Last Sunday evening I attended an event at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore that featured author John Kirby Abraham speaking about his new book Paris Made Me… I thought that John gave a great presentation, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The occasion was, however, the first time in the eighteen years that I have been living in Paris that I ever entered this venerable institution.
Upon reflection, I now understand why. It is because I do not like to enter narrow, crowded quarters where there is little room to move about and where, in the event of a fire, there is little chance of getting out. The bookshop is a confined, decrepit place, whose history and charm do not, in my mind, compensate for its state of disrepair. As I entered, I had to push my way past customers standing in the narrow halls and climb a narrow staircase up to the room on the first floor where the reading was being held. Then I had to make my way along another narrow hall to enter the reading room, where there were seats arranged for the presentation. But what an arrangement! All of the seats were pushed tightly together to accommodate as many persons as possible. Many were simple stools, and many were fragile-looking things. Fortunately for me, I spotted Sylvia, the daughter of founder George Whitman, removing the “Reserved” signs from two comfortable-looking chairs in the front row. I quickly sprang up from the awkward stool upon which I had perched and occupied one of the chairs. What luck to find a tiny island of comfort in this jumble of a place!
From the moment that he began the presentation, I could tell that John had extensive experience as a public speaker. Indeed, he served as a broadcast journalist for Radio France for many years. He engaged his audience, asking questions from time to time that required specific answers or asking for a show of hands to questions such as “How many here are from the United States?”. His presentation centered on his reminiscences and, given that he has interviewed many interesting people, he had a lot to say. I was delighted when he played a tape of his interview of Josephine Baker that had been recorded just before she gave her last performance (she died in 1975). I found his interview questions thoughtful and her responses equally so. I was also surprised to hear that her voice was a rich, commanding voice—not the tinny one that I have heard in her songs and in the movies.
After the presentation I purchased John’s book, which I asked him to autograph. A young woman came by and handed me a glass of red wine, so I moved out of the reading room in order to drink it. In another room I met a young man who introduced himself as an illustrator from Barcelona. His name is Sergio Lifonte and he is in Paris to find a publisher for a book of strip cartoons that he has written and illustrated. He described the book as an Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy in which his principal character recurrently finds himself. Fascinating!
After I finished the wine, I took leave of the place. As I made my way downstairs I noted that the shop was still full of customers browsing through books. It was heartening to see so many people on a Sunday evening engaged in the search for a good book to read.
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