“He’s got a bag fulla memories,” one guy at Elmo Spellman’s Esplanade Optical Center says. “That’d make a helluva song, wouldn’t it?”
Spellman has set aside a little corner of his world, a couple of walls at his shop, to preserve his memories of the downtown New Orleans shopping mecca where your mama took ya to get that first communion outfit at Graff’s, after which she picked up a new dress at Kreeger’s, then dragged you across the street and down the block to meet up with your aunt, her sister, the one with the big glasses, “under the clock at ‘Holmes-es.”
The walls of Spellman’s optical parlor are lined with shopping bags from stores that symbolize a long-ago New Orleans. The bags, most in pristine condition, some a little shopworn, are professionally matted and framed and stand as reminders of the past: Woolworth, Schwegmann’s, Katz & Besthoff, Porter Stevens, Lord and Taylor, Werlein’s (“the nation’s oldest retail music store”), Hibernia Bank.
The bags represent some stores that opened as long ago as the 1930s; by the mid-1980s, most had closed.
Two of the shopping bag layouts, those of Porter Stevens and Krause, have insets inside the matte holding the credit cards of Spellman and his wife, Karen.
“We used those cards to make the last purchases at Porter Stevens and Krause before they closed,” Spellman said. “Ain’t dere no more.”
But at least the memories are still there for Spellman, and countless thousands of other natives who came from uptown, Gretna, the Ninth Ward and Gentilly on rickety diesel buses and streetcars just to browse those stores along Canal Street.
“We lived in the lower Garden District by Coliseum Square,” Spellman says. “A lot of times, we’d walk to Canal Street. It really wasn’t far at all. And on a nice autumn day there was nothing like it. Then other times, we’d take the Magazine Street bus. Seven cents back then. Get a transfer. Get off on Camp (Street) and Canal, by the Waterbury’s (drug store) and catch the Canal streetcar. But it was just as easy to walk.”
Spellman has plaques and other memorabilia on his walls commemorating his 50 years in the optical business. He’s got tangible memories of his years of marching with Pete Fountain’s Half Fast Marching Club and with Endymion, and there are the display shelves holding hundreds and hundreds of eyeglass frames.
But he always seems to turn his attention back to those shopping bags.
“I started collected the bags 25, maybe 30 years ago,” he says. “I have a large collection of Holmes bags, some from my aunt, my grandmother. Some my mother gave to me. Some of them really took a beating from Katrina. They were full of mold and mildew. I have a lot more bags. I just don’t have the room for them. But the ones I do have, I can look at them and probably tell you the year that business closed. Gone forever. K&B Drug Stores. Where else could you go and have a great cheese sandwich and milkshake? I remember they used to leave the shake in the can and you’d just pour it out into your glass yourself.
“Why do I do it?” Spellman asks nobody in particular. “Sure, it’s nostalgia. … Back when we shopped on Canal Street and used these bags, I never would have thought it possible that one day it would all be gone. Nothing lasts forever.
“But at least I have my bags.”