Sunday, August 22, 2010


by Anne Butler
There’s one in every town, that favored gathering spot where townsfolk come together to hear the news, share joys and sorrows, castigate crooked politicians and, particularly for the lonely, enjoy a therapeutic touch of socialization. These gatherings used to take place around potbellied stoves in old general stores, where whiskered whittlers sat on three-legged stools and told tall tales while the womenfolk crossed creaking wood floors to gossip over bolts of calico or barrels of flour. Today in urban areas, these gathering spots seem to be the ubiquitous but far less atmospheric Starbucks or CC’s.

But in the quaint little 19th-century rivertown of St. Francisville, Louisiana, there’s no question that this significant central role is filled by the colorfully quirky Birdman Books and Coffee, right in the middle of historic uptown and entrenched in the hearts of visitors and residents both young and old.

Owner Lynn WoodDuring the dog days of summer, patrons of the Birdman follow the advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.” And indeed this is an unhurried place, a place to ease into the day, a place to give the gift of time and a sympathetic ear to those with burdens or triumphs or special news or knowledge to share. Sit down. Take it easy. Sip your cappuccino or your healing chamomile tea. Savor the experience, savor the repast, savor the conversation. That’s what it’s really all about at Birdman--the conversation, the communion, the coming together of longtime friends and complete strangers. This is the spot to see into the soul of St. Francisville, the heart of the community.

This isn’t a fancy place. It’s cozy, comfortable, welcoming. Owner Lynn Wood is a creative soul, an artist around whom the local creative community coalesces. The walls are hung with original artworks, often her own, and an eclectic collection of books spills from the shelves along with fanciful wooden birdhouses and Lynn’s father’s artfully carved birds. The atmosphere is stimulating. encouraging of intelligent conversation, with tables close enough in proximity so that everyone can join in. Although she is mostly confined behind the counter presiding over the preparations, Lynn Wood calmly watches as the world instead comes to her.

There are regulars like the silver-haired retired banker who consistently holds court at a center table and who once knew everyone worth knowing in state government and high finance, making for interesting chatter as he consumes his customary big breakfast of Birdman’s specialty omelets or sweet potato waffles. Another regular, a retired cattleman and landowner who listens to the BBC on still nights, contributes a wealth of historic detail, for as a child he was unusually attentive to the conversations of surrounding elders now long dead, making him the local expert on off-the-wall genealogy and minutiae.

Coffee, Books and ArtTwirling on the stools at the counter, by glass display cases filled with scones and baked goods, may be found the town surveyor chatting with a local minister in his favorite porkpie hat, while the elementary school principal sits nearby treating grandchildren to breakfast as a last fling before school starts. Conversations wax and wane as patrons come and go, newcomers joining in as departing customers hand off the responsibility for keeping things going. The town’s most faithful employee, who rain or shine walks a million miles a day keeping the roadsides free of litter, stops in for refreshment, and Lynn often kindly provides a nourishing comp meal to a down-on-his-luck patron in exchange for a quick sweeping of the outside patio where guests are welcome to dine with well-behaved dogs.

From the big fancy financial institution across the street comes the bank VP, who is greeted with kisses by the late longtime ministers’ elderly daughters who get together regularly at Birdman. Tables fill with realtors and lawyers with their laptops jumpstarting busy workdays with a jolt of caffeine and maybe some muffins made with blueberries straight from the local farmers’ market. Power walkers and sweating joggers breeze in for a quick pick-me-up before powering on. Foreign tourists and out-of-state visitors stop in to check the pulse of the town; even strangers can tell at a glance that Birdman is the ideal place to find out what’s happening locally, what’s really happening.

Counter at the BirdmanThe conversations quiet as the day wears on, with shoppers stopping in for a brief refreshing respite, laden with packages from St. Francisville’s wonderful antiques and gift shops—The Shanty Too, Grandmother’s Buttons, Sage Hill, Hillcrest, Bohemianville Antiques—or art galleries like Backwoods and Harrington’s and the artist’s co-op. Midafternoon the Birdman hosts quiet meetings of movers-and-shakers, perhaps planning tourism events and the many special activities designed to keep St. Francisville one of the state’s top tourist destinations with its historic plantation homes and glorious antebellum gardens open to visitors, plus its unspoiled wilderness recreation areas. After school, kids pop in to chill out with root beer or coke floats and ice cream.

On most Monday evenings Lynn schedules live music with simple suppers, and she’s deeply involved with children’s art projects, community arts market days, and the inclusive Arts For All group. She has a finger in just about every pie, literally, as the sponsor of the much-anticipated Fourth of July Pie Baking Contest, in the spirit of the old-fashioned county fair cook-offs of yesteryear; the most recent event even had an organic category, and proceeds benefit the ongoing restoration of the town’s first public school building.

Enjoying the CoffeeThis warm and welcoming gathering spot provides the perfect introduction to the St. Francisville area, which features a number of splendidly restored plantation homes open for tours daily: The Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, horseback riding with rental mounts from Cross Creek Stables. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from soul food to Chinese and Mexican cuisine, seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park) or