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The Little Bookseller Who Did

By Mary Ann Sternberg
Cottonwood Books existed for over 40 years and several iterations in the shadow of the Perkins Road overpass. But, since 1986, that name emblazoned in white on a royal blue awning has been synonymous with a single person: proprietor (and often sole employee) Daniel Robert Plaisance, known to everyone as “Danny.”

While the surrounding area became trendy with hip shops and restaurants, the last independent bookstore in old Baton Rouge preserved the warm, cozy atmosphere of an old-fashioned neighborhood.

Cottonwood was a kind of oasis, but unlike other contemporary bookshops: It offered no café for sipping lattes, no slick displays or bright lights, only the musty, earthy, pleasant smell of quantities of vintage books—a book-lover’s favorite fragrance—offered in a small, cluttered, friendly space. Nor did the owner ever harbor aspirations of becoming more modern. He preferred to focus instead on an increasingly hard-to-find quality: excellent customer service.

Cottonwood Books was utterly the creation and reflection of its owner.

Danny Plaisance, an eternally genial man, slim and boyish looking with a 1950s barbershop haircut, could usually be found seated in the “office” right next to the front door. It was merely a small, open, corner space, defined by a messy desk, a crowded sales counter and a perimeter of crammed bookshelves that often looked as if one more added book might cause a landslide.

A sign on the wall overhead read “Cottonwood Books a business friend of Literacy Works.” Another read “No cash refunds.” Often, taking up precious floorspace at the entrance were cardboard boxes spilling over with used books that he hadn’t yet sorted through.

From his office perch, Danny greeted all comers with his trademark broad grin that lit up in his pale blue eyes, a warm welcome for both familiar customers and first-timers. If he wasn’t sitting right there by the door, chances were that Danny was “in the back,” looking for a book someone had requested. He seemed to be always there, rarely closing during the workday, and then just for an hour or so, and “back soon.”

Only recently, when his Parkinson’s Disease began to progress and make it increasingly difficult for Danny to continue the long, solo hours did Cottonwood Books change its operations. He was forced to open for fewer hours, then fewer days. Finally, his wife Nancy, retired from banking, came in to help with both daily logistics and strategizing the sale of her husband’s unique enterprise.

Danny Plaisance’s journey to becoming a mainstay of Baton Rouge’s literary community was slightly circuitous. After graduating from Broadmoor High School, he earned a business degree from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now ULL) in Lafayette. During college, he had worked at Anders, a bookstore near the USL campus that sold used textbooks, class-assigned books, and USL paraphernalia.

“I loved working there,” recalled Cottonwood’s owner, reflecting that perhaps the experience had planted a seed, though it lay dormant for a while.

His first job was as an assistant buyer for H.J. Wilson, a jewelry company; next he worked as a salesman for C J Curtis, a paper company. He won an award for rookie of the year at Curtis, but he hated sales, hated cold calling.

When Cottonwood Books came up for sale, he decided “to follow the American dream … be my own boss, have my own business,” in an arena he already believed he knew and would enjoy.

Learning the book-selling business, however, would not be completely intuitive; he had to learn to do by doing. One thing on his side, he confessed: He’d never been a “book person”-that stereotypical avid reader who hung out for hours in bookstores, or read late into the night.

“I’m really a slow reader.”

But this meant that, during times of low customer traffic in the store, he wasn’t tempted to sit back and read; instead, he shelved and re-shelved, learning his growing, changing inventory.

Most of the time, Danny was the shop’s only employee.

“I found out pretty quickly that I could run the show solo except for some busy Saturdays and during the holiday season” when he hired helpers. But woe to a job applicant who swooned about the bookstore job, saying, “If I worked here, I’d sit and read and all day!” That definitely doomed the hire.

Danny grew Cottonwood’s inventory from the 5,000 books it stocked when he purchased it to a collection of approximately 45,000 books. His mix also evolved to be primarily second-hand books, some special editions, and some rare, out-of-stock, and out-of-print books.

The secret to his inventory, the bookseller confided, was having the right used books, which was much more difficult than just having any used books.

But whether a customer came looking for a copy of Modeling in Wax for Jewelry and Sculpture, The Physics of Wall Street, Dracula Unbound, Stokstad’s Art History, Gilmore Girls or The Civil War, Danny knew whether the book was in the store and where to find it amongst his crammed shelves. (Confederacy of Dunces, historically his best-seller, was almost always in stock.)

He also knew if he did not have the requested book, although he’d never created a reference database of his trove. He just knew it intuitively.

When he didn’t have a book, he’d offer to find it for a customer, whether a new publication or something more arcane. For the latter, the multi-volume Books in Print became his bible; more recently, the computer he had so reluctantly added to his office could aid searches with websites like Abebooks and Alibris. That computer had come to Cottonwood only when Ingram, his book supplier, went digital and threatened to drop him as a customer if he couldn’t accept their new business model.

