Last month, I reviewed a murder mystery call Chasing the Devil’s Tail by David Fulmer, set in the Storyville era of New Orleans in the first decade of the 20th century. Fulmer has written three additional stories in the same series, and I just finished the second one, Jass. The detective in the stories, Valentin St. Cyr, lives on Magazine Street. I didn’t know precisely where on Magazine until I read in Jass that he and another character take a short stroll from his walk-up apartment (with a balcony) to the corner of Magazine and Gravier Street.
That intersection in New Orleans is four doors from where my father’s printing business was located from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. The area was all small businesses – printing businesses, a lawyer’s office, a shop for nautical instruments, The Board of Trade (with Board of Trade Alley paralleling Magazine from Gravier to Natchez streets), Steve’s Sandwich Shop, the Bon Ton Café and several others. (The photo above is of the 400 block of Gravier Street, directly across from where my father’s building was.)
I grew up at that intersection. We lived in the western suburb of Metairie, but I spent many weekends and many summers right near that intersection at 424 Gravier Street.
The building, which my father rented first from “Old Man Bossier” (pronounced BOSS-ee-a) and then from his widow, was four stories, and narrow and deep. The first floor had an office in the front, where my father’s desk and the secretary’s desk were, cordoned off by a wall from the rest of the floor, which contained the composing room, a huge old paper cutter with a vicious blade, long tables for collating and papers and stuffing envelopes, a gigantic safe that held nothing but old pre-canceled postage stamps, a folding machine, another room containing an addressograph (and the coffee area) and postage meter machine, the bathroom and then doors leading to a patio enclosed by brick buildings on four sides but open to the sky. The first floor had a 20-foot ceiling.
To reach the second floor, you walked up a very long flight of stairs, where you’d find the printing presses and the room for shooting negatives (this was back in the days before computers) to burn into the plates for the letterpress printers. The third and fourth floors were what we kids called “the haunted floors” – unused, containing old furniture, Mr. Bossier’s rolltop desk and broken chair, old boxes and bottles (which had contained something of an alcoholic nature). The fourth floor was lighter, but just as dirty as the third; it had a skylight and had been used for storage. We found old Sugar Bowl posters from the 1930s up there.
The building was old; my guess would be that it had been built in the 1880s or 1890s. What I didn’t know, until I read Jass, was that the entire area had been largely residential at one time – apartments and town houses. I knew it only as a business area two or three blocks from Canal Street and two or three blocks from all the big bank buildings on St. Charles and Carondelet avenues. It was also the perfect location for Mardi Gras – just two block from where the parades went by.
I probably could not count the number of envelopes I labeled, or the number of magazines (including the publication for the New Orleans employees of Shell Oil) I addressed with that addressograph. I was very close to the postage meter, too; we spent a lot of time together. In the summers, I would do all of those things, and usually serve as the delivery boy, pushing the red card filled with boxes to Shell Oil, Whitney Bank, various ad agencies in the business district and the French Quarter, over to the Rault Center on Loyola Avenue, and a lot of other places. I got to know downtown New Orleans pretty well in my junior high, high school and college years.
In the mid-1970s, the building was sold, and my father had to find a new place to rent, which he did a few blocks away on Magazine Street. He was there only for a few years, and then moved again to the final location for his business, at 501 Baronne. But 424 Gravier is forever stamped in my mind as the place my father had his business.
Today, interestingly enough, the area has moved back in the residential direction. Most of the buildings in the 400 block of Gravier (including the one my father rented) are now condos and townhomes. The Bon Ton Café is still around the corner on Magazine Street. Steve’s Sandwich Shop is long gone. The Board of Trade Building is still there, and still has a nice patio area.
Valentin St. Cyr would likely recognize the area.