After Katrina, creative woman rebuilds here

Andrea Falgoux-Hirt in her Vineyard Haven shop with her sister, Deneen Convery. Photo by Ben Scott
Andrea Falgoux-Hirt (left, rear) in her Vineyard Haven shop with her sister, Deneen Convery. Photo by Ben Scott

By Julian Wise - September 7, 2006

The first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has come and gone, but millions of people in and outside the Gulf Coast region continue to live with the aftermath of the storm. In a multipart series starting with this story, The Times will report on Islanders with personal links to both the region and the storm.

If you've wandered down Main Street in Vineyard Haven and poked your head into Madame Falgoux's, the new aromatherapy shop that opened this spring, the first thing you notice is the soothing aroma, a rich blend of lavender and gentle essential oils that slows down the mind to a more peaceful pace. With its dark green walls, soft lighting, and shelves filled with oils, tinctures, and exotic curios, the store is a heady blend of bayou culture transported north.

Madame Falgoux, née Andrea Falgoux-Hirt, is a genuine 13th generation Cajun, born and raised in New Orleans. Her ancestors first came to New Orleans in 1739. She is descended from Marie Falgoux, the 18th-century wife of a French physician who continued to treat patients after his death by combining contemporary medical science with herbal folk remedies (Cajuns would later refer to this healing style as "Tretiers," patois for "treaters." ).

In 2001 Ms. Falgoux-Hirt opened "Madame Falgoux's Aromatherapy Emporium" at 624 Royal Street in the French Quarter, among the gypsies and palm readers. The shop was located off an old carriage way.

"I used to call it the Aromatherapy Hut," she jokingly recalls. "You could fit three or four of that shop in this location. It was off the beaten way. You had to find me."

Madame Falgoux's was a family affair. Her mother and grandmother helped craft many of the soaps and candles in the shop. Her husband John was managing a hotel in New Orleans and helping out on the side. Ms. Falgoux-Hirt was in the process of expanding the business in a new, larger location when Hurricane Katrina hit.

"John and I were going to stay because we had fled before from large hurricanes," she recalls. "We didn't feel as threatened as maybe we should have. One day I was working in my shop and the next we were leaving town because there was a category five hurricane heading our way."

The two fled to Atlanta and watched the demise of New Orleans unfold on television. "It was clear we weren't going to be able to go home," she says. "We'd lost the business. All we had were the clothes on our back and the cat."

Ms. Falgoux-Hirt's sister Deneen gave Ms. Falgoux-Hirt and her husband shelter on Martha's Vineyard, and after the two had time to assimilate the enormity of the loss in New Orleans, they decided to relocate the business to Martha's Vineyard. Together the two have moved the Madame Falgoux's operation to Main Street, Vineyard Haven, bringing French Quarter charm to the Island. "New Orleans has a long way to go to repair," Ms. Falgoux-Hirt says. "I thought we'd bring a little of the good part up here."

While some regard aromatherapy as little more than fancy perfume, its practitioners would beg to differ. By their account, aromatherapy is an ancient healing therapy that utilizes essential oils. The oils are extracted from living plants by a meticulous steam-distilling process.

"Essential oils are what I like to call the blood of the plants," says Ms. Falgoux-Hirt, who describes the various benefits the oils confer, from relieving bronchial ailments to soothing depression and insomnia.

"Generally, people are attracted to the scents their bodies are calling for," she says. "It's about getting to know psychologically what makes you feel good. When you smell something it can bring joy into your life and enhance it."

Ms. Falgoux learned the skills of aromatherapy with master aromatherapist Julie Oxendale in California. In her own business she has created a custom line of products bearing her name and often consults with clients to create custom blends. A client suffering from fatigue would receive a detoxifying mixture rich in citrus and other sharp aromas. Another recovering from torn ligaments would receive an anti-inflammatory formula.

The shelves in the store are filled with an eclectic blend of merchandise that blurs the line between medicinal and aesthetic. Alcohol-free perfumes sit alongside Nippon Kodo incense from Japan, organic teas, tinctures, botanicals, handmade soaps, bath scrubs, and soy candles. Of particular interest are the herbal tonics from the Elixir company, which use Chinese medicinal principles to stimulate vitality, energy, and balance. "These are very effective," Ms. Falgoux says. "They're good for you all the way around."

The core of the business is the stock of 100 percent essential oils. A quick survey of the shelf reveals familiar scents like lemon, frankincense and rosemary alongside exotic names like ravensara and bergamot. "These oils are our main focus," she says. "It's what the shop is all about."

A bookshelf contains texts with titles like "The Fragrant Mind" and "Aromatherapy for Women," while a jewelry case features original work by two Vineyard artists (Rachel Convery and Karen Overtoom) and two New Orleans artisans (Violet Iris Skye and Jennifer Skelton). A rack of cards features small matted photos of Vineyard scenery by Dick Iacovello, the 2004 winner of the Agricultural Fair poster contest. Original decoupage boxes by Allison Convery and paintings by Kristen Fisher adorn the room.

Just when one thinks they've explored the entire inventory, Ms. Falgoux points to a display of Chinese Yixing teapots, rare containers made from absorbent clay that become seasoned over time with tea flavors. The pots trace their roots to ancient Asian tea ceremonies. "They're just beautiful, amazing, and artistic teapots," Ms. Falgoux says, holding one tenderly in her hands.

For those who fear that the soul and spirit of New Orleans may have been doused by the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, the rebirth of Madame Falgoux on Martha's Vineyard is a visible and olfactory sign that the spirit of the Big Easy lives on. Ms. Falgoux-Hirt views the future of her native city with cautious optimism.

"The difficulty for me thinking about the future is that a lot of the people who make up New Orleans are gone. It's hard to see the future for New Orleans. I think they'll eventually be back. There's something there that's inexplicable."

As for herself, the answer is clear. "I'm in love with it. I'll go back someday."