A rare find – Cottonwood Books thrives amid the popularity of online shopping, e-readers and big-box bookstores

“I love it when someone comes in and says, ‘Gosh, I’ve never been here before. You’ve got a great selection.’ ” says Danny Plaisance, owner of Cottonwood Books, located near the Perkins Road Overpass. “I hear that at least once a week, and it makes me feel really good.”

This establishment makes book lovers feel good as well—especially those with a hankering for accidental discoveries and quick access to a literary enthusiast. With about 45,000 books piling every inch of shelf in its 1,650 square feet, Cottonwood Books has both selection and range of literature. Plaisance does well to accommodate readers of every disposition—from poets to pop culture aficionados.

“I have the widest variety of customers, and every one is different,” he says. “They each present a different challenge when it comes to finding the right book.”

The store’s surprising success can be traced to the evident pleasure Plaisance takes in his work. He’s been coming here for 26 years, opening the store every morning and closing it in the evening. And in that time, he has developed a passion for rare books.

“I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing when something’s worth something, and when it’s not,” Plaisance says. “We have some here that are worth quite a bit of money.” He pulls out a copy of Every Man a King, opening to its title page to reveal Huey P. Long’s signature, which has been authenticated by an expert. Even more rare and valuable than that was a work of Geoffrey Chaucer, dated 1598, that Plaisance came across and sold for $3,000. “It’s the oldest thing I’ve ever touched.”

As he describes high-cotton versus high-acid content paper and gingerly examines The Riparian Lands of the Mississippi River, dated 1901—his latest find—a truth becomes clear: Plaisance takes his craft seriously. Appreciating the weight of a book’s historical context and understanding what makes each valuable has rendered Plaisance a rare find himself. He is of a breed of small-bookstore owners that is in short supply these days.

“Independent booksellers like Danny are an endangered species. As with all endangered species, we should treasure them,” says LSU history professor Paul Paskoff. “He’s a decent, honest merchant, and his store is a real asset to the community. He’ll always have my patronage.”

Plaisance keeps his foothold in the marketplace by offering customer service in an intimate, welcoming atmosphere. Megastores such as Barnes & Noble and online stores such as Amazon—along with the growing demand of e-readers—pose a formidable threat to Plaisance’s livelihood. But this independent bookstore owner maintains a personal connection to his patrons and their preferences, a quality lost when purchasing through a big business.

“Luckily, I have a very loyal clientele,” say Plaisance. “I know they could go to the big-box store and get what they need off the shelf, but they’ll come in and order it from me if I don’t have it.”

In addition, Plaisance takes strides to maintain Cottonwood Books’ profitability through collaborations with local schools as well as speaking engagements with book clubs. Even in the currently tight economy, he is still doing better than in the early days when he first took ownership of the store. After more than two decades in the business, he now counts dozens of customers among his friends.

“It makes me hopeful that I’ll continue to do business,” says Plaisance, smiling, “even though I’m no spring chicken anymore.”