Of course, customers were encouraged to search for their own books, to explore among the shop’s dimly lit back corners and hidden recesses, peer along the crowded brown plank shelves, and squint at the primitive, stenciled labels hinting at the shelves’ genres: Louisiana; history, religion, military, humor, biographies, and others.

The books were stacked mostly vertically, and almost in alphabetical order, though some books lay horizontally across others so as to fit on the correct shelf. Regular customers knew not to expect the precision order of other bookstores but just to enjoy the serendipity of the browse: the delight of discovering a book you didn’t anticipate wanting.

Danny’s small inventory of best sellers, splendid in their bright jackets, was showcased up front, interspersed among the latest books by local and regional authors whom he loyally supported. Also up front: a mix of new and used children’s books plus shelves of paperback classics.

Cottonwood’s focus on second-hand and unusual books not only reflected its owner’s affinity for them but provided a distinctive niche among area competitors.

When he started, these had included a couple of other local “indies” and big chain bookstores; later, the books-behemoth,, became a competitor as well.

“Sure they were stiff competition,” Danny said. “I know my customers could go to big box stores or order online, but luckily, I have a very loyal clientele … and the most eclectic and widest variety” of people.

These loyal folks ranged from serious book collectors to children looking for their first school assignment. “Middle-aged women were my number one book buyer group… And history buffs.”

And, happily, folks from locally filmed movie productions needing books for props on their sets. The most recent purchase by a film company, in fact, included over a thousand books—shelves and shelves of leatherbound books with gilded imprints.

Stars from these films occasionally wandered into Cottonwood; the most famous of these was Tom Hanks. His thrilling visit was documented with a prominently displayed photo of a smiling Tom, baseball cap shading his face, standing right next to a grinning Danny against the backdrop of shelves of jumbled books.

“He came in with his bodyguard and bought four books,” Danny remembered; then word got out that Tom Hanks was there and the store became jammed with fans. The second most exciting time Danny recalled was when novelist and sportswriter John Ed Bradley had a book signing at the store, and “women lined up out the door.”

No doubt in the business world Danny Plaisance and Cottonwood Books would have been considered backward because of his seeming aversion to new technologies.

Danny came late to accepting credit and debit cards and his credit system for valuing second-hand books was arcane. This old-fashioned type of credit enabled the donor to buy more second-hand books but he kept this “system” in a plastic file box stuffed with handwritten notes in no particular order that only he could decipher.

In the age of social media, Danny grudgingly agreed to having a website created, then dropped it, retaining only a very informal Facebook page.

Danny’s business never relied on aggressive advertising or promotion. He had never, in fact, advertised or solicited for the used books that became his trademark. Perhaps it seemed too much like cold calling.

Nevertheless, word of mouth had filtered out and his business expanded. “I got called by people with old books they wanted to sell, or who were having estate sales.”

Some people wanted to trade books, buy used books, or just donate books they had to part with but, being book lovers, couldn’t throw away. “I really can’t remember where a lot of the books came from,” he said, glancing around at the overstuffed shelves and their holdings that included some collector editions, leatherbound series and autographed tomes.

Out of all the books, Danny had his favorites: a 1682 edition of The Lives of the Primitive Fathers, in Gothic script print; an antique Book of Job written on facing pages in Hebrew and English; an autographed copy of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins.

He also had an unusual acquisition: a six-volume set that, to his great surprise, included one hollowed-out book hiding a tidy collection of antique gold jewelry.

Until recently, Danny and Cottonwood Books were well known for their ongoing involvement in the community. The shop’s doors and windows were papered with posters promoting local literary events, and he spotlighted the work of local and regional authors, prominently displaying stacks of their books.

Formerly, he’d even crowded an occasional book signing into his small space. Danny often worked with schools to stock their assigned readings and was an expected presence at local events where an author spoke, then autographed copies of his or her works that Danny had brought in to sell.

This might be a book club or the annual Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, Big Buddy or the Baton Rouge Gallery. Over the years, it seems, Danny and Cottonwood became a friend to everything literary in the greater Baton Rouge area.

If not for the Parkinson’s, Danny Plaisance would probably have continued to stay surrounded by his wonderful collection of books and the people who loved them—and him—for decades.

But he accepts that retirement can offer some pleasures; he plans to spend time binding and restoring books, a craft he’s “tinkered with” before but didn’t have much time to do. And he can certainly see his family more often—three adult children and four grandchildren, who will be delighted to have “Pops” more available.

In fact, he might even have time to introduce the little ones to some lovely old editions of children’s classics or tell stories about what took place at an old-fashioned oasis called Cottonwood Books, a place the Baton Rouge community would grow to miss.