F&F BOTANICA: IN MEMORIAM


This summer, the New Orleans community lost a cherished landmark, the F&F Botanica and Candle Shop, following the deaths of co-owners Felix Figueroa (who passed in July) and his son-in-law Jonathan Scott (who passed a month later). The remaining co-owner, Tanya Scott (Jonathan’s wife and Felix’s daughter) has closed the shop permanently. Situated in the heart of the city and at a crossroads of cultures, F&F was a haven for New Orleanians of all backgrounds. It catered to every person who came through the door, from traditional Catholics and serious practitioners of Santería and Voodoo, to more casual observers looking to supplement their own customized beliefs, as well as those simply needing large quantities of candles (namely weddings and film sets). As might be expected, several of the ANTIGRAVITY staff were regular customers and neighbors of this iconic shop; below are their most vivid memories.


I’ve lived within a one-mile radius of F&F Botanica for the past eight years. The area around the spiritual supply store has changed significantly over that time, with concentrated revitalization efforts of the Broad Street commercial corridor and its surrounding neighborhoods leading to newer, arguably nicer things. Amidst this ostensible progress, F&F (first opened in the early ‘80s) was an unwavering establishment, the rows of votive candles lining the walls of the store a reliable psychic balm for the outside world. F&F’s iconic marquee, upgraded with neon lights in 2013, was effectively a beacon, its pulsing electric candle flame glowing in the evenings. Having been there long before I arrived, I trusted the botanica would always be around, and in that way I suppose I took it for granted. Throughout all my visits to the shop, Jonathan and Tanya were exceptionally welcoming and kind. New Orleans can be a tough place to live, and a little tenderness and compassion can go a long way, especially when such comforts seem to be in short supply. F&F had an alleviating effect, whether I needed a candle for a new home or for the front porch of a recently deceased friend. F&F ending up in the “ain’t dere no more” category of beloved New Orleans institutions feels like a particularly unique loss for the city, not only because of everyone’s personal connections to the store, but also because its disappearance reminds us of how increasingly rare such places are. —Andru Okun

The first time I entered F&F Botanica was when I was searching for similar items to the ones I had found in Harlem neighborhoods or the Sonora Market in Mexico—items that had cured me of whatever personal struggle I was having at the time. This time it was stability. The owner directed me on how to use two candles and an oil that I still use to this day. I had always been fascinated by Broad Street’s eclectic architecture, which ranged from warehouses to shotguns to early 20th century storefronts. I learned the signs were part of a project initiated by Broad Community Connections, a non-profit that focuses on revitalizing the Broad neighborhood. In conjunction with the Arts Council of New Orleans, they called it the “Iconic Signage Project.” Some businesses that were part of the project were Crescent City Steaks and Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, among others. Felix Figueroa bought the store in 1981 from Enrique Cortez, who wrote the book Secretos de la Religion Yoruba. The building had always been a supplier of religious goods that tied New Orleans to Latin America. What saddens me most is that we are losing a staple location of Latino culture, and with it the physical goods that came with it. We have no other religious supply store that is owned and operated by Latinos, nor that has candles or books in Spanish. My only hope is that one day someone with Felix’s vision can provide our community with the connection to our ancestors. —Gabby Garcia-Steib

