There's something slightly unworldly about the corner of Bourbon St. and St. Ann. There's a rather large set of steps leading into an old clapboard row house with a period-correct high ceiling, but it's the contents that truly make it a different space.
Ambiance is set primarily by smell. There's the weight of age in the air, and the expected scents of herbs and incenses for sale, but what strikes you is the throwing together of very earthy and rustic elements, blazes of color everywhere with a backdrop of drab brown walls. Whereas normal occult shops specialize in sanitized Western practices of magic, crystal balls set on black or purple velvet with silver chains in glass cases and nicely printed books , Laveau's is floor to celiing in the main and very cramped narrow front area with African masks, fetishes and artifacts from West Africa, and a centerpiece altar in classic New Orleans voodoo style, wrought iron and hand-drawn centerpiece, random offerings and organic matter. Stapled to cardboard on the wall are small bags of hoodoo supplies: small colored balls of dirt, graveyard dust, rust, random herb powders, and small pieces of roots. Chicken's feet and nutria penis bones hang from leather cord, and there are small containers of seemingly random objects, complete with small hand-lettered signs in Sharpie advertising what they are and what they are for - Cowrie shells, rosaries, Holy cards and small cloth dolls.
Wherever you look is a riot of collections of objects, most incomprehensible to the unschooled. There seems to be no organization or rhyme or reason. Anywhere you look, there's a dish full of something or a series of small baggies stapled to a wall or a collection of objects hanging from strings.
It's like walking into a combination of Gilligan's Island or Trader Vic's and an old school joke shop in terms of visual look, but the signs everywhere warn: Be respectful or leave. Photography is generally not permitted.
Towards the back there are some displays behind glass, and instead of the normal occult books you find some books, but mostly intriguing pamphlets with a two-color card cover. It's a reminder that hoodoo and folk magic aren't the products of educated Hermetics, but of the superstitious lower class and a diaspora that works with its hands. Voodoo is drumming and chanting, chicken blood and hand-poured veves, and Laveau's, though still to a degree gimmicky and touristy, delivers the goods.
There's a steady trade in postcards: many people avail themselves if nothing else of the infamous "Voodoo unto others before they Voodoo unto you" and other reminders of their stay there. Most postcards are never sent but end up stuck to refrigerators and put in drawers. The same graphics are available on T-shirts, but most people grab small items as souvenirs to bring the magic of the trip with them: gris-gris bags, maybe a stone that resembles a cat's eye, or perhaps even a full-on West African tribal mask.
Laveau's, like its sister store Reverend Zombie's on St. Peter St. are also places where one can get in line for Tarot readings, which are far more intimate than those done in the square by the Cathedral. Zombie's is the starting point for at least one cemetery tour and a ghost tour of New Orleans. Zombie's is similar to Laveau's only it is dominated by a strangely drawn portrait of a black man whose artist obviously kept his head close and to the right of the work looking at it from a pronounced angle, leading to a drawing with a skewed perspective that seems to fit the decor.
One can be of two minds about the two stores, Laveau's in particular. Complaints abound about the aloofness and rudeness of the Goth-looking staff, but that can generally be expected when much of your time is spent policing people who could be drunk or very flippant about what's inside. Although tourists flock to hear the sounds of the drums and marvel at the fetishes, it remains that voodoo is actually a bona fide religion and there's something tacky in gawking at it or hawking souvenirs based on it. One generally wouldn't walk into a Catholic or church supply store and dress up in the vestments and start snapping photos.
But Laveau's is quintessential New Orleans French Quarter: it isn't some chain store .When you walk into it you don't see the same things you can see in any other city on the planet. New Orleans is a place where you actually kind of like that is has live music, something you almost never find. Where drinking and smoking are celebrated, not something you minimally partake of with dinner out of politeness. Where the stores change almost week to week, save a few steady dependable memorable ones, like the instantly recognizable Laveau's. There's something about the place that stays with you long after the smell of Nag Champa and alligator feet and grasses from Ghana and the dust of millions of tourists has faded from your nostrils, or been replaced by a hearty wallop from your jambalaya or the brain-numbing effects of a Hand Grenade.