It may be wise to distrust historical markers that claim “George Washington slept here,” but when Permele Doyle and Garner Robinson tell you that a young William Faulkner slept in their French Quarter townhouse, you better believe them.
The legendary author, who wrote his first novel here, claimed the house was “the best place to live in New Orleans.” Whether or not that was the case in 1925, when he sublet the first floor and subsisted on gin-soaked beignets and moonshine, Faulkner’s assessment rings true today.
However, Permele and Garner don’t just live in the circa 1840 townhouse at 624 Pirate’s Alley. On the ground floor, separated from the couple’s living quarters only by a neo-Greek gate, their bookshop (aptly named Faulkner House Books) hums with activity.
“There’s no airtight seal between the house and the business,” says Garner, with a chuckle. “The air just flows through.”
Literary magic too. A sign reading “PRIVATE” does little to cement the porous boundary between the couple’s private space and the ad hoc salon where they meet daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There’s even a bookstore cat who doesn’t notice the gate or sign, with his own Instagram account.
How did a thoroughly modern couple end up living above a tiny bookshop like the antiquarians of old? Her story is fiction, but unlike Faulkner’s tales, it’s all true. Remember that we are talking about New Orleans here. The conventions of reality do not apply.
On their second date in the city, which Permele had only visited once before, the lovestruck couple strolled down a quiet alley off Jackson Square, to-go Sazerac mugs in hand. When a friendly voice called out, it belonged to Joe DeSalvo, then co-owner of the bookstore (along with his wife Rosemary James). He had employed Garner, then a literature-loving high school student, as an intern at the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society. The chance meeting led to hours of conversation in the store’s back office and then upstairs over iced tea, and when it was over, Permele was smitten – not just with Garner, but with the Big Easy.
“I promise I didn’t plan it,” Garner says of the fateful encounter.
The romance lasted, the couple got engaged and Permele moved to the town she fell in love with on that hot July day above Piratengasse. It wasn’t long before Joe and Rosemary decided to retire, and a mutual friend, author Walter Isaacson, suggested Permele and Garner continue the tradition of the Faulkner house.
Permele says, “There’s no question about it. It has been delegated to us.”
After the couple took ownership of the home — and with a partner, the bookstore — in October 2019, the following January, the couple spent their first night indoors with just a single mattress. The living quarters were unrecognizable without the antique furniture and artwork.
“We loved it,” says Permele, laughing. “The previous decor was beautiful, but we loved seeing behind all the layers, the crown moldings and mantels below – the period character of the space. We asked ourselves: should we just leave it like that?”
The next morning, she and Garner grabbed beignets and café au laits from nearby CaféDu Monde and met in the reverberant space with designers Bill Brockschmidt and Courtney Coleman, who the couple met at the 2019 Delta Hot Tamale Festival, held by the late Southern Lifestyle expert Julia Reed organized the event. Experts in classic proportions and traditional details, Bill and Courtney immediately focused on the bones of the house.
“We were just so inspired by the architecture,” says Courtney, “and are honored to work in a home that has seen so much history.”
Garner adds, “The project felt a bit overwhelming, but Bill and Courtney assured us it would be fabulous in the end.”
Not that it isn’t a process. In the dining room, examining a pair of dusty Austrian sunglasses, Garner says, “Bill and I just looked at each other and put out our hands and put them down.”
Unusually, however, there was a spirit of editing rather than erasing throughout the house. Paired with matching Austrian hues in the dressing room were dramatic silk curtains that stayed. So did much of the color scheme chosen by the previous owners.
The duck egg tones of the living room, library and entry hall remained. To differentiate it as an entertaining space, the tiny dining room was given a coat of a richer blue, serving as a haunting backdrop for cozy dinner parties. “People don’t want to leave this table,” says Permele. With a deft hand, Bill and Courtney covered the room’s lampshades in the same color.
Here and elsewhere in the house, abstract canvases anchor the walls. Echoing the modernist spirit that inspired Faulkner, the paintings are also of particular importance: they were made by Garner’s mother, Julie Robinson, who passed away in 2017.
“We love their work,” says Bill, “and the bolder colors add panache to the historic interiors.”
This contrasting approach is also reflected elsewhere. A mid-century Italian mirror hangs in the living room where a classic glass would be expected. Aerodynamic Italian chairs echo the modern lines of the mirror, but they’re reupholstered in decadent silk brocade.
“It looks a bit like Havana from some angles,” notes Bill, who knows a thing or two about subtropical glamour, having recently restored a ruined palazzo for himself and his husband in Sicily.
From other angles – if your eye scans antique urns on modern pedestals or contemporary steel side tables glimpsed through the arms of a bergère – you might think of artist Cy Twombly’s iconic apartment in Rome.
It’s a heterogeneous mix, but it feels like a shot of vitamin C, and when the space comes into focus, it takes a moment to realize just how much remains of the previous decor.
Permele says, “Bill and Courtney helped us see that the house could be livable – that it could be what it is and yet still be our home. They gave us the confidence to make the house our own while honoring and embracing the past.”
It’s a theme that continues downstairs in the bookstore, where the original decorations remain, but the store’s “book whisperer,” Joanne, recommends new books to new customers each day, and Permele and Garner plan a platoon of writers in a guest room accommodate if the pandemic continues to subside.
And that’s not the only new life in the house. Every time the couple carries their stroller through the store, their status as new parents becomes clear to everyone. Conversations inevitably ensue. Your child will be the first to grow up at 624 Pirate’s Alley since the original homeowner’s son, and he will literally grow up above the business.
“Living here gives me an instant connection to the community,” says Permele, “and our son will inherit that deep sense of connection.”
Garner agrees. “Our only problem now is thinking about leaving the house.”
And who could blame them? Like a great book, it’s a magical and complete little world unto itself.
Featured in our May/June 2022 issue. Interior design by Brockschmidt & Coleman; photography by Paul Costello; Written by Michael Diaz Griffith.