A friend took me to F&F as a sort of sightseeing quest many years ago. I couldn’t understand the hype of a candle shop, but I went. I remember laughing at the Lottery Winning candle and being curious about the Death candles. There was a long, packed showcase that doubled as a desk, and my friend explained that you approach a person at the cash register, tell them what your goal/prayer/intention is, and they would recommend a candle. The man who stood behind the counter was wearing a polo shirt and had thinning hair and giant watery eyes, and when I looked at him, his face was one that felt genuine and open. I immediately told him my goal/prayer/intention, in detail that I would usually reserve for my closest confidants. I was going through a heartbreak, and a confusing moment with the future, so he recommended a Road Opener candle, dressed with oils that offered peace and possibility. The ritual involved writing exactly what I wanted several times on a piece of paper, setting it under the candle, and letting it burn all the way down. A few days later, I did it, and it worked. Instantly. Over the years, I went there and spilled my guts, these kind eyes looking at me while he described at warp speed how to get things right. I gifted candles from F&F for heartbreak, new beginnings, love, and loss. In early 2016, my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and on my way out of town to move back to Minnesota to be with her, I stopped through F&F to share my fears, goals, and dreams with this wizardly stranger. As I parked my car, I learned that Prince had died. Prince is from Minnesota, and the only universal hero to every Minnesotan. I walked into F&F in a daze, and they were playing only Prince. The place was packed with people crying and hugging. I heard a gasp every couple minutes from someone new learning about the loss. In that moment, I felt home. There is an incredible honor to holding the world’s stories and secrets, and I am so glad Mr. Jonathan was there for mine. Losing a spiritual center is a profound grief experience, and I will miss F&F forever. —Christina Igoe

Losing F&F feels like we were cheated of the many gifts the shop provided to the spiritual community. Jonathan gave me amazing insight into the world of bata drumming. He described to me how drumming was his first love and that’s how he fell into African Traditional Religions. Bill Summers— Afro/Cuban jazz percussionist extraordinaire—gave him books with bata drum transcriptions. As Jonathan described, the complexity of bata can be compared to the intricacies of leading an orchestra, except with only three people playing two-headed drums. The songs themselves have many layers and demand a high level of memorization, because according to tradition, each orisha has a specific rhythm that must not be deviated from. We both agreed that after the creation of fire came the drum, and all culture stems from it. Miss Rose was always beaming with light whenever I was in the shop. She would advise me on the particular health benefits of certain roots: “You know that Mandrake is poisonous, and you shouldn’t drink it.” She and Jonathan were always willing to give understanding in root work. They will never be replaced, nor will the world ever find such beauty and generosity as they gave. My heart goes out to the one who is mourning. “Unto them from whose eyes the veil of life hath fallen may they be granted the accomplishment of their true Wills” (Liber XV, Aleister Crowley). —Nathan Tucker

The first time I walked into F&F I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew I needed something that I wasn’t finding anywhere else. The shop had always caught my interest whenever I passed it biking down Broad, but it wasn’t curiosity or coincidence that finally made me cross the threshold; I was looking for an intervention. When I stepped through the door, the rows and rows of candles overwhelmed me immediately. I didn’t know what anything was, much less what these things had to do with me, so I timidly approached the counter. Jonathan was an unassuming man at first glance. He was quiet and plainly dressed, and he didn’t pry. I don’t remember what I told him that first day, but I remember when he put the little bottle in my hands. It was a deep red color, and the label reported that it was made by the Seven Sisters of New Orleans, and gave out “Good Vibes.” He told me to put it in the wash water next time I cleaned the house, and I went straight home to fill up my mop bucket. The potion smelled like roses and valentines, and after hours of rubbing it into every surface, nook, and cranny of my home, I thought I could see a light pink mist gently blanketing the whole house. I opened the front and back doors and let the breeze come through, feeling unafraid for the first time in months. Jonathan taught me that within the belief system of Santería, the way to get in contact with the orishas—the gods and goddesses of the Yoruba religion who can intervene with larger forces on your behalf—is to first address Eleguá. “Eshua Eleguá” he told me to say before ringing an ornate brass bell that he brought out to sell me from behind the glass counter full of his more delicate goods. Eleguá is the orisha of caminos, the paths and crossroads of our reality. He is a spiritual telephone operator that connects whatever needs connecting. Jonathan served a similar role in this city. At the crossroads of F&F, he quietly and competently connected the people of this city to knowledge and realities which would have otherwise remained inaccessible. I remember once taking a friend in who was dealing with a nasty stalker situation. He gave her a candle for protection, wrote down the words and ritual gestures to accompany it, and told her: “Some people think that they’ve done something to attract negative energy like this, but I tell them not to worry too much about that. There are a lot of weirdos out there, and you just have to protect yourself.” —Holly Devon

