Why would you open an independent bookstore in 2015, when e-books sales were among their highest? Why do it in a small town of 1,700 people that you didn’t even live in at the time? What’s with the jigsaw puzzles? And where’s the coffee?
Six years ago, those were the questions Missy Couhig heard over and over again about her plans to open a bookshop on Ferdinand Street in the sleepy town of St. Francisville.
Missy and her husband, Rob Couhig, a prominent New Orleans lawyer and investor, had bought property in the community in 2005 after evacuating from the city during Hurricane Katrina. One day, Rob announced to Missy that he’d signed a lease on a building on Ferdinand Street where Missy could open a bookshop. The two adored independent bookstores, and always made a point to visit them when traveling. Missy, about to retire from a career in marketing and sales, thought “Why not?”
There were plenty of naysayers.
“We were asked those questions all the time,” Missy recalls. “And they were great questions, without answers. As far as I know there’s only one word for that, and that was ‘conundrum.’ So we became The Conundrum.”
Since The Conundrum opened, it’s become a community hub in a tight-knit town that loves gathering places, from the Magnolia Café to West Feliciana High School football games. It’s also a region that values arts and culture. The Couhigs now live here full time, and their store hosts authors from Louisiana and Mississippi and organizes book sales for literary festivals and cultural events across the region.
Comfy sofas in the shop create a cozy spot for patrons to sample a new title from the shelves. The sitting area also hosts local book groups, which can reserve the bookstore for their discussions. Their members lean on Couhig, an avid reader, for book suggestions and group orders. A free book bin outside the store adds a neighborly touch.
Deciding how to stock the shelves says a lot about how Couhig established The Conundrum’s community vibe early on. Initially, she approached a national retail service, which advises independent bookstores on what titles and quantities to order based on a shop’s linear feet of shelf space.
“That just didn’t feel right,” Couhig says. “To me this bookstore had to be sort of organic, and of the community. So instead, I took to my handy dandy computer and I made a sheet of paper that said, ‘Help us be your bookstore, tell us what you want.’ I had it on the front counter when we did a few pop-up events before the bookstore was officially open, and started letting people tell me what kind of books they wanted.”
The result reflects the community’s cravings for modern, best-selling fiction, Southern fiction, world events and regional history. There are Louisiana cookbooks and guides for the Southern garden. Young adult and children’s fiction keep young readers coming in. Jigsaw puzzles give patrons another avenue for fun.
Because Couhig is a sucker for pretty books, there are attractively bound classics, and her favorite novel, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, is available in a romantic hardcover version that resembles the one read to Fred Savage’s character by his grandfather in the movie version. For Jane Austen devotees, Couhig keeps different versions of Pride and Prejudice because their covers and binding are each beautiful, she says.
One section of the store is a window into another side of the Couhigs’ life. They’re the owners of a 134-year-old British football (soccer) team called the Wycombe Wanderers. Rob Couhig also owned the now-defunct New Orleans Zephyrs minor league baseball team in the late ’90s. Patrons of The Conundrum can pick up a Wanderers T-shirt, as well as respected titles on the game of soccer. Fans of the popular show Ted Lasso will recognize the book Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson, for example.
Early in the pandemic, Couhig took to social media to keep her patrons engaged. She developed a six-day-a-week social media series called Chatting Books Online, in which she recommends a single book each day. Now in her second year of these posts, Couhig says customers call or visit regularly wanting a title they’ve seen on the bookstore’s social media.
“Almost every single day, I have somebody come in or call to order that book that I talked about that day,” Couhig says. “They’re paying attention.” conundrumbooks.com
Book recommendations as told to 225 by The Conundrum founder Missy Couhig
New Southern fiction:The Girls in the Stilt House by Kelly Mustian
This debut novel, set in the swamps along the Natchez Trace in the 1920s, caught my attention from the very first pages, not just because of the proximity and familiarity of the setting, but because of the strength of the story. Many things will make you draw comparisons to Delia Owen’s bestseller, Where the Crawdads Sing, including the setting, the strong young female protagonists and the mystery that builds throughout the book. A great bookclub pick.
New middle-grade fiction:The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo
Set in an unspecified time of war, a young girl is found dirty and alone in a barn with no memory of how she got there. She is taken in and cared for by a kindly monk and a not-so-kind goat, when it is discovered that she has the ability to read and write (unheard of for a girl in this world) and carries the key to a prophecy. This beautifully written book is engaging for readers of any age. It’s a story I will carry in my heart a long time.
New gardening and nature book:The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees by Douglas W. Tallamy
In his new book, etymologist Douglas Tallamy talks about the amazing benefits of oak trees in your gardens. I thought I knew something about oak trees, having lived under their shade my entire life, but I had no idea the benefits they bring. For example, it is amazing to see how many species of caterpillars are supported by oaks. I also learned so many reasons to keep my oak leaf mulch and use it throughout my garden. It will change the way you look at the mighty oak.
Favorite memoir:Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant
If you have not yet read this memoir of an Englishman living in New York as a journalist and transplanted to the Mississippi Delta, let today be the day you start reading it. At turns, it is laugh-out-loud funny, and devastatingly sad as a commentary on how slowly society changes.
Favorite local historical fiction:The Memory of Time by C. H. Lawler
I really enjoyed this book. Written by Baton Rouge physician and author C. H. Lawler, this work of historical fiction is about Miriam Levenson, who gets a job interviewing the elderly for the Roosevelt Administration’s Federal Writers Project. There is so much detail in this book, it is simply amazing. The writing style, which includes letters, journal entries and transcripts of recorded interviews, really helps the narrative flow along in such a way that you’re swept up waiting for the next page.
This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue of 225 magazine.