks like them, this is not a bookstore, it's a journey. Reverie and sorrow where Harry Potter lords over the aisles.
"This place was so grand," Wiltz says, looking around. "The foyer was huge."
"The atrium," Pecot says. "It was gorgeous!"
They tell the story of a funeral for a friend. The place was packed, out the atrium door, through the foyer and out the front door of the building.
"There was such a hush in this room," Wiltz continues. "It was so sad. It was so untimely; we were destroyed by it."
She pauses, then says: "He would have been right about here, between 'Gifts for Dad' and 'Our Staff Recommends.' "
Behind that, in the back of what was once the grand atrium, between "Aviation" and "Civil War," there was the door through which caskets were loaded into and out of vehicles. The casket showroom, however, was up a large staircase that is no longer here. So we ride up the escalator. And Wiltz seems a bit bewildered.
"I think this is the place," she says, doubtfully. "Right here between 'Travel' and 'Humor.' This was the casket room. It was huge, dark and lush, and the caskets were all open so you could see the plush interiors."
By Wiltz and Pecot's reckoning, the casket room stretched past "Fitness" all the way to "Cooking," passing over, fittingly, "Bereavement."
We're standing there, soaking in the meaning of it all. An employee stacking books in "African-American" hesitates, fumbles some "Politics and History." "Sorry," she says. "I'm trying not to listen."
Aside, she confides in us: " 'Children's Reading' is haunted."
At the top of the escalator, Wiltz takes in the broad view of the store below. "When I stand right here, I could absolutely forget this was Bultman's," she says. "This is new and modern, and that was old and grand. There is nothing left of that place. And this escalator being here is completely bonkers. An escalator in Bultman's?"
A place like this can't help but tug at your own worn and tenuous threads of mortality. So much history, family, tears.
"I feel sad not only about what happened inside here during my lifetime, but I feel sad that this is no longer a funeral home," Wiltz says. "So many of my friends and family always thought they would be buried from here. I always thought I would be. And it's kind of upsetting to me that that's not going to happen. I would have loved to have exited from that beautiful atrium."
She looks down from the second floor to where the atrium was, all flagstone and ferns and mourning and memory -- and now it's just shoppers.
She shrugs. She says: "Just lay me out in 'True Crime.' "
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Columnist Chris Rose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 504.826.3309, or 504.352.2535. Comment or read past columns at nola.com/living.