In 2006, my Parisian friend Fred Gion took me by the Village Voice Bookshop, an English-language bookstore in the St-Germain neighborhood. It was a marvelous place, indeed for me, one of the happiest places I’d ever been to in Paris. I looked for it when I was in Paris this past spring, but misread the map, and ran out of time before I could find it. Yesterday I thought about how I intend to spend some real time there next month when I’m visiting Paris for a few weeks. So I looked it up online. Here’s what its owner, Odile Hellier, a Frenchwoman who visited America decades ago and fell in love with Anglophone literature, said about her shop:
There are times when I still marvel at this life of mine, a life so happily involved with books and reading. I wonder whether a single image, buried deep within myself, might not be the source of it all. My mother often used to tell me about my father, a resistant who was killed during World War II. They were forced to vacate their house in Strasburg, Alsace. Soon after, my father’s entire library of books was taken out, thrown into a pile in the middle of the street, and set on fire by the German officers who had taken possession of the place.
Is the bookshop somehow my way, a mysterious way, of remembering the father I never knew? Are these wonderful books that I spend my life with my way of redeeming loss and reclaiming life? What I do know is that, despite these periodic attempts to censor, destroy or eliminate them, books continue, over the centuries, in times of peace and war, to represent the different voices of humanity. My raison d’être. Books.
Isn’t that marvelous? No wonder she created a bookshop that is both oasis and temple. When Fred and I were there, we met Michael Neal, one of the staffers, and had a lovely conversation with him. On the Village Voice Books page, M. Neal’s self-description is as follows:
Longtime bookseller and staff member, Michael Neal is a fixture at the Village Voice. He discovered the Municipal Lending Library at the age of nine (in his native England) and has been constructing a wall of books between himself and humanity ever since. He says, “I am convinced there is something of value inside every book – no matter how dull or, even, obnoxious. I am interested in outsides of books as well as their insides. Keen on footnotes. This year’s slogan is from Logan Pearsall Smith: ‘People tell me that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.’ ” Michael’s great sense of humor is evident in how he refers to himself as an “obsessive re-reader.”
Again: lovely, inspiring, glorious even. I can’t wait to introduce my wife to M. Neal, I thought, and to make this bookstore one of our family’s Paris hangouts. For lunch, oysters at Regis, then spending the brisk and rainy October afternoon haunting the aisles of the Village Voice, two blocks away. That is my idea of pure joy.
But then, this from the website:
The Village Voice Bookshop closed definitively on July 31st, 2012.
What?! From The New Yorker:
The Village Voice Bookshop, on the Rue Princesse in Paris, announced that it will go out of business on July 31st. On June 16th—a warm Saturday night— the bookshop’s owner, Odile Hellier, threw a farewell party that evoked the spirit of old
Greenwich Village on a narrow street, in the even older former village of Saint-Germain-des-Près. Since that evening, the Anglo-American (and Anglophone) community has been speculating about what Hellier will do next.
No one seems ready to accept that the Parisian bookseller who, for thirty years, provided English speaking readers with the newest literary books, and the most exciting readings by authors— Allen Ginsberg, Raymond Carver, Susan Sontag, and Marilynne Robinson, to name a few (Michael Ondaatje, who will read from his latest book “The Cat’s Table” at end of this week, will be the last in this illustrious company)—will simply retire. No one, that is, but Hellier herself.
“The last two years have been hell,” she told me. “You can blame Amazon.fr; you can blame competition among publishers forced to discount prices. But I can tell you the precise day when I realized it was over for us: April 3, 2010, when Apple launched the iPad. From that day, more and more of our customers begun reading on the tablet. That did it.”
As one of the many foreigners for whom the Village Voice has been a second home, ever since I moved to France from postings in Milan and New York, I’m less worried about how Hellier will survive the closing than about how Paris will. Hellier’s seriousness as a reader, her talent as an interviewer (“One must really travel a few thousands of miles to hear such exciting questions,” Michael Chabon said, when the bookseller launched the Q.& A. following his last reading), not to mention the grace with which she transformed a little independent bookshop into an illustrious literary salon, have earned her a distinguished base of fans—and, if you like, mourners. As Richard Ford put it in an e-mail after he heard of the closing, “This is grave and saddening news, indeed. I can’t really quite believe it. My entire sense of Paris centers on Odile and the bookshop.”
I think of Racine’s observation: “A tragedy need not have blood and death; it’s enough that it all be filled with that majestic sadness that is the pleasure of tragedy.”
It may take me a while to get to the pleasure part. I’m still on the majestic sadness of the passing of this great good place in the world.