Interview With Owner of Newly Opened Black-Owned Coffee Shop and Book Store, Baldwin & Co.

D.J. Johnson, owner of the newly opened bookstore and coffee shop, Baldwin & Co., didn’t picture himself owning a bookstore. The New Orleans native was working in IT in Atlanta, when his mother’s illness called him back to New Orleans. After her recovery, he worked on building a real estate portfolio before deciding that he wanted to go into the book business.

“My book supplier tried to talk me out of it,” Johnson explained. “She told me that it’s a lot of work for basically no money.”

He wasn’t deterred. Johnson opened Baldwin & Co. at 1030 Elysian Fields on February 20th to a crowd of excited patrons ready to welcome the store to the neighborhood.

Owning a bookstore was almost destiny for Johnson. He grew up in the neighborhood and has been an avid reader since childhood. As a child, he struggled with a speech impediment and books became a lifeline. As he grew comfortable with public speaking, his love of books grew with him. 

However, when it came time to pursue a degree, Johnson chose IT.

He said, “Computers always came naturally to me. I wanted to study something that I knew I would be good at.” 

He received his undergraduate degree from Clark Atlanta University and his MBA from Georgia State. He found success in the IT field and was working in Atlanta and Washington D.C., as an IT manager, when his mother became ill. After being told she wouldn’t live, he dropped everything and moved to New Orleans to nurse her back to health. With Johnson’s support and determination, his mother survived and bakes some of the pastries that Johnson serves at Baldwin & Co.

After settling back in his hometown, and realizing that the IT scene in New Orleans was lacking, Johnson began building a real estate portfolio in order to support himself and fund his love of travel.

Johnson bought this spot, that used to be the home of Gene’s Curbside Daiquiris, with the idea of making it not only a bookstore and coffee shop, but a learning center and social hub; a place where people could be and exchange ideas.

“The bookstore is my passion,” he said. “I want to encourage people to read more. I love reading, it’s one of my favorite pastimes, and I want to show young people what you can accomplish when you dedicate yourself to learning.”

At Baldwin & Co., knowledge is definitely at the forefront. The books are front facing, a conscious decision by Johnson, in order for the books to “speak” to whomever may be looking at them. He says that it’s hard to get a feel of a book by just looking at a spine.

In the back is a glass, sound-proof room, complete with professional recording equipment and large TV screens for meetings, conferences and creating podcasts. The room can be easily rented by the hour, for anyone who needs a quiet space to create or talk.

“This is a studio for everyday people to get their voices out,” Johnson explained. “Not everyone learns by reading- some learn by listening. I listen to podcasts all the time. Podcasts are an extension of creativity through voice and I want people to be able to create professional-sounding podcasts, even if they are just starting out.”

In addition to offering books for sale, Baldwin & Co. is unique in that there are shelves of used books that are available for customers to read in-store. Johnson sees this as another way the shop encourages people to expand their knowledge.

“Someone might come here to work and need some inspiration. They can look through the free-to-read books and gain some knowledge that could help them,” he said,

One of Johnson’s biggest goals, and reasons for opening Baldwin & Co., is so that he can give back to the community in which he was raised. 

“I want to give back to a community that gave so much to me,” he explained. “I want to be able to give kids free books and have chess nights. I want this to be a learning center where kids can develop social skills. I want to spread enlightenment.”

Not to be overlooked, the store also contains an extensive coffee bar. Johnson refers to the coffee, provided by French Truck, as “lagniappe”, but it’s much more than that.

The extensive menu offers typical coffee shop offerings such as espresso and cold brew, but the unique aspect is the specialty drinks, named after classics by author and store-namesake, James Baldwin. For example, If Beale Street Could Talk is made with espresso, milk, brown sugar, cinnamon and cayenne and Go Tell It On The Mountain is made with espresso, milk, vanilla, and cardamom syrup.

Johnson’s idea to include a coffee shop in the space was originally one of necessity.

He said, “The coffee is for sustainability. I didn’t want to have to worry about selling a certain number of books in order to keep the lights on. Coffee also encourages meetings and conversation and brings people together.”

Johnson’s ultimate goal for the shop is to be a meeting spot for everyone- a place where anyone will feel welcome.

“I want the space to be an incubation of innovation,” he said. “I want people to come here and discuss world issues and be surrounded by the works of inspiring people. New Orleans is a destination for partying, I want this spot to be a destination for knowledge- where people can come and be their best selves.”

More than just a bookstore or a coffee shop, Johnson has created a place where one can feel welcome to work and create in a space with modern design. The comfortable seating and large outdoor patio space inspires conversation and free thought. In an Amazon world, Baldwin & Co., captures a piece of New Orleans that spreads enlightenment. 

Although New Orleans is primarily known as a place where you can party, Johnson wants people to know that New Orleans can also be a place where you can expand your knowledge. He hopes that his shop is a step in that direction.

Johnson explained the concept perfectly, “I want people to say, ‘I went to New Orleans and I learned.’”

I asked D.J. Johnson to list some of his favorite books. He included:

The Sacred Place by Daniel Black

Standing at the Scratch Line by Guy Johnson

Echoes of a Distant Summer by Guy Johnson

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Destruction of Black Civilization by Chancellor Williams

Survival Strategies for Africans in America by Anthony T. Browder

Satan, I’m Taking Back My Health! by Jawanza Kunjufu


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