Years ago, I told F&F Botanica proprietors Felix Figueroa and Jonathan Scott that someday I wanted a Ph.D. and to teach. I write these reflections as I begin drafting my dissertation prospectus and writing lesson plans. I wish I could go back to F&F and tell them. Visiting F&F became important to me unintentionally. Like many rituals, it’s difficult to pinpoint how it began. I would go in, grab a few items, settle up at the long glass counter, and continue on my way. Not one hint of judgment. Or I could stay and talk to Felix or Jonathan, who never hurried me along or pulled a buy-one-get-one hustle. Sometimes I’d go in just to look at the same familiar candles, in the order they were placed on the shelves. This was an extremely comforting practice. Orishas were on the left end cap of the third aisle from the door. Hex Uncrossers were on the bottom two shelves of the front right wall. Female Christian saints: right end cap of the second aisle from the door. Win At Court candles: front side of the same aisle. I close my eyes and can see all of the glass cylinders and handwritten corrugated cardboard signs in stark relief. Before Take ‘Em Down NOLA actions, I would sit in my room with a tiny altar of sorts comprised of rock and shell collections, photos of my late grandfather, small tokens from friends and lovers over the years, and my favorite F&F selections: A bundle of sage; Florida Water, White Female; Yemaya, Deity of Water; and Shango, Warrior Deity. It was (and still is) absolutely necessary to pause before running out the door to acknowledge the forces that our community would be subject to over the course of just a few hours. It was not so much prostrating myself before a pantheon, but a way to remember that we are never alone. A few times when I worked late, I brought sage out to the Liberty Place monument, visualizing the smoke physically clearing it away. I never told anyone; never uttered it until I wrote it down just now. The last candle I bought was a dark green Shango votive this past spring, as I found myself in new, vulnerable territory, learning and faltering in struggles for immigrant rights. I thought I would need it, but ended up giving it to a new friend in Boston. I told them about Felix and Jonathan and F&F. At the time, I think they needed the story more than they needed the candle. I may have needed the story more, too, and certainly need it now. —Robin McDowell

The last time I spoke with Jonathan, he told me that I was out of touch with my ancestors—a statement so patently obvious, I laughed in response. My living relatives barely talk to me; why should my dead ones be any different? And yet, his words are here, alive, banging around in my head, a refrain I can’t stop humming. I don’t remember the first time I went into F&F. It was before the neon sign (a sign that somehow incongruously made the place feel like it had been there forever, even though it was a relatively new addition to the business). But for me, it literally had always been there—my whole life. I remember seeing it on the way to the dentist’s office, on a run to the grocery store. I grew up in a family that had candles burning all the time, for one thing or another. My father had little shrines around: one to Bernadette here, one to Santo Nino there. My grandmother has a huge shrine to the Virgin Mary in her backyard. And then there was me, the Catholic school girl who announced she was an atheist at 14, who would get As in religion class solely because she was always willing to argue theology. I thought I had no use for rosaries, prayer cards, candles, the weird superstitions that were apparently genetically hardwired into me because, as an adult, when I needed someone—something, anything—I found myself at F&F. I recognized the interior immediately. I remembered that I’d been there before, so many times. I knew exactly where to go, exactly what to get. Mr. Felix would wrap up my order and ask how I’d been. I was only a casual customer, someone who would wander in to buy magnolia oil or Run Devil Run candles when the whim struck me. And yet, the loss feels wholly personal. When I heard they were closing, with the same sense of futility and impotence I’ve always felt when struck by loss, I bought an armload of purple irises to bring to the store. I wasn’t alone. There were other people there, laying roses at the doorway, lighting candles, notes scribbled on cardboard. I threw the irises on the sidewalk and bolted, terrified to be seen as a fraud, someone who didn’t deserve to grieve. I am, as Jonathan said, isolated, alone. My ancestors have no idea where I am. And now, I no longer know where to find them either. —Yvette Regrets


photos DAN FOX