When Shirani Rea opened Peaches Records in 1975, she became an independent business owner with a humanist approach to her bottom line. The beloved record store, now located on Magazine Street and Napoleon Avenue, is not only one of New Orleans’ best places to buy music and merchandise, but also a venue for live performances and philanthropic events. Along with her kids Lillie and Lee, she operates the storefront with unbridled warmth, greeting every customer with a smile and an embrace in her eyes—which are always done up in immaculately applied eyeshadow.
If you’ve ever shopped at Peaches, chances are you’ve been called “sweetheart” or “honey” in Rea’s slight Sri-Lankan lilt. You may have stumbled in on a day when Peaches was hosting one of its signature “Hashtag Lunchbag” events, when lunches are packed for the city’s homeless community. Or perhaps you’re a history buff who heard the legend of the original Woolworth’s diner counter Ms. Rea has left in-store, accompanied by a plaque explaining its role as a place for sit-ins during the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and ‘60s.
The store has been in its current, approximately 15,000 square-foot location since 2016, when it replaced an antique store. Originally located near Cooter Brown’s uptown, Peaches moved to Gentilly Road and remained there for 30 years until moving to the old Tower Records location in the French Quarter post-Katrina. During that era, the store became invaluable to the development of Cash Money Records’ growth in its early years, becoming one of the earliest businesses to cater to the growing hip-hop consumer base. Decades later, the business is still associated with the city’s rap scene in general, but Ms. Rae is a devout audiophile who assures me she prefers no genre over another.
“Music is part of my spiritual blood,” she tells me. “It comes from one soul and goes to another soul, and since I was young, music has soothed whatever was disturbing my world. I don’t know how I would have turned out if I didn’t have the influence of music.”
Shirani says that, from an early age, she resisted traditional views of how things should operate; she liked to wear black and didn’t care much what her family thought. She emphasizes the role love plays in her approach to life, but it’s not a platitude or sentimental. Instead, it truly permeates every aspect of not only Shirani but Peaches, as well.
“When we were dropped in this universe we were all naked and He said, ‘go share the love,’ not ‘be the best lawyer or doctor,’” she says. “Love is what keeps everything together. Our Earth is so damaged right now with that lack of love; that’s why I’ve always taken care of the homeless and the hungry.”
Rea brings up the recent collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel on Canal Street, which affected the St. Jude Community Center’s ability to feed the homeless community. “For years we’ve fed the homeless there; when they closed the area down [after the building collapse] and no one could come and go, they called me to tell me they had to feed 150 people and they had nowhere to do it, so [Peaches] got everything together and brought the bags to them.”
Loving all people is well and good, but this is the Lifetime Achievement Award in Music Business. How, I ask her, does her holistic, spiritual approach work in a capitalist economy? Aren’t the two antithetical?
“Not really, if you do it from your heart,” she replies. “It’s not about money because when you do something from your heart, everything grows. An example is Frank Sinatra: even all these years later, he’s still alive in most people’s minds because he always sang from his heart. Money grows from that. None of us have papers to inherit the earth and we also can’t take any of it with us. It all stays here. So I never felt very connected to money, ever. I never wanted presents. I like sharing. I don’t wait for birthdays and holidays. If you feel like giving from your heart, just do it.”
Peaches is a kind of stimulus package for local creatives, too. It’s not just a place where a musician can sell a few records. The store carries everything from books to enamel pins, cheeky kitchen aprons to clothing—a lot of which is crafted by local artisans.
“We take care of the painters, the candle makers,” she explains. “These candles we carry, I got some of the other businesses up and down the street to carry them, and the woman who makes them was able to buy a house. She had so many orders she almost didn’t know what to do. Helping people’s dreams come true, that’s important.”
She circles back to the importance of love and the music business’ history of abusing certain kinds of artists. “After Katrina hit, a lot of people didn’t want to come in [Peaches] because we had so many people who ‘looked like gangsters.’ They deliberately keep us separated so that we don’t have a voice. Many artists get abused by the big people with the big money and that prevents people from having a happy life. So, I like to play a small part in making dreams come true.”
For more information on Peaches Records and Shirani Rea, click here.