In the 1930s and 1940s, the center of New Orleans literary life resided at 7221 Zimple Street, the Basement Bookshop and Library. Tess Crager opened the store in a little yellow wood-frame building that once had housed a butcher’s shop. Its earlier location, a "New Orleans basement" in the 7700 block of St. Charles Avenue, gave the shop its name.
The shop and Crager were both known in literary circles in New York. The only thing holding up the walls, some remarked, were the stacks of books. Literary figures of the time, including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, visited the Basement and signed books, and the parties Creger held there were legendary. In 1936, the Basement was raided and books legal authorities considered to be “improper” were removed. It is unclear which books were removed, although she had stocked works of erotica in the shop.
Crager was credited among her many admirers for changing the landscape of literature in New Orleans. She was also a publisher, responsible for publishing John Chase’s Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children and Brennan’s Cookbook, which sold 105,000 copies. She was active in promoting literary education, donating to the Basement Bookshop Prize for best student library at Newcomb’s Little Commencement and conducting annual “Book Week” presentations at Newcomb Nursery School, Country Day, and McGhee. Those who knew her credited Tess Crager with pervasive influence on the literary tastes of New Orleans. She catered to a core group of patrons, whose literary taste she knew and for whom she ordered specific books. If she thought someone would not like a book, she would try to persuade him not to buy it.
In a letter to Crager on the occasion of her 80th birthday, one friend wrote, “Every generation sees decay in the one which succeeds it. . . Tess succumbed to this no less than most of her generation and with more reason . . . Luckily, the doleful prophesies seldom turn out to be true, thanks to Tess Crager and those like her who have insisted upon passing their own standards to their children, spiritual and real. I don’t think Tess has anything to worry about. She has done her work too well for that.” Another wrote, “I can say in all sincerity and honestly that I acquired more culture, more education, more love of literature, English drama, and many other subjects from the one and only legend in her time, Tess Crager.”
Business declined, partially due to competition from cheap mass-market paperbacks, which Crager refused to sell. The shop closed in 1982, shortly before Tess Crager passed away.